Tech Innovation, Presidentially Speaking

By Ashley N. Kolaya

INVITATIONS BEARING the White House Seal found their way to several NYU Wagner in-boxes last week. The illustrious occasion? At this time of year, you might be tempted to think: campaign event, fund-raising gala, or perhaps more likely since graduate students made the invite list, a grassroots small donor initiative. In fact, the White House partnered with 92Y Tribeca to host an open house discussion on several of President Obama’s key technology and innovation initiatives.

The Sept. 28 event began with Todd Park, US Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President energetically taking the stage to introduce the newly launched Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. “I’m gonna give you a quick run-down of why you’re here; then, I’m going to put you to work.” And, Todd Park is a man of his word.

The aim of the Presidential Fellows program is to give government a bit more of an edge in the realm of science and technology policy. Think: an image that revolves around fewer dull, difficult-to-manage Kafkaesque documents, phone numbers, and websites that drag you from one wrong government office to the next. Instead, imagine a more innovative, user-friendly, well-branded enterprise (no, not Google) that answers today’s toughest policy questions with creative design and implementation strategies.

As Park puts it, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program aims to connect top technology innovators from outside the government sector with top policy shapers inside the US government to “create real and substantial changes that will in a very short time frame benefit the American people, save taxpayers money, and help create new jobs.” Fellows embark on a six-month “tour of duty,” during which they work to develop a “game-changing” response to policy concerns set forth by the administration. “That’s why you’re here,” said Park, “to help us change the game.”

Participants were introduced to the five “game-changing projects” currently under consideration by the Presidential Fellows and asked to weigh in, both with questions and with their own ideas. Issues ranged from open government data sharing to the implementation of electronic medical records technology to mobile money transferring for the developing world. On each topic, a White House representative presented the project goal, then turned the floor over to an audience full of idea-hungry and inquisitive listeners. Some were tech start-up owners; others represented the health care, international development, and academic fields; still others were graduate students interested in the new path to innovation being laid before them.

An appreciative White House team rabidly took down notes, offered contact information, and thanked participants for their great ideas. “This is why we’re here,” said Todd Park, “because we want to turn the best ideas into policy that affects positive change. And, you are the ones that have the best ideas.”