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Notes from the Champions of Change — Open Innovators Event at the White House

Last week I took part in a great event at the White House. About 3 minutes into the program, I set aside my own personal joy and realized that there were a whole slew of awesome thoughts, projects, and policies coming from dozens of people, so I started taking notes. On paper. With a pen. Here they are, transcribed in annotated fashion. This is by no means comprehensive-- I just tried to get down one interesting thing I heard from each person.

Macon Phillips, White House Director of New Media, kicked off the morning by talking about some of the people who are driving change-- Cass Sunnstein, Todd Park, and Alex Koss.

Aneesh Chopra got the event fired up with a rousing vision of the future with the federal government acting as an "impatient convener", supporting "the right policy that leads to market conditions for growth." I love this language for the open data movement-- moving past policy and into markets.

1st.victor-garcia.flypode He also presented a few case studies in this regard. One was the Experimental Crowd-Derived Combat-Support Vehicle Competition from Local Motors. The winning entry-- FLYPMODE-- was created by a Mexican immigrant Victoria Garcia, who is just some dude who lives in Texas and now has developed a fighting vehicle that is on the DARPA production line.

He talked about the Blue Button Initiative from Peter Levin, chief technology officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Blue Button is an easy and secure way for veterans to download and view some of their medical information online. Chopra talked about how Walgreens and Aetna have plans to adopt the Blue Button specification for secure download of personal medical records. This is an example of a technology standard coming from the government without legislation or tight regulation-- just good, concrete ideas flowing out of government and into the private sector.

Ea-ssx-nasa-snowboarding-data On the fun side of the scale, he talked about how recently released geodata from NASA is used in the SSX snowboarding video game, making the in-game experience more accurate and compelling. Real data making a real difference in real products.

Next up was Michael Strautmanis-- Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor for Strategic Engagement. He is a Chicago guy who has known the Obamas for 20 years. His basic message was "tell people about this"-- don't wait for others to put it in the paper or send out a press release. So he's why I'm writing this blog post, basically.

Cathilea Robinett, Executive Vice President of the Center for Digital Government then led a session where some of the day's Champions of Change talked about their projects.

Jill Seman talked about Mom Maps, an application for finding kid-friendly parks, restaurants, museums, and indoor play areas in 28 metro areas. She talked about the power of an open platform, where user contributions lead to high quality info and great community surrounding it. She also talked about round-trip experiences, where comments on Mom Maps indicate the decline of a particular park, then SF311 stepping in to improve it.

Leigh Budlong of Zonability talked about how her work as a commercial real estate appraiser— and frustration in getting teensy bits of critical information out of dense PDFs— lead her to become the "accidental software designer". She is working on ways to extract data and structure it so it could be used to make decisions in all areas of real estate, planning, and development.

Conor White-Sullivan of Localocracy talked about his moment of inspiration. Going door to door in Cambridge, Massachusetts in support of environmental legislation, he encountered leading climate scientists who knew more about the subject than him the people he was working for. It seemed odd to ask these people for $20 in order to hire a lobbyist. He looked for ways to more deeply engage the people whose doors he knocked on, so they could bring their expertise and energy to a subject.

Philip Weiser, Senior Advisor to the National Economic Council, led a panel called "Lessons from the Private Sector". He kicked off the thoughts of collaboration by paraphrasing a maxim attributed to Sun Microsystems engineer Bill Joy: that the smartest person on any given problem probably doesn't work for you.

James Manyika of McKinsey & Company spoke of the enormous economic opportunity in open innovation. Just in the healthcare industry the opportunity can be up to $300 billion. Brightscope is an example of a company using data to make markets more efficient, in their case, the 401(k) market. He spoke of productivity gains that add new capacity and products rather than just improving efficiencies— working on the "numerator rather than the denominator".

Proctor and Gamble CTO Bruce Brown told how the company moved from an extremely closed model of innovation (proctoids need only apply) to one where more than half of their new initiatives have some sort of external component. He gave lots of examples-- from Swiffer to Reliability Engineering software.

The-lean-startup Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, talked about the power of networks vs. hierarchies. "The common denominator in innovation is capitalizing on the unexpected". That is very hard to do in a world of milestones and rigid plans. I especially liked his idea of the "business scientist"— looking for new ways to get things done.

Next, Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra reviewed “Data.gov 2.0”, which is built to be easier for citizens (so they can browse, visualize, and talk about data rather than just download it), easier for developers (with better APIs and a greater focus on platforms like mobile and SMS), and easier for agencies (so they can upload data more easily and stream their own subsets in situ on their own Department Web sites).

He also talked about the “enthusiasm on the front lines”, where there are now 396 “open data leads”— agency employees directly responsible for delivering and maintaining open data to the public. He spoke of the goal where “apps contests will be common as procurements and grants. He references the work of Professor Jim Handler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

He then gave out a series of awards for government employees who are democratizing data.

Todd Park of Health and Human Services for his work in creating community around health data. There seems to be a lot of energy around this stuff and Park is an important node.

Steve Young of the Environmental Protection Agency for Making A Difference in the First Responder Aware for RADNet and other data sets.

John Ohab of the Defense Department / DMA for Most Applications Published.

Timothy Antisdal of the Environmental Protection Agency got the Big Data Award for the most datasets published.

Adrian Linz of the Office of Personnel Management for the Highest Rated Dataset or Application— the 2008 CFC Detailed Results by Local Campaign.

What we see here is a desire on the part of the Federal government to create and reward impact— not just dropping datasets, but having a tangible impact based on real measures.

Next, Chopra introduced Cass Sunstein, “our intellectual godfather”. He spoke of both the intellectual space that we’re occupying, as well as ther physical one— very close to the Oval Office and not far from the site of the Constitutional Convention.

He told a story of the founders coming out of their meeting— a closed meeting. Someone came up to Ben Franklin and asked him, “what did you give us?” Franklin responded, “a Republic, if you can keep it”.

He spoke of choosemyplate.gov as a transparent initiative— transparent in the sense that the goals are easy to see, and the tactics that people can use to achieve them are clear and not obfuscated. There’s no regulation associated with it, but he believes it is going to make a difference in the marketplace.

He reminds us that the battle to found the Republic was harder than the battle for Open Data, and ends with the request: “let’s not just keep the Republic. Let’s shape it".


Leigh Budlong

I saw that piece of paper scrawled with all kinds of notes! Thanks Dan for making such a succinct piece about the event. You rock!

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Daniel X. O'Neil: Chicago-based writer and internet developer. I am a co-founder of and the People Person for EveryBlock, a site that pulls together local news and public information. I run dozens of personal projects and websites for clients, and also own half of a poetry book company.


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