White House CTO calls for open source APIs, visibility for women

U.S. citizens create world-beating tech sites like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter — so why can’t agencies like the IRS or Veterans Affairs do the same? The White House’s chief technology officer, Megan Smith, suggested it’s possible, provided the government can attract enough people with a high TQ, or technology quotient, to work there.

Speaking on Tuesday morning in Washington, Smith pointed to the emergence of “innovation labs” within agencies as evidence that the government can foster the same sort of skunkworks-style thinking found in Silicon Valley, where Smith made her name as a senior Google executive.

While Smith’s characterization of Washington as “incredibly entrepreneurial” may be a tad optimistic, she did appear sincere in her support for promoting the use of open source development, and introducing a culture of “APIs, not RFPs.”

Echoing a mantra of executives at Google X, Smith also expressed a desire to find ways for the government to exhibit the sort of technological prowess that normally occurs only in wartime. She also emphasized that she and her deputy, former Twitter lawyer Alex Macgillivray, want to reduce the sort of regulatory morass that can inhibit innovation.

But while Smith’s words will be welcome to the tech sector, where she and Macgillivray are held in very high regard, there is still the stubborn reality of government. Even as Smith cited issues like patents, copyright and net neutrality as top priorities, a visit to the websites for those topics feels like tumbling into an internet time warp. If the arrival of the smartest minds from Silicon Valley can’t help the Patent Office implement a rational search function, what hope is there of remaking the rest of the federal bureaucracy?

Smith’s remarks, which she shared with her CTO predecessor Aneesh Chopra, also failed to touch on the inherent differences between government departments and a Silicon Valley startups, or to address the political realities of Washington IT — such as what might happen to all those innovation labs once a new administration is elected in 2016.

Women missing from movies, and from science

The so-called Bechdel Test requires a movie to have three basic elements to pass. A film must include: 1) two prominent female characters 2) who have a conversation 3) that is not about a man.

Smith cited the test in response to a question from Chopra about the relatively few women who occupy high-profile science or technology positions. She suggested the problem may not be so much a lack of qualified women, but a question of representation instead.

Smith pointed out that Joan Clarke, the code-breaker depicted in the recent film The Imitation Game, was just one of numerous female mathematicians who worked at the U.K.’s World War II lab known as Bletchley Park. Likewise, Smith observed that women’s contributions to the development of the Mac were been scrubbed from the movie Jobs, and from the space mission in Apollo.

The upshot, Smith suggested, is that a perceived dearth of women in STEM professions can be partly addressed by ensuring the proper depiction of those who are already working in them.

Smith spoke at the 2015 State of the Net conference, a meeting of government officials and tech industry figures.