Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • Tech vs Trafficking: TechCamp Mexico

    Earlier this month, a group of more than 60 participants from across Mexico and the United States convened in Tlaxcala, Mexico for a two-day “TechCamp” to brainstorm innovative solutions to combat human trafficking.  The workshop brought together expert technologists and civil society organizations that are working with victims on the ground to design low-cost, easy-to-implement tools to combat trafficking. The TechCamp was led by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. State Department.
    This anti-trafficking TechCamp is part of a series of new commitments launched in September by the Administration to continue the fight against human trafficking.  
    At the kickoff of the workshop, participants convened at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City where we were joined by National Human Rights Commission President Dr. Raul Plascensia, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Advisor Felipe De La Torre, and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne.   
    During the next two-days, participants engaged in interactive training sessions, brainstormed solutions to combat trafficking, and developed projects to assist advocacy organizations and trafficking victims.
    Below are some of the project ideas that were developed throughout the TechCamp:
    Utilize “data scraping” tools to survey local areas and populations to understand which are most affected by trafficking;
    Create an online missing persons database, built using public input that can be submitted anonymously to protect participants, and targeted toward Mexican states that have notoriously high numbers of women and girls sold into the sex trade;  and
    Create a secure online platform that non-government organizations can use to share best practices and protocols for aiding victims, while ensuring the safety of victims and care providers.
    At the conclusion of the TechCamp, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico also committed to invest resources in tools, conferences, and other mechanisms to foster the work that began at the TechCamp.
    These tech camps are just one way that the Administration is leveraging technology to turn the tables on traffickers and provide much-needed services to victims and survivors of modern-day slavery. To learn more about what the President and his administration are doing to combat human trafficking, please visit
    We know there is much work to be done, and we are committed to continuing to bring more groups and individuals into the fight against trafficking so that we can put an end to this injustice both at home and abroad.
    TechCamp Mexico was led by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, in collaboration with UNODC, The White House, and the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. State Department.
    Tech vs Trafficking TechCamp

    TechCamp Mexico participants gather for a group photo at the end of the two day session (Photo by U.S. State Department) December 19, 2013.

    For more information on U.S. State Department led TechCamps, please visit
    Vivian Graubard is an Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Pritam Kabe is a Technology Analyst at the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State 

  • PCAST Considers Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Related Technologies in Higher Education

    Today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a letter report to the President about opportunities for advanced education technologies to improve educational outcomes and lower costs in higher education. The report, which builds on insights from PCAST members and additional outside experts, underscores the promise of new high-tech educational tools and advocates for continued experimentation in the education technology domain.

    Access to higher education is an important pathway to success in almost any field. According to a report released earlier this month by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, over the past decade, tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges have risen 5.1% per year faster than the rate of inflation. This troubling trend puts a college education out of reach for many young people in America, especially those from middle-class or low-income families.

    In its new report, PCAST explores the potential of recent advances in technology—with a focus on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—to expand access to higher education opportunities and to address other challenges facing America’s higher education system.

    PCAST recommends three key steps the Federal Government can take to derive maximum benefits from new education technologies:  

    • Let market forces decide which innovations in online teaching and learning are best.  PCAST discourages the premature imposition of standards and regulations that could impede the power of competitive market forces to spur innovation in the educational technology sector, and recommends that the Federal Government encourage innovation by letting the market for these technologies work.
    • Encourage accrediting bodies to be flexible in response to educational innovation. PCAST recommends that the Federal Government urge regional accrediting entities to be flexible in setting standards for online degrees to accommodate new pedagogical approaches and to avoid stunting the growth of a burgeoning industry.
    • Support research and the sharing of results on effective teaching and learning. PCAST advocates for more research into how technology can best foster learning for the broadest possible range of students, taking advantage of the data-collection features of new high-tech tools. PCAST also calls for the development of a national exchange mechanism for these data to accelerate research and enable adaptation of teaching to suit the various types of learners.

  • NIH Announces $40M in Research Funding Opportunities to Advance the Administration's BRAIN Initiative

    Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it is releasing solicitations that will provide $40 million in research funding to advance the Administration’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which President Obama unveiled on April 2, 2013. 

    As President Obama noted at a White House launch event, the goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to give “scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.”  This initiative will not only improve our understanding of the how the brain works, it also promises to improve our ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases of the brain.

    The new solicitations will provide funding for researchers to:

    • Generate an inventory of the different types of cell types in the brain;
    • Develop new tools to analyze the complex circuits that are responsible for brain function by delivering  genes, proteins and chemicals to particular cells;
    • Develop new approaches to record the activity of large numbers of neurons in any location in the brain, and improve existing technologies so they can be widely adopted by neuroscientists;
    • Understand large-scale neural circuits by integrating experimental, analytical, and theoretical approaches; and
    • Form teams to develop the next generation of non-invasive imaging technologies.

    These solicitations support many of the research topics identified as priorities by an NIH working group on the BRAIN Initiative composed of leading neuroscientists, co-chaired by Dr. Cornelia Bargmann (Rockefeller University) and Dr. William Newsome (Stanford University).  This working group is expected to submit its final report in the summer of 2014.

  • Building the Evidence Base for What Works

    In his FY 2014 budget message, President Obama called for “the use of evidence and evaluation to ensure we are making smart investments with our scarce taxpayer dollars.” His message reflects a broad Administration commitment to promote evidence-based policy reform. A number of signature policy initiatives reflect this focus, including innovation funds such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Investing in Innovation Fund; Pay for Success investment models; and efforts to increase funding for programs rooted in evidence such as high-quality home visiting programs or new models of teen pregnancy prevention.

    In July, the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices delivered a memorandum to the heads of Federal agencies entitled Next Steps in the Evidence and Innovation Agenda. The memo provides guidance for advancing evidence-based practices across the Federal Government as part of the FY 2015 budget process and underscores the importance of “strengthening agencies’ abilities to continually improve program performance by applying existing evidence about what works.”

    For these efforts to succeed, policy officials need scientifically valid, rigorous methods to evaluate the effectiveness of social programs. For example, the Administration’s “tiered evidence” initiatives provide small grants for new ideas worth trying, medium-sized grants to rigorously evaluate promising approaches, and large grants that scale-up interventions built on a strong evidence base.  The pursuit of evidence-based policy requires that the Federal Government produce accurate, unbiased answers about whether a program or practice is producing its intended effect—whether the goal is to improve student educational outcomes, reduce homelessness, lower recidivism rates, or any of a number of other desired outcomes. Equally important, these methods must be practical to use and without major administrative burdens or costs, so they can help solve a broad range of societal problems without undue burden on taxpayers.

    Well-conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are widely regarded as the most scientifically-credible means of evaluating the impact of programs operating at scale. That’s why we’re excited about a competition the nonprofit, nonpartisan Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy is running, with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The competition aims to identify and fund the strongest approaches to conducting low-cost RCTs that have demonstrated potential to help pave the way to a more effective, less costly government.

  • Open Data in Action

    Over the past few years, the Administration has launched a series of Open Data Initiatives, which, have released troves of valuable data in areas such as health, energy, education, public safety, finance, and global development. 
    And every day, entrepreneurs and business owners are using these freely available data to solve problems and to build new features, apps, products, services, and even new companies. Fueled by open data, these enterprises are creating jobs in cities and towns across the country.  In fact,  a recent report found that open data can generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional economic value across seven key sectors of the global economy, including education, transportation, and electricity.
    Today, in furtherance of this exciting economic dynamic, The Governance Lab (The GovLab) —a research institution at New York University—released the beta version of its Open Data 500 project—an initiative designed to identify, describe, and analyze companies that use open government data in order to study how these data can serve business needs more effectively. As part of this effort, the organization is compiling a list of 500+ companies that use open government data to generate new business and develop new products and services. 
    This working list of 500+ companies, from sectors ranging from real estate to agriculture to legal services, shines a spotlight on surprising array of innovative and creative ways that open government data is being used to grow the economy – across different company sizes, different geographies, and different industries. The project includes information about  the companies and what government datasets they have identified as critical resources for their business.
    Some of examples from the Open Data 500 Project include:
    • Brightscope, a San Diego-based company that leverages data from the Department of Labor, the Security and Exchange Commission, and the Census Bureau to rate consumers’ 401k plans objectively on performance and fees, so companies can choose better plans and employees can make better decisions about their retirement options.
    • AllTuition, a  Chicago-based startup that provides services—powered by data from Department of Education on Federal student financial aid programs and student loans— to help students and parents manage the financial-aid process for college, in part by helping families keep track of deadlines, and walking them through the required forms.
    • Archimedes, a San Francisco healthcare modeling and analytics company, that leverages  Federal open data from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, to  provide doctors more effective individualized treatment plans and to enable patients to make informed health decisions.
    You can learn more here about the project and view the list of open data companies here.
    We look forward to seeing what other new products, services, and companies get created by American entrepreneurs as they innovate using open government data as fuel.  Projects like the Open Data 500 can help raise awareness and  make it easier for potential users to find out about the value of open data.
    We will continue to work with agencies across the government to unleash the power of open data and to make data more accessible and usable for companies, entrepreneurs, citizens, and others.  We know that open data is good for the American people, and good for American business. 
    Nick Sinai is United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Erie Meyer is Senior Advisor to the United States Chief Technology Officer .

  • Continued Progress: Engaging Citizen Solvers through Prizes

    Today OSTP released its second annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation and solve Grand Challenges. Those efforts have expanded in the last two years under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which granted all Federal agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.

    This year’s report details the remarkable benefits the Federal Government reaped in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 from more than 45 prize competitions across 10 agencies. To date, nearly 300 prize competitions have been implemented by 45 agencies through the website  

    Over the past four years, the Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox. In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. In March 2010, the Office of Management and Budget issued a policy framework to guide agencies in using prizes to mobilize American ingenuity and advance their respective core missions. Then, in September 2010, the Administration launched, a one-stop shop where entrepreneurs and citizen solvers can find public-sector prize competitions.

    The prize authority in COMPETES is a key piece of this effort. By giving agencies a clear legal path and expanded authority to deploy competitions and challenges, the legislation makes it dramatically easier for agencies to enlist this powerful approach to problem-solving and to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.

    As the report released today makes clear, agencies made big strides in the challenge arena in FY 2012. In FY 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began establishing strategies to expand its use of the new prize authority – and by FY 2012, HHS emerged as a leader in implementing prize programs, offering 18 prize competitions, many conducted through public-private partnerships. Also in FY 2012, the Department of Labor and the Small Business Administration issued challenges focused on leveraging open government data to benefit entrepreneurs, job-seekers, and small businesses.

    To support these ongoing efforts, the General Services Administration  continues to train agencies about resources and vendors available to help them administer prize competitions. In addition, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) provides other agencies with a full suite of services for incentive prize pilots – from prize design, through implementation, to post-prize evaluation.