Leveling the Field of the Future

Leveling the Field of the Future

State’s new Secretary of Technology sees information technology creating connections and closing gaps.

"This is my discussion on leveling the field," said Aneesh Chopra, Governor Tim Kaine’s youthful appointee to the position of Virginia Secretary of Technology. Chopra has a vision for technology that is not made up of bits and bytes, or ones and zeros. In his presentation to the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, April 4, he described how the mind-boggling leaps and bounds occurring within the world of high-tech could, and should, converge with the world that most of us live in, full of traffic jams, complicated health care, and employment opportunities hindered by a lack of credentials.

"What if we already had the capacity for someone to calculate" what the speeds are on the different roads they could use in their commute? "This is not Star Trek. This is technology we have today," Chopra said. "We could have this conversation in every aspect of government." He listed three trends he thought would be of particular interest to chamber members. All three would increase access to information technology or use information technology to increase people’s access to the government.

"How do we find a way to provide equal access to infrastructure?" Chopra asked. "It’s tragic to me that in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where we have more information data flowing through our borders than any other place in the world, that many people still rely on slow dial-ups." He described a real estate agent in Roanoke who installed a wireless internet tower on top of a hill, giving access to many people living in rural areas outside the city who had no high-speed access before. That is "entrepreneurship at the real estate agent level," he said with satisfaction. He saw it is a case of technology allowing a small entity to profit by increasing even smaller entities’ access to technology, continuing an exponential cycle.

The second trend he listed was "democratized access to procurement." The Commonwealth spends a lot of money on information technology services. The private sector in Virginia is a leader in these services. However, most of the contracts given out by the state were to a small number of large corporations. Recently, the commonwealth started using the internet to post bids and to allow small businesses to register themselves as competitors for those bids. Now any business can participate in information technology procurement. The effect of this has been, Chopra said, that 40% of state procurement for "staff augmentation contracts," short-term contracts to address a specific problem, comes from small enterprises run by women and minorities.

The third trend Chopra discussed concerned "how we actually innovate in delivery of information technology services to the Commonwealth." He said the era of large organizations, such as state governments, paying tens of thousands of dollars to large companies to create software that would only work for that specific contract, is over. "The world of proprietary software development is under significant challenge in today’s economy. [There is] a migration towards open source… around the world anybody can see the source code, anybody can participate. Let’s innovate." Instead of hiring expensive experts to develop software from scratch, then being forced to continue paying them to maintain the unique system, "open source programs" which anyone with an internet connection can access, tinker with, borrow, and improve would allow states to run more efficiently and cheaply.

Chopra’s family history has influenced his vision. His parents are Indian immigrants. "My parents came from a modest state, to say the least," he said, going on to describe an influential visit to his parents’ home. "My father’s village had no running water, and half the home had no roof." There were 16 people living in the house when Chopra visited. He said the trip made him grateful for the opportunities he was given.

MOST PEOPLE might focus on the immense gap between a poor Indian village and the Blackberry and Palm Pilot culture of Northern Virginia. However, Chopra’s vision is based on the connections he sees running between them. Wireless technology does not exemplify the gap between developed and developing worlds, rather, it is the bond that is connecting them more and more tightly.

Information technology allows Chopra to talk about an uneducated workforce in the Himalayas the same way he talks about an uneducated workforce in the Blue Ridge. "What is the role for the uneducated worker in the 21st century economy?" Chopra asks. "I believe there is gold buried in them there hills." He described 1000 people in Lebanon, VA who applied for 15 jobs. Inevitably in these situations, qualified people are overlooked. "Are you passing up someone who could actually be a tremendous player in your company?.. How do we mine all of Virginians for the talent and capacity to succeed in the 21st century economy? I don’t have answers, but I’ll give you a window in my mind." He said that when Tata, a consultant company in India, ran out of credentialed workers, they created an aptitude test that would screen people for the ability to learn to do the work, not the names on their resume. Tata then created a 72 day training program that would leave any worker qualified when they came out.

He said American companies must adopt this model. He asked if anyone had ever heard of Kent Murphy, a man who did not graduate from high school and was working as a janitor at a company in Blacksburg called IIT, which manufactured night vision goggles. Inspired by the technology he saw around him, and apparently a genius, Murphy applied for several grants and now owns Luna Innovations, a research and development company that mines academic research and finds ways to commercialize it. Luna is now involved heavily in nanotechnology. It will be going public soon and is expected to be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Chopra made the point that unless the state continues to find ways of looking beyond the resume of people like Murphy, they could spend their lives mopping hallways, and the economy will miss out on the growth they could be helping to create.

Chopra said everyone from janitors to CEO’s could benefit from the use of digital technology in medical databases. Currently, he said, only five percent of Virginia physicians have an electronic medical record that will alert them to any patient’s history of adverse drug events. He described this information access, or the lack of it, as "a leveling factor." Rich and poor, insured and uninsured are all affected equally by doctors’ and hospitals’ ability to consult their medical history in an emergency.

Datanet chose to sponsor Chopra’s speech exactly because of this topic. Its representative, Robert Nathan, described it as a technology company that provides health care technology to physicians’ management systems, such as electronic medical records, "basically automating the physician’s office and connecting it to the hospitals to eliminate redundancy." Datanet is planning to set up "a regional effort to integrate Inova with local physicians… We’re at the hub of information technology [in Fairfax] but we’re not implementing it," Nathan said.

Richard F. Neel, President of Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation, agreed that the region needs to take advantage of these opportunities. "Obviously Fairfax is a world leader in technology. It’s a major part of our economy. Here in South-East Fairfax we have tremendous opportunity to broaden the use of technology."