Government Data Could Unleash Economic Growth, Expert Says

Former federal CTO Aneesh Chopra says the dissemination of government data can lead to big things

by Robert McCabe, The Virginian-Pilot / December 11, 2014
flickr/World Economic Forum

(TNS) -- Hampton Roads, Va., is positioned for an economic revival -- if it can only wake up and see the opportunities right under its nose.

That was largely the message that a technology expert laid out Wednesday to about 500 business leaders at the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting in Norfolk.

With the intensity of a motivational speaker -- or revivalist preacher, at moments -- Aneesh Chopra spurned the podium to address the audience directly, standing in the center of a ballroom.

Chopra served as the country's first chief technology officer, appointed by President Barack Obama in April 2009. He held that position until 2012, when he stepped down before announcing his intention to run as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia, a race he lost.

Previously Chopra had served as Virginia's secretary of technology, appointed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine.

"So, this is our time," Chopra said near the start of his roughly 35-minute presentation. "I will hopefully over the next few minutes convince you that our best days are ahead of us."

Much of his presentation focused on the importance of entrepreneurship and "open innovation," defined as "the idea that more and more of what's held in the public domain be made freely available to us so we can commercialize, solve problems, make our neighbors' and friends' lives better."

The dissemination of government data, in particular, can lead to big things, he said. He cited a very local example -- the creation of The Weather Channel by the company now known as Landmark Media Enterprises, which owns The Virginian-Pilot.

"This community, more than any, is familiar with the notion that opening up government data has economic value," he said. "Weather is a $5 billion-a-year industry, but the source data that fuels that industry comes from the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funds the satellites and the sensor networks that produces the raw data, which is open to anyone to consume, to build weather apps and other products and services."

The Weather Channel was eventually sold to NBC Universal and two private equity firms.

While otherwise largely upbeat, Chopra laid down a challenge to the region, which had the lowest rate of new business startups in Virginia, according to 2013 state data.

He suggested several things that Hampton Roads can do to turn things around, including building up its own entrepreneurial talent pool and recruiting from among roughly 10,000 immigrants deemed to have "extraordinary ability."

Other ideas included unleashing "regional early stage capital," as well as the "democratization" of government data and tapping into the skills of "tech-trainable" veterans.

"We will not realize the benefits of an innovative state unless we step up and put these ideas to work," Chopra said. "No one's going to come here -- a white knight -- saving the region while you sit back and observe passively. This requires active participation."

©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)