Obama's Year in Technology

By Sarah Sorensen
January 26, 2010

As President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union speech after a year in office, I thought it would be a good time to look back on the Administration's technology agenda. As I mention in my book, Presidential Candidate Obama was really the first to leverage technology in a meaningful way during his campaign, giving us glimpses into how the political process can be engaged and enabled by a savvy social media and online strategy. So, when the Obama Administration took office, it was natural to assume that it would be bringing the White House into the Digital Age.

After all, Obama was a candidate who got it - he understood that the foundation for improving the prospects of our children and strengthening our long term economic prosperity lay in our access to and use of technology. As he said in a campaign speech:

"Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let's make college more affordable, and let's invest in scientific research, and let's lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America."

Sarah Sorensen is the author of The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.

The Sustainable Network demonstrates how we can tackle challenges, ranging from energy conservation to economic and social innovation, using the global network -- of which the public Internet is just one piece. This book demystifies the power of the network, and issues a strong call to action.


However, we saw glimmers of how difficult a transition into the Digital Age could be. Right off the bat there were discussions around whether a U.S. President could use a Blackberry to stay in touch. This singular issue was a clear indicator of how far behind the White House actually was in its use of technology (and how vulnerable our mobile devices and digital infrastructure are).

I think the extent of the task was captured in a Washington Post article that described what it was like for the Obama Administration when they took their offices in the White House - can you imagine walking into your office and having to try to connect your landline??? So, considering the starting point, I think the Administration can feel confident they have made significant progress.

There have been some monumental firsts, such as the first U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) - Aneesh Chopra - and the first U.S. Chief Information Officer (CIO) - Vivek Kundra. There was the First Presidential Online Chat and the first foray into greater transparency with a U.S. Federal IT dashboard, which started to provide visibility into where the money in the government's budget goes. (Note, this dashboard was launched in just 6 weeks showing that even big government can get things done, particularly when using technology well!) Government agencies started using social media sites, such as Twitter, to help people stay up to date on events and emergency situations.

There have been investments designed to extend broadband access to more people and places. A total of $7.2 billion pledged through the Recovery Act broadband program will enable more people to connect to the resources and information of the network to improve their opportunities and participate in the global economy.

But there have also been some snafus. For instance, we have seen how hard it is to walk the line of security and transparency. Remember the TSA Security Breach that posted all the airport screening procedures, otherwise known as a good "how to" manual for terrorists?

And there have been some downright scares that remind us of the vulnerabilities of our networks. A denial of service attack took down the U.S. government's Department of Homeland Security, Federal Trade Commission, and Treasury Department's web sites; and, of course, there is the recent hacker activity on Google and other prominent companies. These incidents serve as a reminder that the Administration needs to balance preserving individual rights in the digital world, with increasing the overall security of the connections. We have seen U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak out against online censorship and can assume the just appointed Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt will be leading the Adminstration's stand on cybersecurity.

It's important to remember that some of the activities the Administration has tackled this year are purely housekeeping, laying the fundamental groundwork that will help the government move forward more effectively in the future. For instance, there are the mundane, but very important projects of ensuring White House e-mails are appropriately catalogued, archived and backed-up. (The goal is to also ensure there is an auditable record of all e-mail activity and measures in place to ensure only authorized individuals can access the database and alerts are raised when someone tries to delete anything.) Or developing a plan that will help standardize and provide a common information technology infrastructure for government that can reduce costs and ensure greater consistency, visibility and security long term.

But it has been encouraging to see the government innovate and try new things, such as moving into the cloud. If the lumbering Census process can benefit from the efficiencies of the Cloud, chances are there are many other applications and benefits.

The use of all these technologies can foster opportunities, innovation, and long-term economic viability; it can pave the way for more effective service delivery and greater transparency to increase the dialogue and strengthen the relationships citizens have with their government. I think the Administration, while it has a long way to go, is definitely on the right track when it comes to technology.


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