The Hacker Spirit, Alive And Well In DC: Introducing The Presidential Innovation Fellows Program

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Apply to the next PIF cycle or reach out to help with one of the existing initiatives, this is a chance to apply technical innovation and the hacker spirit with incredible backing from the White House. By Sophia Chou (Co-Founder, Loudly)

Only a week ago, I would never have associated the words "agile software development", "sprints" and "hackers" with the White House or federal government. These were words I had previously reserved for morning scrum sessions or startup life in general. That is until I participated in a roundtable discussion in DC last week led by the CTO of the United States, Todd Park, on their newly launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

What’s the Presidential Innovation Fellows program? Currently in their second month, the program was officially announced at TechCrunch Disrupt this past May during which Park outlined five initiatives, all with the common goal to build high-impact technology for greater good for the American people by the people.

After receiving about 700 applications, 15 citizens were invited to DC to embark on the six-month journey.

The first initiative is MyGov. The problem MyGov is targeting is one that many of us are familiar with: There are too many .gov sites and searching across them is difficult. Let’s use the student loan experience as an example. Refresh your memory on all the different sites you visited when applying for financial aid, consolidating your loans, or making payments. At some point you must have wondered, why must these services sit on so many separate websites? MyGov wants to simplify our interaction with such services, and one of the ways they’re making this happen is by creating a unified login. It’s a little like OAuth for federal websites.

Second up is the Open Data initiative focused on liberating more government data and making new and existing data machine-readable. Historically, the declassifying of government data has had monumental long-term impact. For instance, when weather data became open in 1889, a $1.5 billion industry was created over time. Likewise, the declassifying of GPS in 1983 by Reagan is still changing the world today. We can broadcast to the world the coffee shop we just checked into, find friends of friends nearby, and not get lost in a new city. With plans to open up education, non-profit, personal finance, public safety, and energy data, the efforts of Open Data initiative will ripple far into the future.

Third is Blue Button for America, which will allow patients to easily and securely download their own health information, including their medication list, drug allergies, lab reports and treatment data. The team is pushing for more widespread adoption (it is already available to a limited audience, such as veterans and uniformed service members).

As a former practitioner, BB is an exciting prospect. On the behavioral side, BB could increase the transparency of treatments rendered and better educate patients on the issues that matter most to them. BB also represents a burgeoning opportunity for developers to build personalized health apps, like a virtual health coach or provider on your smartphone.

The RFP-EZ team is building a marketplace where the government and startups can easily do business with each other. The benefits are twofold: The government can source lower-cost tech solutions from startups that may have felt deterred in the past, and startups can gain access to new and larger market opportunities. The RFP-EZ team already has a JSON API up, making it easy to search for RFPs and related data previously only available via web forms located on different federal websites.

Finally, the 20% Initiative is hoping to transition billions of dollars made monthly in cash payments by the USAID as foreign assistance to an electronic system. Cash is expensive to disburse and an easy target for corruption, theft, and fraud.

While domestic programs like WIC have proven the cost effectiveness of electronic vouchers systems, technical innovation is still needed to make a similar system tenable for foreign aid. All this said, the 20% Campaign's initiative has the chance to improve the lives of billions worldwide.

Overall, the first batch of fellows are taking on some of the most difficult problems I've seen entrepreneurs go after, and given the White House's commitment to the program, this is definitely just the beginning. With the distinct opportunities that the Presidential Innovation Fellows program offers, Women 2.0 members should be sure to keep this program on their radar. Whether it be by applying during their next cycle or reaching out to help with one of the existing initiatives, PIF is a chance to apply technical innovation and the hacker spirit with incredible backing from the White House.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Sophia Chou is co-founder of Loudly, a communications platform revolutionizing the text and call experience by bringing voice communication to email. As a partner at Assembly, she’s been designing and developing for the web for over six years. A pixel pusher, user interface designer and front-end hacker, Sophia participated in the inaugural Women Innovate Mobile accelerator class. She is also writing a book on venture capital, The Conversant Guide to Venture Capital. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiachou.