Becoming the First U.S. Chief Technology Officer
Aneesh Chopra discusses politics, big data and how not to end up on The Daily Show.
NAME: Aneesh Chopra
LIVES IN: Arlington, near Marymount University, with his wife, Rohini, and their three kids
CURRENT JOB: Co-founder and EVP of Hunch Analytics, a Ballston-based incubator for start-up companies specializing in big-data analysis in the health care and education sectors
RESUME: First Chief Technology Officer of the United States (named in 2009); Virginia Secretary of Technology (2006-2009); candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor (2013); author of Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government (2014)
FIRST JOB: I was a bellhop at the Ramada Inn in Plainsboro, N.J. (age 15).
FIRST COMPUTER: My parents bought me an Apple IIe in the early 1980s. I recall making some rudimentary games. I was effectively coding recipes from Compute! magazine, where hobbyists could share code. I was a classic nerd.
PUBLIC POLICY ITCH: I was a member of the Leadership Arlington Class of 2004. That experience provided a strong foundation not only for my interest in public service, but also in my approach to problem-solving.
HOW I BECAME A U.S. CTO: Virginia was the first state to establish a cabinet-level technology position focused on advancing the economy and modernizing the way government works. By 2008, only a few states had replicated the model. So when President Obama called for the first U.S. CTO, I had the benefit of serving on the “farm team.” Professionally, my background had been focused on how tech and innovation could improve the health care system—another priority for the president.
PROUDEST CTO MOMENT: The passage of the National Wireless Initiative, which aims to expand high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of Americans. I helped pitch the idea to the president, which he announced in the 2011 State of the Union address, and had the privilege of joining him on Air Force One for the policy announcement in the days that followed. A year later he signed it into law.
EMBARRASSING CTO MOMENT: I fumbled what was arguably the most important public presentation of my career, and landed on The Daily Show, but not in a good way. Our open-government team at the White House had been hard at work on a new policy directive for each of the federal agencies to follow—making good on a day-one commitment by the president. The press office let us broadcast the announcement on whitehouse.gov. I was so excited that when the camera light went on to indicate we were live, I forgot what I was going to say and defaulted to the giggles.
WHAT HUNCH ANALYTICS DOES: We are focused on helping people make better decisions in health care and education through data analytics. For example, our Veterans Talent Initiative served as a proof of concept to demonstrate how veterans’ skills learned in the military might be applicable to career paths that they previously might not have considered. It also makes it easier for potential employers to screen veterans based on their underlying skills, rather than on the more obscure job titles they held.
HOW IT’S STRUCTURED: We’re organized as a “hatchery.” The idea is to birth new companies that operate at the intersection of open data and productivity tools to improve the regulated sectors of the economy—specifically health and education. This is going to be the decade of problem-solving through public-private collaboration.
RECENTLY HATCHED: One start-up I’m focused on in this phase is called NavHealth. It allows patients to access their own medical data and share it with their doctors and other trusted caregivers to make sure they have the best chance at a healthy outcome.
START-UPS SUCCEED WHEN: The quality of the team is rock solid. Ideas might change based on market feedback, but a high-quality team can thoughtfully adjust.
START-UPS FAIL WHEN: They appear to be disconnected from the needs of their customers.
NEEDS FIXING: Whenever you sign up for a website and they ask, “Do you agree to these terms and conditions?,” do you honestly read those terms and conditions? Probably not. So that’s not necessarily meaningful consent. What I’m suggesting is that we give people a control or settings panel to opt in or out of various uses. I previously worked on the president’s “Consumer Internet Privacy Bill of Rights,” which called for more individual control over the use of data.
EAST COAST EDGE: The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is emerging as a powerhouse for data and analytic start-ups, but we’re not re-creating Silicon Valley infrastructure. Rather than trying to build the next Facebook, we are creating apps that apply an understanding of social networking to the health, energy and education markets. That intersection is where I think Arlington has its expertise.
HEROES: Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as modern-day innovators like telecom engineer and inventor Sam Pitroda, who is focused on the challenges of the poor.