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Charting a Course for the First U.S. CTO
Nancy Scola, 18 Nov 08

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As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama earned himself plenty of geek love by pledging to inaugurate the position of U.S. Chief Technology Officer. A U.S. CTO would be a first for a government whose incompetence when it comes to IT is comical -- comical, that is, except for the fact that it sets America back in everything from government transparency to technological innovation.

Now that candidate Obama is President-elect Obama, the question is, what exactly should that CTO do? The job has fuzzy boundaries in the private sector, even though the position has been around quite some time. And there are few state-level technologists-in-chief with any real power.

Of course, Barack Obama has some ideas on what a U.S. CTO should focus on accomplishing, detailed in his technology platform (pdf). His description is of quite a wide-ranging job, where the CTO is charged with making sure that federal agencies have the best IT infrastructure, leading efforts to open government, and beyond.

At the same time, though, the description of the job crafted during the campaign is rather limited. The first U.S. CTO could also be someone with a far-ranging vision of how the nation can make the best possible use of technology. (To chose just one example, matching the latest broadband technologies with advances in telemedicine.) That kind of thinking -- how do we create winners without creating losers? -- is second nature in Silicon Valley, but it's largely a foreign concept in Washington.

Matt Lerner, a politically-minded former Microsoft manager, wants to help us help whomever ends up CTO to set his or her priorities. Lerner has started ObamaCTO.org, a Digg-like site that invites ideas on what should concern the incoming CTO, and asks anyone willing to vote on the best ideas. Launched on November 11th, the site has already attracted hundreds of ideas and tens of thousands of votes.

Some great ideas have bubbled to the top. Ensuring that government data is available in easy-to-use RSS and XML formats is at the top of almost everyone's list for what a CTO should do. And sponsoring X Prize style contests to encourage innovation is exciting. (Though, given the shaky American economy, the X Prize's ten million dollar bounty is far too rich. A better model might be the District of Columbia's low-stakes Apps for Democracy contest, competed in as much for the glory as the cash.)

Others ideas are off-base. No CTO in modern Washington is going to have the juice to repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, no matter the 6,938 votes that the idea currently has to its credit on the site. And some are just odd. Everyone knows that "defend[ing] our nation from the terrorizers with friggn' lazor sharks" is the Secretary of Homeland Security's bailiwick.

All this confusion and messy excitement over what the first U.S. CTO should do is, though, a good thing. It's an acknowledgment that technology touches so many parts of our lives. The real question is, how did we get by without a CTO this long?

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.
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Comments

I think Obama should choose Ray Kurzweil for CTO.

Obama wants change Kurzweil could give us exponential change.


Posted by: Rahein on 18 Nov 08

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