In announcing the appointment of Aneesh Chopra as the nation’s first chief technology officer (CTO) in April, President Barack Obama said Chopra would “promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities.” So far, Chopra’s federal policy focus has been on leveraging information technology to revamp health care, education, and the energy infrastructure.
Chopra works within the Office of Science and Technology Policy under presidential science adviser John Holdren but also directly advises the president on technology policy–a new role in the executive branch. His job is distinct from that of Vivek Kundra, the nation’s chief information officer (CIO), who provides oversight of the government’s information-technology contracts and efforts to make the federal government more open and efficient.
Before he took the CTO post, Chopra served as Virginia’s technology secretary. His efforts ranged from forging public-private initiatives on rural broadband expansion to launching a competition for iPhone apps to aid middle-school math students. Chopra, who is 37, spoke recently with Technology Review.
Technology Review: Why do we need a national CTO?
Aneesh Chopra: President Obama has suggested there is a thoughtful role for technology and innovation across a wide range of priorities. While we have had White House leadership on technology policy in the past, this Administration has taken a broader view of the power and potential of technology to reduce health-care costs, deliver energy efficiency through smart-grid applications, and improve the skills of the workforce.
TR: Some economists see little evidence that federal spending on broadband will have a payback for the economy. How does spending $10,000 to get broadband to a rural farmhouse help the economy?
AC: It’s not just broadband for the sake of laying pipe and capacity–it’s about spurring innovative applications. Our teams at the commerce and agriculture departments are collaborating with the private sector not only to extend access where service today doesn’t exist, but also to achieve a wider range of goals. We envision innovation in health care through telemedicine, distance learning, and even smart-grid infrastructure.
One example of rural application innovation we championed in Virginia was creating regional, shared e-911 services powered by broadband. In funding this with seed capital, we anticipated both improvements in emergency coverage and reductions in long-term costs. And it is conceivable that a grant that supports a rural farmhouse would open up higher-wage telework opportunities to that resident.
TR: What will make government more effective at promoting these kinds of technology applications?
AC: Government’s role in promoting technology has traditionally been in the investment of basic R&D or the procurement of goods and services. It is my intention as CTO to focus on public-private collaboration to operate between those two extremes. In some cases, we might invest in a more targeted R&D opportunity that would bring private sector resources, universities, and the public sector together on a given problem. In others, we might use a procurement opportunity to spur market innovation.
TR: How would that work?
AC: For example, defensesolutions.gov is a website that seeks to drive innovation towards Department of Defense needs. Instead of procuring a specific device described by a multi-thousand-item specification, the department asks for a solution, such as “How do you field-test for the presence of explosives, drugs, and gunshot residue?” By leaving room for unanticipated and potentially disruptive technologies in the private sector, we can procure an innovative solution. Dozens of ideas have already been submitted to defensesolutions.gov, and a few are already gaining traction.