Obama's CTO Gets Warm Welcome in Silicon Valley

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The Democrats aren't usually seen as the party of business but the United States' first national CTO, appointed by President Barack Obama in May, got a warm welcome at his first public appearance in Silicon Valley Tuesday.

CTO Aneesh Chopra talked for 90 minutes at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, outlining an agenda that tries to balance short-term achievements that can be made "in 60 or 90 days" with longer-term policy efforts.

"He's a smart guy, he talks our language," said Jeremy Verba of the investment firm Foundation Capital. He liked the broad plans that Chopra outlined but said it's "early days yet."

Chopra said his CTO agenda has three parts: Invest in "the building blocks of innovation," including a secure national infrastructure and an educated workforce; promote technologies that fulfill national priorities, such as fixing health care; and bring transparency to government through technology.

He's moving on the last item, at least. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which handles green card and visa applications, will have a "vastly improved" Web site in September where people can track the progress of their applications and receive updates via SMS (Short Message Service) or e-mail, Chopra said. The system today is notoriously opaque.

"Customer friendly may not be at the top of your list of words to express how this agency operates," he said.

The U.S. is still a leader in innovation, he said, but its rate of improvement lags other countries in areas such as e-governance and higher education. "In our public policy we have challenges, and it's for this reason that President Obama named a CTO in the White House," he said.

Asked how he'd overhaul the government's "legacy" computer systems to speed innovation, Chopra seemed to choose his words carefully.

"I'm a big fan of open collaboration, not specifically open source," he said. "I have no problem with people buying Microsoft and Oracle, but the challenge is the dollars spent on top of that afterwards, the custom development."

Various departments create custom software modules and don't share them with other departments, he said. "So we're trying to create a way of sharing intellectual property."

His entourage here included Brian Behlendorf, who helped develop the Apache Web server and is a noted figure in the open source world. Behlendorf was a tech adviser to Obama's presidential campaign and said on the sidelines here that he is now advising Chopra about open source software.

Asked how Chopra views open source, Behlendorf said: "He gets that the foundation of the Internet was built on it."

Digitizing health records and ensuring consumer privacy don't have to be mutually exclusive, Chopra said.

"It's not one or another, that becomes a false choice," he said. "If we get the security and privacy aspects right and instill confidence in the American people then I think it will fuel a wide range of product innovations that will inspire consumer to ask for more than they ask today."

He was asked about the resignation Monday of Melissa Hathaway, who was appointed six months by President Obama as acting head of cybersecurity. "Despite Melissa's resignation we are working fast and furious," he said. His security efforts are focussed on finance, health care data and the smart energy grid, he said.

Chopra seems to have his work cut out for him. Until a month ago in the White House, he said, when he tried to check his finances at the Mint.com Web site, "a message said my browser was so old I couldn't use it. That's the environment we're in here."

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