Up Close with Todd Park: New Job, New Initiatives, Same Entrepreneur

Todd Park, Federal CTO

Todd Park, US Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO), sat down with WashingtonExec to discuss the progress of the Open Data Initiatives program, the future of big data in federal IT, and why he still considers himself an “Entrepreneur-in-Residence.”

We got to know a more personal side of Park, including what he constitutes as a great day at the office, lessons learned from his time as U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) CTO, and his advice to his two children.

In this interview, Park also gives words of wisdom to newly appointed HHS CTO, Bryan Sivak, and gave us an update on how his new experiment with Twitter (@todd_park) is going.

Todd Park was appointed our nation’s second Federal CTO in March 2012 after Aneesh Chopra stepped down from the position in January 2012. It’s rumored that Chopra plans to run for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.

WashingtonExec: How are you liking your new appointment?  How has your life adjusted since taking on this new position?

Todd Park: I’m having a fantastic time.  It’s been an absolutely amazing experience thus far, and a continuation of what was already an amazing experience at HHS.  I’m just incredibly thrilled and honored to be doing this work.

WashingtonExec: What does a great or good day look like to you?

Todd Park: A great day is where we’ve made a bunch of progress on key initiatives that we care a lot about and that can produce a lot of benefit for the public.  The nature of my job is that I spend most of my time—about  80 percent of my time, actually—driving  a portfolio of key initiatives forward.  I spend about 20 percent of my time scrubbing in as an advisor on other issues that come up.  The key initiatives I’m driving are very much like start-ups, in the sense that they’re projects that aim to accomplish particular goals in a very rapid time frame.  A great day is where that portfolio of initiatives has moved ahead leaps and bounds to deliver on benefits that we want to produce for the American people.

WashingtonExec: Do you still consider yourself a type of “Entrepreneur-in-Residence?”

Todd Park: I actually still feel very much like an entrepreneur, except that I’m not starting companies, I’m starting projects, co-founding projects with amazing people and pulling together amazing teams of folks to execute these projects and deliver great things.  It’s very similar to the role I played at HHS, but with a broader scope.

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“As opposed to having our data only used by us to build tools that are helpful to the public, let’s make it open and available so that everyone else in the world can turn it into useful products and services that not only improve the lives of Americans in many tangible ways but also create jobs.”

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WashingtonExec: The last time we spoke you were very invested in Datapalooza.  What did you learn from Datapalooza and did it impact rolling out larger projects as the new Federal CTO?

Todd Park: One of my top priorities as U.S. CTO is the Open Data Initiatives program.  The objective of this program is to double down on the Health Data Initiative that we started at HHS and to clone it in multiple other sectors, like energy, education and public safety. What I learned in the process of doing the Health Data Initiative with the incredible team of folks at HHS and at the Institute of Medicine is that if you in fact open up access to health-related data in machine-readable form, and educate entrepreneurs and innovators that it’s available, that those entrepreneurs and innovators will indeed turn the data into a truly remarkable array of products and services that can help the public and create jobs and do all of the above at light speed. As U.S. CTO, I plan to keep championing the Health Data Initiative and also as part of this broader Open Data Initiatives program, replicate it in energy, education, public safety, the non-profit sector and more.

WashingtonExec: I had completely forgotten that it has been a year since last year’s Datapalooza.  I can’t believe it’s already July.

Todd Park: Time flies – when there is an enormous amount of progress happening.

WashingtonExec: How is Big Data a part of the current government motto of “do more with less?”

Todd Park: In a multitude of ways. First, if we take the government’s Big Data and make it open and machine-readable, then there is an enormous array of beneficial apps and services for the public that will be built by the private sector, will generate huge public benefit, and will contribute to economic growth and create jobs without requiring taxpayer expenditure.  As opposed to having our data only used by us to build tools that are helpful to the public, let’s make it open and available so that everyone else in the world can turn it into useful products and services that not only improve the lives of Americans in many tangible ways but also create jobs.  Secondly, there is a tremendous amount of insight that we can derive from improved data analytics to help government operate more efficiently and effectively; to combat waste, fraud and abuse, to gain insights about how to re-engineer what we do, to do more with less, and much more.  That will be very, very exciting to continue to pursue.

WashingtonExec: How do you see Big Data evolving throughout the entire federal government?

Todd Park: One definite trend is that, while rigorously protecting privacy and confidentiality, we want to make our Big Data available to everyone in open, machine-readable form as a national resource – a resource that innovators can use to develop products and services that benefit the American people and create jobs, a la what happened when government opened up access to weather data and the Global Positioning System in prior decades..  This is a core underpinning of the Open Data Initiatives Program and a key priority for us.

WashingtonExec: What is the biggest misconception in regards to implementing Big Data?

Todd Park: I think that it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and so it’s not that people have misconceptions about it – it’s that people aren’t always talking about the same thing. Some people mean extremely large quantities of data and other people mean that it’s really the unstructured data or machine data or other kinds of cuts at what Big Data might mean.  It’s important to be precise about what you are actually talking about so that you are on the same page with whomever you are talking to. None of these conceptions of Big Data are wrong, they are just different.

WashingtonExec: How is your new twitter handle (@todd_park) going? Anyone replied “You idiot?”

Todd Park: I love Twitter, picking up interesting messages posted by others and spreading the word about exciting happenings. And yes, with respect to my email protocol, folks are indeed sending me the “you idiot” reminders I’ve requested if I don’t respond to them in 72 hours.

WashingtonExec: Any words of wisdom for newly appointed HHS CTO, Bryan Sivak?

Todd Park: Bryan, you are joining a fantastic team at HHS, and I very much look forward to working closely with you!

WashingtonExec: What advice do you have for your children? A few months ago we published a series on this topic.

Todd Park: My children are three and one so I really haven’t had a heart-to-heart with them yet about the nature of life.  I would say to do what you love in terms of what you do as your life’s work.  I would also say that I would hope that at some point in their lives they choose to go into public service and serve their country, because it has been the most amazing experience of my life and just an absolute thrill to wake up every morning knowing that I work for the American people.  I just can’t imagine a higher calling.

WashingtonExec: What is on your summer reading list?

Todd Park: I’ve actually been very interested in getting to a number of books; one is The Information Diet, by Clay Johnson and another is The Weight of a Nation, which is by John Hoffman and Judy Salerno.  I’m hoping to crack those open very soon when I get a moment.

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