Can The White House Really Walk The Line Between Open Data And NSA?

Steve VanRoekel, chief information officer of the White House, talks to Fast Company about the importance of open data, civic innovation, and those pesky NSA leaks.

Can The White House Really Walk The Line Between Open Data And NSA?

In Fast Company’s September issue, we take a look at innovators who are using smart, mostly tech-driven strategies to help municipalities solve problems that simply shouldn’t exist in the digital age. Steve VanRoekel, chief information officer at the White House (and former Microsoft executive) is no stranger to this–he’s spearheaded initiatives for the Obama administration, such as the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, that push the government to embrace the open-data movement and be more transparent in what kind of information citizens have access to. But wait, how does that square with the NSA’s recently revealed surveillance programs?

Steve VanRoekel

We’re seeing this movement of cities–with the help of organizations like Code for America–using the kinds of innovative strategies in data that we see in the business world to solve day-to-day problems. How does that apply at the federal level?

I think we stand in this very unique position to provide service and transparency in government, and accountability comes along with that. That includes spurring economic opportunity through the data we hold, using civic online tools to create a participatory environment for the laws we create. The great thing about government is that we collect data in this very non-conflicted way that is owned by the taxpayer. So providing these free services back to the American people can create an amazing phenomenon.

When the U.S. government made weather kind of this free open-data stream, it not only created a business opportunity for weather casters and weather apps over time, but it also improved the public safety through storm prediction, crop outcomes, and all that sort of stuff. The other example I often use is global positioning. When the government made that an open data stream in the 1980s, we created about $100 billion in economic value for this country almost overnight–just through devices, solutions, and jobs created based on GPS technology.

With our commander-in-chief’s geek-quotient being as high as it is, he brings to bear these demands of taxing me and taxing other people here in the White House to wake up every day thinking about how technology can improve Americans’ lives. So we’ve been doing a lot. In May, the president launched an executive order, accompanied by a policy issued by me, basically saying that government data needs to be open and machine-readable by default.


What exactly does that mean now for the way the government handles information?

It basically means that from here on, any data that we collect or use internally, or in certain cases, disseminate to the public, needs to be done in this 21st-century way. That means you can very easily write applications, you can compute the data you find. You can actually take a modern development approach to government data. Most data in government is locked up in paper or PDF files, where they’ve been scanned. Or they’re in some proprietary format that no software can get at the heart of. So you can imagine a world where all of a sudden all these data sources are gong to be opened up across government.

As part of this strategy, we launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. It brings in private-sector entrepreneurs and innovators to work on our greatest challenges in government. We deployed these innovators on a six-month project into different agencies, like health and human services and energy, and worked to help those agencies fast-track that unlocking of data.


What would you call out as some of the most innovative projects to come out of the Fellows program?

There was a project called MyGov, which is actually being extended into the second round of the program. We challenged innovators to say, government is too broad in its customer-facing aspects. If you were to create a single approach for Americans to intersect with government, what would that look like? So they built this architecture of relatedness across the government, so if you’re on one government website, you can find another one as related content. So it creates sort of a virtual net that tears down a lot of its complexity.

Another project was something originally called Better Than Cash. We basically said, the last mile of much of our foreign assistance is paid in cash. But we found that in many troubled areas of the world, which is typically where we are doing foreign assistance, about 30% of that aid is skimmed off the top from corruption. So some middleman is passing out the payments to the person building the roads in Afghanistan or helping to rebuild Haiti, and because it’s being converted to cash, there’s skimming happening. So we built and deployed a worldwide micropayments system via text messaging. Now, these people think they got a 30% raise because their payments just went up.

I think this notion of the U.S. government treating data as an asset that’s open to everyone is interesting. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what’s happening with the NSA controversy–it seems like you have to walk a fine line between being open while also protecting citizens’ privacy.


One of the important parts of formulating the digital strategy and open data policy was to be very clear to people on two fronts. One was that with government data, you need to have a process by which we are not releasing any data that is confidential, that violates any citizens’ or Americans’ privacy, or has any national security implications.

The second part is examining something called the mosaic effect. That means if I released some data independently, there is high likelihood that that data released doesn’t have any private or publicly identifiable information in it. But if I release that data along with another piece of data, and overlay those two sources, then I could garner some identifiable information. For example, if I have a report on geographically dispersed diseases in this relatively unpopulated state, like North Dakota, then release another piece of data that details who lives in certain census blocks, you could suddenly tell who has that disease. That’d break personally identifiable information guidelines. So we’ve asked agencies to set up governance and be very diligent on issues related to privacy, confidentiality, or national security.

How have the recent NSA leaks affected that strategy? Have you tweaked anything in your approach?


Our conversation today isn’t about the NSA, but I can say that our diligence hasn’t waned even before any of this related to protecting confidentiality. The mission here–the mission of government–is how do we best serve the American people, and make sure they are safe, secure, and getting benefits from the services the government provides. That requires a lot of good governance, good security, good cyber-security, and really smart thinking about how we release data–making sure we don’t release any personally identifiable information or anything that would lose the trust of the American citizen.

Fast Talk: “I’m From The Government…”

[Image: Flickr user The White House]

About the author

J.J. McCorvey is a staff writer for Fast Company, where he covers business and technology.