Obama campaign references to technology issues show that an early emphasis on computing to help solve problems is likely for his administration.
In just a few days, the United States will inaugurate the most technologically savvy president in its history, an event that should have a significant impact on the computer industry.
Not Your Father's President-Elect
Far from being a person who doesn't even know how to send an email message, as has been the case with most of his predecessors in office, Barack Obama's use of technology has been central to his successful campaign for the presidency. Computing tools such as email, Facebook, and Twitter helped the Obama campaign mobilize millions of people and dollars. His campaign has created an online political fan base of more than ten million people with whom he can stay in direct contact without help from mainstream media, a potential source of unprecedented clout that will have unforeseen consequences. In fact, Obama's devotion to his BlackBerry is causing security concerns about confidentiality once he takes office.
Beyond the politics, however, the Obama administration stands poised to make a larger governmental commitment to using computer technology to increase efficiency in several areas. Based on policy positions, speeches, and interview statements, Obama has articulated an ambitious agenda for emphasizing use of computers in such areas as healthcare, scientific innovation, and citizen empowerment. It's always hazardous to make too many plans based on a politician's promises, but the number of technology proposals made by Obama seem to insure that even if only a fraction of them are carried out, it might cause the proverbial tide that could float quite a few computer-industry boats. Although the Obama administration's early days will doubtless be taken up with handling the nation's economic crisis, that focus will change once a package dealing with this situation passes Congress. In the current situation, where a majority of the electorate is looking to government for answers, it seems likely that where the government directs its attention, markets will follow--at least for a while.
Medical Records: A New Priority
Healthcare is the most well-known of Obama's computerization interests. At least as far back as a campaign speech he gave at the University of Iowa in May 2007, Obama has been touting the idea of computerizing everyone's medical records to reduce medical and prescription drug errors via improved information sharing. His online position paper on healthcare cites a 2005 Rand Corporation study that predicts a savings of $77 billion as a result of reduced hospital stays, avoidance of unnecessary medical tests, better drug utilization, and other efficiencies.
Although some form of universal health insurance is controversial, computerizing health records seems to have more bipartisan support, so an early move in the records area while the insurance question is being wrangled over seems likely. A government initiative in health records will be a golden opportunity for companies that offer, for example, office-automation, database, and medical-related applications to step forward with solutions that can meet probable new demand. Other healthcare proposals Obama has made that will benefit from computer help include requiring providers to report preventable medical errors, establishing performance thresholds for measuring treatment outcomes, and simplifying paperwork for insurance providers.
Creating electronic medical records for so many people will require some bandwidth to better share this information. Improving U.S. Internet infrastructure is on Obama's radar. As part of the large public-works projects his administration is planning to assist national economic recovery, Obama referred in his December 6 radio address to including investments in computers and broadband connections, particularly for hospitals and schools. Pointing out in that speech that the U.S. currently ranks an "unacceptable" 15th in the world in broadband adoption, upgrading the country's ranking in that area will not only help doctors and hospitals more readily share medical records, but also give more students access to the Internet earlier in their school experience.
A New Emphasis on Computing and the Internet
Upgrading the U.S. to lead the world in broadband penetration and Internet access is also a key building block in Obama administration plans to put an increased government emphasis on science and innovation. "Improving our infrastructure will foster competitive markets for Internet access and services that ride on that infrastructure," notes the Obama campaign's position paper on science and innovation. Among the proposals in this document is a plan to "restore the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in supporting...breakthrough research in areas such as microsystems, nanotechnology, information technology, synthetic biology, and advanced manufacturing." A second proposal acknowledges a need to protect the nation's cyber infrastructure from attacks that can impair "network operations and the integrity of information." Specifically, the paper calls for supporting "an initiative to develop next-generation secure computers and networking for government." Security software companies, take note.
A third point is a plan to place more emphasis on computer technology development in the executive branch itself. In his position paper on technology and innovation, Obama calls for appointing the nation's first CTO to make sure government agencies have "appropriate infrastructure, policies, and services." In addition, he proposes enhancing the status of the White House science advisor, downgraded in the Bush administration. A new Assistant to the President for Science and Technology will report directly to the president, serve as director of science and technology policy, and "participate in critical early decisions and to signal the importance of science, technology, and innovation" as administration policy goals. Additional points call for a review of government policy with regard to licensing of the wireless spectrum and rethinking the government definition of broadband, which currently includes communication methods as slow as 200 kbps.
A Commitment to Cyber-Openness
A final area of concern is citizen empowerment. The technology and innovation campaign position paper states that Obama is in favor of net neutrality "to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet" and avoid potential "two-tier" restrictions on citizen Internet access. This paper also emphasizes a plan to make government data available online in "universally accessible formats" to all citizens and makes a commitment to employ technologies "including blogs, wikis, and social networking tools to modernize internal, cross-agency, and public communication and information sharing." This commitment seems to be reflected not only in the Obama campaign's considerable efforts with its own Web site and its use to recruit support, but also in a current transition Web site it's offering that features a blog and suggestion form through which citizens can provide some direct input.
This much emphasis on technology issues during the campaign indicates that technology innovation is likely to arrive at the top of the Obama administration priority list sooner rather than later. If nothing else, the financial crisis will create new circumstances, according to former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. In a recent Washington Post interview, Gates opined that the current financial crisis is as big an opportunity for innovation as the economic slowdown in the '70s, which gave rise to the first information technology surge. "Difficult times can launch great ideas," Gates noted.
Technology companies that are ready to offer relevant solutions when the time comes should find themselves in a favorable position.