Open Government

with Aneesh Chopra

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In Action

Amazing stories from open government in action

Aneesh Chopra

Assistant to the President and Chief Technology Officer, Author, Entrepreneur

Lessons Learned

Expertise & creativity in society can be harnessed through technology to solve mission objectives.

By issuing public challenges, serendipitous & unexpected talents rise above with great solutions.


Lesson: Open Government with Aneesh Choprah

Step #3 In Action: Amazing stories from open government in action

Let me share just a couple of these. Let me go in order of the things that got me really excited. In the beginning, we opened up data and invited the American people to see what clever ideas they could use to take advantage of the data. Among the first folks we ran into were these three young guys from the Bay Area: Bob, Dave, and Andrew.

The way we met them was that the files on were published and outside organizations offered prize money for entrepreneurs that can build clever ways to use that data more efficiently and effectively. These guys didn't know the files detail. They didn't know what the subject matter was, but they went to basically a Starbucks and said, "What's the biggest file on the list? Let's go and make something.” So they didn't have a subject matter expertise.

It turned out to be the Federal Register, the daily newspaper of the federal government. They took that file and instead of it being a very hard to understand, difficult to access document to understand what government doing to you, it became this light, open, welcoming model where they took the same information, but presented in a way that you could bring your voice to go government. They took a different lens and it was so successful.

The archivist of the United States, who actually is responsible for the Federal Register website, he looked at their, basically, contest entry and said, "I've got full time staff and we've spent whatever money we spent. We built this tool. These guys have built something dramatically better, and I've got the 75th anniversary of The National Archives coming within 90 days. Their site is better than mine." He basically calls them and says, "Can you take over the Federal Register website?"

To this day, Bob, Dave, and Andrew are the engine that drives the site, and it was because they were inspired to take action on data, and it just happened to be the biggest set that was available. Now, that's a story of engaging people with data. But what about solving problems that we never thought we had clever ideas for?

I remember succinctly the BP oil spill on the nightly news 24 by 7 and we felt helpless. The President was calling daily meetings. My colleague, the Science Adviser to President was calculating values with the Secretary of the Energy Department to figure out what can we do to make this thing better. And it turns out that the science or the technological advancements in cleaning up oil from water hadn't been improved upon since the Exxon Valdez spill in the 1980s. So what was it that we could do?

We became very friendly with the XPRIZE Foundation. Peter Diamandis, he and his team, to the great credit, jumped into action and said, "If the government could help us, perhaps with a test facility or to collaborate, we might actually dramatically improve the rate at which oil can be picked up from the water." So within a few months of the spill the XPRIZE Foundation launched the Oil Spill Cleanup Challenge and asked, “Can we double the rate of oil spill cleanup within a year?"

Now, the vendors that had been at this business for decades felt that this was a stretch goal: too far, too hard to do. Yet, the XPRIZE Foundation had done its homework, and they thought it was achievable. Lo and behold, a tattoo artist in Las Vegas joined one of half a dozen teams that over the course of that year put their ingenuity to work and achieved that doubling milestone, but it didn't stop there. It was so successful that the winning team actually had been in the industry for some time and actually was part of the naysayers saying they couldn't get to double. They tripled the rate of oil spill cleanup and it just goes to show that if you issue a challenge, you've done your work, you can find unexpected creative solutions in areas that might even inspire the traditional folks to think differently about the problem and you’d have a huge impact.

We can go on for hours but the premise that there's expertise throughout our society. And if we can only harness that creativity and meet our mission objectives that is the one overarching theme of every case study I write about in a book and it's what I hope will be the centerpiece for the next decade of problem solving at that public-private interface.

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