Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
Back in January I wrote about how President Obama was going to name a Federal Chief Technology Officer (article available here). Well, the wait is over and Aneesh Chopra is our new (and first) CTO. The fact that it took this long to establish the position speaks volumes about the general competency of previous administrations, who were largely technology-challenged. In other news, Obama finally got an NSA-sanctioned Crackberry for his email, but that's another story.
This story is about Chopra's background, experience, and goals, and how it will impact you as events make their unsteady way towards the technical vastness of the future. In other words, we just might see something useful out of Washington in the way this country uses technology for government and business purposes.
For starters, Chopra is a political animal who understands technology, not a techie with some political chops. He has been the Secretary for Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia for the last three years, and has garnered much praise for his job there. There was some initial grumbling that a Silicon Valley wonk might have made a better choice, but Chopra has gotten major props from such techie heavyweights as Tim O'Reilly and the technology community is generally developing some major expectations for good things to come.
Chopra's degrees are in public policy and public health, and he has some experience as a venture capitalist. While working in Virginia, he was instrumental in increasing the use of broadband statewide, and that resulted in some major new jobs being created, thanks to new centers for Northrop Grumman in western Virginia. He has also been focused on innovative health-care technologies, working to decrease costs and improve patient safety.
Which is just the background for someone in the CTO office. According to the White House:The CTO will develop national strategies for using advanced technologies to transform our economy and our society, such as fostering private sector innovation, reducing administrative costs and medical errors using health IT, and using technology to change the way teachers teach and students learn.
According to Tim O'Reilly's blog (URL below), here are some of the things Chopra achieved in Virginia:
- The first officially-approved open source textbook in the country, the Physics Flexbook
- Integrating iTunes U with Virginia's state education assessment framework
- The Learning Apps Development Challenge, a competition for the best iPhone and iPod Touch applications for middle-school math teaching
- A Ning-based social network to connect clinicians working in small health care offices in remote locations
- A state-funded "venture capital fund" to allow government agencies to try out risky but promising new approaches to delivering their services or improving their productivity
- A lightweight approval and testing process that allows the government to try out new technologies before making a full, expensive commitment.
The mentions above of iTunes U and development for iPhone apps may initially sound frivolous, but these are cutting-edge technologies, and are very popular at many universities, including the University of Michigan.
So how might this affect us struggling Michiganders, wrestling with the current economic mess and the implosion of our traditional industries?
Chopra's work with expanding broadband coverage is encouraging; if some means can be found to get some thicker wires into all corners of the state, we have a better chance of attracting our own versions of the Virginia Grumman coup. A better local wireless initiative would also be good: broadband is nice but basic connectivity should be a service available to all citizens.
And as someone who is approaching geezerhood, I would really, really like to see some action on the use of technology to bring health care costs down. The digitizing of patient records (which is already underway at the UM Health Services where I go for my various ailments) will improve patient safety and provide a means of tracking trends in public health.
A current governmental problem is that all the different agencies at both state and national levels have their own (mostly) proprietary databases and IT infrastructure, and getting these systems to talk to each other would be a giant step towards lowering the cost of government.
One of Chopra's educational efforts was the founding of a research center that drew together people from all of Virginia's universities with the goal of forming academic-business partnerships. This attracted Rolls-Royce to build a $500 million jet engine facility in his state. He is also championing an incentive to improve how academic research can encourage entrepreneurship by getting university research-derived inventions to the marketplace quicker.
These are all innovations made at the state level; it will be very interesting to see how this translates at a national level. But the fact that he succeeded in Virginia bodes well for future accomplishments.
One issue that I have yet to hear Chopra address is privacy. Once records are all online, who guards them? Data mining, using databases to research disease epicenters, etc., is a hot topic among ethicists. The benefits are many, but the dangers to our eroding bits of privacy are a concern as well.
There is a 50-minute speech given by Chopra available on YouTube, at the URL below.
If we are to succeed in a post-automotive era, Michigan must dramatically increase its connectivity, technical training, and general education infrastructure. We need a laptop on every desk, broadband to every home, and someone behind every keyboard who has been trained in its use. I get the impression listening to Chopra that he understands that, and would like to make it a reality. Let's hope he succeeds.
Mike Gould, is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.