In 2009, President Barack Obama created the position of chief technology officer (CTO), whose brief is to apply technology to help the government achieve its goals more efficiently. Since then three people have served as CTO, with former Google vice president Megan Smith being the third. She was appointed in 2014 — the first woman, and the first lesbian, to hold the office.
Growing up in northern New York State, Smith went to a progressive high school where, she says, "They just gave us a lot of space and we invented things." The school also had a draft system for the math team, and the science fair was mandatory — exposing kids to what we now call STEM fields early on. Smith went to MIT and has been a star in the industry ever since, with stints at Apple, General Magic, and Planet Out before she joined Google in 2003. She's worked on technologies ranging from smartphones to solar cars to bike locks.
When I arrived at the White House in June to interview her for Lenny, the place was buzzing with energy. A new, streamlined health-care website for veterans had just launched, as well as the Data Driven Justice Initiative, an innovative approach to keeping people from cycling through the criminal-justice system. The staff wasn't only excited about their own work — President Obama had recently designated Stonewall Inn as a national monument, the country's first LGBT National Park site, and the Pentagon had ended its ban on transgender service members. Instead of the cynicism and endless bureaucracy I associated with government, I saw optimistic, driven people committed to making change in our country.
Smith, who is clearly focused on the future, also appreciates the historical context of her job. She showed me a desk that once stood in the Oval Office — one with a conspicuous hole on top drilled by Nixon for his infamous tape recorder. Inside the top drawer, many vice presidents had written their names. The White House is more like a junior high than I ever imagined.
We sat down to talk in an ornate, gilded room that was once the Secretary of War's office.
Gillian Jacobs: Tell me what data-driven justice means.
Megan Smith: The idea there is, how can you use available data to understand more about the cycle of incarceration? The two challenges being worked on now are how to divert minor offenders with mental-health issues out of the system, and how to change the way pretrial incarceration works so that low-risk offenders aren't sitting in jail just because they can't afford bail. A lot of it is taking the information that is there and bringing new ways of doing things into it. We also have the Police Data Initiative, which is helping departments be more transparent to build trust, and to use data internally to increase accountability and reduce inappropriate uses of force. So it uses publicly released data sets on all different kinds of topics, like officer-involved shootings, use of force, etcetera.
Dallas and Los Angeles were already doing lots of work in this area and engaging their communities. We were able to bring together other jurisdictions and get them to start considering this because they could see real-world examples that existed. I think we have over 50 cities now in the Police Data Initiative.
One of the things that's interesting is watching best practice start around the country. In Seattle, the librarians, who are already well-versed in the data contained in books and on the web, they're really coming to understand how we can help people become literate in open data and do things with that. Weather is a classic data set that is used beautifully for forecasting and other things. GPS came out of all of the space-program work. So how can you take data sets from the government, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example? People should be able to take these data sets and build on top of it, like Wikipedia. In this case it is police data.