The five best moments at the White House Open Data Innovation Summit - DC


Oct. 7, 2016 12:32 pm

The five best moments at the White House Open Data Innovation Summit

The Sunlight Foundation calls out federal agencies slipping on their open data responsibilities, the community honored a fallen civic hacker and Montgomery County showed off their transparency progress.
Inisde the White House Open Data Innovation Summit during the afternoon keynote.

Inisde the White House Open Data Innovation Summit during the afternoon keynote.

(Photo by Julia Airey)

On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama signed a memorandum on transparency and open government.

How’d he do?

That was the focus of last week’s White House Open Data Innovation Summit, which aimed to showcase progress made (and highlight failures) over the past eight years.

The goal of Obama’s memorandum was to create a more open government with transparency, participation and collaboration with citizens and between agencies. To accomplish this, the 2009 Open Government Directive required government data be made available in an accessible, timely manner.

For those who couldn’t attend, here are five #DCTech highlights from the Summit.

To watch the keynotes and panel discussions yourself, see the recorded livestream .


Open data is helping cancer patients.

Representations from various agencies spoke on panels and break-out discussions throughout the day. One audience favorite was the Cancer Moonshot panel on how data can fight cancer. (The Cancer Moonshot is a $1 billion dollar project of Vice President Joe Biden to end cancer.)

During the Panel, Presidential Innovation Fellow Michael Balint shared an API prototype created with the National Cancer Institute to help cancer patients learn about clinical trials they could qualify for.

Also discussed was Biden’s recent opening of the Genomic Data Commons, a database allowing scientists to share cancer genome information.


Panelist Craig Shriver demonstrated how open data makes healthcare more efficient at the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Shriver, who is the director of the Murtha Cancer Center, explained that newly diagnosed patients are brought in for a full day of testing where specialists come to them, and where doctors share data to design treatments.

“By the end of the day the patient walks out with a plan, and they’re usually starting treatment next week,” Shriver finished to audience applause.

Director of UX at Cancer Moonshot and three-time cancer survivor Kara DeFrias wrapped up the discussion saying, “I love this town. I love data people. I love technology.”

We bumped into some familiar faces.

Joy Whitt

Joy Whitt. (Photo by Julia Airey)

We found data scientist and tech diversity advocate Joy Whitt between afternoon events. Whitt, who works at the D.C. Deputy Mayor’s office, said she felt like the District’s open data initiatives were on par with that of the White House.

D.C.’s local government has an open data portal with a GIS data repository with data on 20 categories, including public safety and aerial imagery.

“In the big picture it’s really inspiring to see that even in our local government we’re doing extremely well with open data,” said Whitt. “Even on par with the White House initiative.”

Stay tuned for the District’s open data policy, which is still in the works.

Amidst the back-slapping, criticisms were also levied.

Senior analyst at the D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation Alexander Howard wasn’t shy about which agencies lag behind the transparency goals in the Open Government Directive.

“You’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about how great they’ve been at this,” said Howard. “But they haven’t been always.”

The Sunlight Foundation had “to almost sue” the Obama administration to release enterprise data inventories, Howard said. He also listed the five federal departments which had yet to release their plans for a more open government: The Department of Treasury, The Department of the Interior, The Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Department of Veteran’s Affairs and The Department of Homeland Security.

“And I’m looking at you, ICE,” Alex said, referring to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, as he neared the end of his presentation. “If courts have to sue you to get immigration data? You’re not doing it right.”

The Sunlight Foundation, whose future appears to be in question at the moment, promotes government accountability and transparency through the use of tools like open data, journalism, and technology. The projects from the last eight years that Howard mentioned at the Summit included advocating for open data policies, a host of APIs and more.

There was a heartfelt moment where the White House staff reflected on the data community.

Jake Brewer was a 34-year-old senior advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Offer within the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy when he was killed last year in a cycling accident. In a White House statement, President Obama said he was “heartbroken” and that Brewer was “one of the best.”

Brewer’s mother, Lori Brewer Collins (“Mama Brewer,” according to White House staffers) presented a note during the Summit. It was a sticky note she had pulled off her late son’s office monitor. On it, Brewer had scrawled, “Cultivate the Karass.”

Copy of Jake Brewer's original note

Copy of Jake Brewer’s original note. (Photo by Julia Airey)

Collins learned “karass” was a term invented by Kurt Vonnegut to mean, “a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.”

Afterward, moderator DJ Patil, the country’s Chief Data Scientist, read one of the last emails he received from Brewer.

Brewer had attached the Sworn-Again American oath to the email, asking, “How cool would it be if all technologists took this pledge?”

So Patil and Mama Brewer recited the oath together with the audience, who gave a standing ovation.

Montgomery County’s open data expo made #DCTech proud.

Running parallel to the day’s presentations were expositions from data innovators across the country.

The booth for Maryland’s Montgomery County shared an impressive array of open data. The County developed an open data policy, which paved the way for a data portal that aims to publish all data countywide.

Victoria Lewis (center) and fellow presenters Thomas Tippett and Kathy Luh. (Photo by Julia Airey)

Victoria Lewis (center) and fellow presenters Thomas Tippett and Kathy Luh. (Photo by Julia Airey)

Victoria Lewis is the manager of dataMontgomery for the Department of Technology Services. At the exhibition, Lewis showed us CountyStat, a portion of the data portal used for measuring the performance for different county departments. (Cities around the country like Philadelphia and Baltimore use a similar tool called CitiStat.) Data uploads to CountyStat is automated “for things like crime, food inspection, parking – things you want to see in real-time,” explained Lewis.

According to Lewis, Montgomery County has published over 200 data sets in total.

Montgomery Public Schools have since followed suit with their own open data portal for school budget and performance information.

Lewis also told us that there are plans to work with Mountgomery County Public Libraries to host data events for police departments to discuss things like crime data with residents. For her, it’s an opportunity to bring together different communities.

“I think data is the common link,” said Lewis.



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