From the White House Science Fairs to The United States Digital Service, President Obama has made significant strides in encouraging the intersection of technology and government. As he prepares to exit the White House, Mr. Obama plans to further solidify that legacy by hosting a science and technology conference.
The October 13 conference will focus on “frontiers” – personal, local, national, global, and interplanetary – including topics such as artificial intelligence, robotics, climate change, space travel, and how communities are using data to improve quality of life.
“The conference will focus on building US capacity in science, technology, and innovation, and the new technologies, challenges and goals that will continue to shape the 21st century and beyond,” wrote Megan Smith, US chief technology officer, and John P. Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a blog post.
In conjunction with the conference, to be hosted by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, Obama will guest-edit the frontiers-themed November issue of WIRED Magazine.
“We want to wrestle with the idea of how today’s technology can influence political leadership,” wrote WIRED editor-in-chief Scott Dadich in a post announcing the collaboration. “And who better to help us explore these ideas than President Obama?”
But not everyone is impressed with Obama’s tech history, particularly when it comes to data protection or regulation.
A survey at South By Southwest (SXSW), where Obama spoke this past March, found that 69 percent of people believe that “customers' private and encrypted data must be protected and never shared with the government,” according to a SXSW press release.
Granted, SXSW came right after the FBI v. Apple debacle, in which the FBI asked Apple to create a way to bypass the security features of phones involved in the San Bernardino shooting and a drug case and Apple refused, stating that would create a backdoor that could compromise the security of all iPhone users. Understandably, many SXSW attendees were wary of Obama’s message that the government and tech companies should work together to solve the biggest global and national challenges.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration is leaving a sizable technology and innovation legacy.
In 2014, Obama founded the United States Digital Service, a sort of technological SWAT team who come to the rescue when the government encounters tech problems, such as the launch of healthcare.gov. He also founded the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, in which experts from fields outside the government work with federal offices on projects, and he greatly expanded Data.gov, which now houses 193,000 publicly available federal data sets.
The Obama administration has also worked hard to encourage the next generation of STEM field innovators, as well as current STEM teachers, through the Educate to Innovate program, which is responsible for the annual White House Science Fair.
“In many ways, his tech legacy is a talent legacy,” Mitchell Weiss, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, who has written previously about Obama and technology, tells the Monitor in an email. “It’s been innovation as invitation; a bigger and broader call to people with skills and ingenuity to help solve big public problems. A new generation of public entrepreneurs are responding to that call. The President, his programs, and the people that have come out of them are an important part of why they are.”