On November 15th, about 60 start-up software executives were invited to hear Todd Park, the U.S.'s chief technology officer, speak – and to provide feedback on his work. The meeting was held at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Cambridge, Mass.
Park is hardly a civil service Yes man. He's a presidential scholar with a Harvard degree and two successful start-ups under his belt. Park is driving the Open Data Initiative, which aims to liberate the terabytes of data the government stores in an effort to create new businesses. Park likens the project to reversing the scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones film where the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant is slowly wheeled away into a vast government warehouse so "top men" can someday requisition it for further study.
Park cites the commercialization of GPS technology as an example of government-sponsored research and infrastructure creating jobs and improving people's lives beyond the security benefit of better missile targeting. While GPS technology has clearly been a game changer, it's not just a data store. It's a full-on satellite-based technology infrastructure so I think the analogy is a stretch.
Contrary to what I expected, I found the federal government's data stores were fairly well-organized and accessible. My own state of Massachusetts, however, was, as my teenage daughter would say, "a fail" with four out of four data sites I attempted to access yielding 404 errors.
So what's here for bankers? Apart from measuring the federal debt in painful detail – as of September 30, 2012, we collectively owe $13.562 trillion to our creditors, or $43,052.77 per citizen – the information I've found, thus far, that may prove useful is contained in the credit card complaint databases on the Treasury site.
This database may have some utility in understanding the frequency of certain types of complaints. It might be interesting to compare these complaints to those made on a bank's Facebook page (though some classification work is needed because some Facebook complaints aren't categorized. For instance, one customer wrote on a bank's Facebook page, "I accessed … my account from my iPhone, suddenly I accessed different person's account." Um, yeah – I'd classify that one under the heading, “Incendiary Problem, Fix Immediately!”
Perhaps you can find something interesting in the U.S. government's data catalog.
That said, here's the good news: Park is a smart guy and a big proponent of test and learn.
At the meeting, he mentioned one of his programs called "Better than Cash," which is replacing U.S. foreign aid cash payments with electronic payments. After implementation of one such mobile payment program in the Middle East, Park discovered police officers thanking mobile phone operators for an immediate 30% raise. I suppose whoever lost their 30% cut of the cash distributions will have to take a look at Park's databases for new business ideas to make up for lost income.
The bottom line here is that Obama has put a real start-up guy in the CTO spot and Park gets it. I'd recommend that you keep an eye on Park's work. You just might find a priceless treasure without the risk of booby traps and poison-tipped arrows.
Devon Kinkead is CEO of Micronotes, a digital marketing company that provides cross-sell technologies to financial institutions.