In 2008, candidate Barack Obama changed the campaign game, heavily employing mobile technology and the Internet to raise funds and his popularity. Citizens texted "HOPE" to spread the word. YouTube videos helped clear up the Jeremiah Wright controversy and brought in outside supporters like Obama Girl. These Internet-based efforts, much like Kennedy with television, helped candidate Obama race through the primaries and into the White House. But what about President Obama?
It's been two years since the President was elected, and despite his declining approval ratings, there's no denying that he has made technological contributions to the government, the presidency and the country's day-to-day running.
But has Obama’s high-tech vision completely transcended from his campaign to his presidency? Decide for yourself. We offer you five of the current administration’s technology initiatives.
The Country’s First CIO and CTO
The Obama administration’s goals to inspire technological innovation and increase accessibility to all Americans call for specialized leadership. Thus, to help develop and implement 21st century technology policy, the president appointed the country’s first- ever Chief Technology and Information Officers, Aneesh Chopra, and Vivek Kundra, respectively, both of whom have been kept busy.
“The president chose to elevate the technology role by naming my position to be an assistant to the president,” Chopra said. “Every piece of paper that comes before the president on policy matters gets a thorough review for considering how technology will interface with that policy.”
In May 2009, Kundra helped launch Data.gov, a government information database. Additionally, he has been in charge of setting up the federal government’s first cloud computing portal, which allows for easier data sharing between government agencies and departments.
Chopra has been instrumental in getting the Open Government Directive on its feet, and has focused heavily on using technology to make health care more accessible and affordable.
“In the Obama administration, technology, data and innovation have been critical components of the President’s priorities from day one,” said Chopra.
Open Government Directive
President Obama campaigned heavily on the promise of an open, transparent government. On his first day in office, he took the first step towards increased accountability by signing the “Transparency and Open Government” memorandum, directing federal agencies to improve communications and collaborative efforts between the federal government and the people.
In December 2009, the administration unveiled the Open Government Directive, which sett a timeline for all executive agencies to publish high-value data sets on the web. A staple of the directive, Data.gov, serves as a repository for public government information -- from unemployment statistics to aviation accident reports.
Criticism of Obama’s online portals revolve around accessibility. Many data sets require special software to read and most don’t exactly peak the public’s interest. According to Tom Glaisyer, a Knight media fellow at the New American Foundation, the government information initiative is still in its beginning stage. Businesses and developers are still figuring out how to organize the information to provide meaning for most Americans.
“Larger numerical data sets are a good component, but they aren’t the whole story,” Glaisyer said.
Besides transparency, another goal of the Open Government Directive is to increase public engagement in executive affairs. Chairman of the Economic Council Austan Goolsbee’s whiteboard visualizations appear to be a step in the direction. Meanwhile, sites like Challenge.gov, where citizens can contribute ideas for federal agencies, and Federalregister.gov, which opens up the doors to the nation’s federal newspaper, are designed to increase participation. But they’re just a start.
“We need to develop more ways to engage effectively with government employees,” Glaisyer said. “It requires as much face-to-face engagement as online.”
Expanding Internet Access
In this Information Age, Internet access provides billions of people with instant access to banking services, health information, shopping, and education. But, approximately 100 million Americans -- most making relatively low incomes -- remain without Internet access.
“As more and more things move online, if you don’t have access, if you don’t know how to use it -- you’re going to be at a disadvantage,” said Ben Lennett, senior policy analyst of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation headquartered in the nation’s capitol.
WIDE ANGLE: Get all the latest news and information about our nation’s power grid, which works about the same way as it did when Thomas Edison conceived it. Talk about needing an upgrade!
There is hope for those stranded in an Internet wasteland, though. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $7.2 billion has been set aside to provide all Americans with an affordable, 100 megabit-per-second Internet connection by 2020. To bring so-called broadband to the masses, the government will make grants available to rural areas so that they can build up the necessary infrastructure that will expand computer center capacity and support sustainable broadband initiatives.
While the broadband plan’s implementation is still in its infancy, many are questioning whether access can really be made “affordable” in a market dominated by just a few Internet providers. As basic economics will tell you, consumers have a lot more power when they have more choices.
Some policy analysts maintain an open access policy is necessary to keeping costs down. This would require one company to build out a network that rival companies could compete and invest in. Without such competition, affordable access may not find its way to many Americans’ homes.
“Unfortunately, the FCC has ignored the competition question,” Lennett said. “Clearly, there is a correlation between competition and price. Until that becomes a national priority, I’m not sure where we can go from there.”
New Technology for the Deaf and Blind
The emergence of new technology presents new challenges for millions of blind and deaf Americans. Thus, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act on October 20, 2010.
The law aims to provide deaf and blind people with the same level of access to new technologies as their fellow, non-disabled Americans. For example, one provision requires all mobile companies to make web browsers, email and text messaging on smart phones easy to use for the visually and hearing impaired.
Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City, helped write the legislation. Besides smart phones, Schroeder and other disability rights-advocates also pushed to increase ease-of-access to television programming, DVD menus, and program guides on cable television.
“We want to use these technologies right along side our non-disabled peers,” Schroeder said. “We hope this new law will set forth directions for companies to make their products more accessible and set the rules of the road.”
Promoting Green Energy Technology
President Obama is making great strides in promoting and investing in renewable energy technology and energy efficiency programs.
The Recovery Act allocated about $70 billion for energy-related programs, including research and development in weatherization assistance, vehicle technologies, biomass, fuel cells, geothermal technologies and solar and wind energy.
For example, the Cape Wind Farm in the sea surrounding Massachusetts remains one of the most notable, yet controversial, clean energy projects approved by the Obama administration. On May 17, 2010, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar signed the lease for the country’s first-ever offshore wind project, which had been fighting for approval for ten years.
And it’s not just the sea the Obama administration has its eyes on. On October 6, 2010 Salazar signed the first of six leases for large-scale solar energy projects on public land. Unfortunately, most of these loan-guarantee projects and research grants come with heavy paperwork and take some time to implement.
“It’s going to take time to expand the capacity [of renewable energy]. But we have very explicit goals the President is holding the Department of Energy to, including expanding the capacity of renewable energy sources,” said Chopra.
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