Advancing Technology Using the Currency of Ideas

The economy might be improving, but even the country's chief technology officer must rely more on inspiration than hard cold cash.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 07, 2015

If you sometimes feel frustrated by the slow path your firm is taking to embrace Internet of Things technologies, consider the plight of Megan Smith, the Obama administration's current chief technology officer, a position created in 2009 (under the auspices of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy) to advise the president regarding technology policy and issues. Smith came to Washington by way of Silicon Valley, where she worked in the division that developed search giant Google's forays into the IoT: Google Glass and the self-driving car. As the United States' CTO, she is now charged with bringing the White House into the 21st century. Her tools include a BlackBerry phone, a 2013 Dell laptop and, believe it or not, floppy disks, as described in Sunday's New York Times profile.

That is a rather archaic toolkit for the technology chief of the United States. But working within those technological confines is part of working within a government institution that is deeply invested in its IT and security systems and, therefore, very slow to change. Yet, the White House is not actually living in the Dark Ages. As I reported last week, government agencies are backing a program that seeks to advance IoT technologies through applications that promise to significantly benefit local governments and citizens alike: smart city projects.

The Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) was created by US Ignite, a private-public partnership (formed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation, and launched in June 2012) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. It has enticed many hundreds of technologists, urban planners, entrepreneurs and other interested parties to develop and test smart-city solutions, which will be demonstrated next month and then submitted for final review this summer.

GCTC co-lead Sokwoo Rhee explained to me that the program he oversees does not fund the projects. However, it can provide participants with access to municipal decision-makers—whose attention can be harder for smart-city project developers to attain than money. Rhee noted that he has seen numerous smart-city projects launch with a government grant, only to falter once that initial windfall is spent. To his mind, successful technology deployments must find a sustainable funding source by tapping into existing streams of government or private funds.

Perhaps that's a strategy Smith will need to copy as she spends the remaining two years of her time in office as the U.S. CTO—because, as the New York Times piece notes, the job does not come with a significant budget. Nor, say critics, does it come with enough power to significantly influence the government's technology development. Yes, she has a direct line to the President, but she does not have direct influence over how various agencies deploy technology.

The article points out that Obama started the United States Digital Service last summer as a means of bolstering the government's IT acumen in the wake of the debacle. But this new service is not even under Smith's purview (rather, the article notes, it is part of the Office of Management and Budget and is "overseen by a chief information officer, a position that does not currently have a permanent occupant").

At the end of the day, however, advancing technology does not depend wholly on money or even influence. Step one is to come up with viable ideas for solving problems, and to get people excited about these solutions, which is what Smith's supporters call her forte. I'll be interested in seeing where and whether her ideas will translate into an improved technology landscape for government. (Some initiatives, such as computer-coding workshops for children, are long-term, so if they do blossom, they will not bear much fruit during Smith's tenure.)

As you explore the ways in which Internet of Things technologies might serve to solve real business problems in your industry or at your firm, it may be good to remember that while IoT projects certainly need funding, they first need champions. Sometimes, as the GCTC just might prove, a strong team armed with a good idea is the best place to start planting the seeds for IoT projects.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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