Can we talk?

Aneesh Chopra, the White House chief technology officer, joins lawmakers and tech leaders to assess the State of the Net.

There is absolutely no reason on Earth we shouldn’t have the most innovative and effective government in the world,” Aneesh Chopra told a crowd at SCU on Aug. 5. Chopra is the nation’s first federal chief technology officer, and he was on campus as part of the third annual State of the Net West Conference. One of his priorities since taking office in May has been opening up government to more public input—which he acknowledged hasn’t been all roses.

“There is absolutely no reason on Earth we shouldn’t have the most innovative and effective government in the world,” Aneesh Chopra told a crowd at SCU on Aug. 5.

Can We Talk Winter 2009

Chopra is the nation’s first federal chief technology officer, and he was on campus as part of the third annual State of the Net West Conference. One of his priorities since taking office in May has been opening up government to more public input—which he acknowledged hasn’t been all roses.

Earlier this year, Chopra oversaw creation of a website where the public could post, vote on, and amend ideas for making government more transparent and inclusive. Naturally, not all results got the same consideration. The site made a tempting soapbox for UFO believers and “birthers,” the conspiracy theorists convinced that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen and is ineligible to serve as president.

But the site’s users separated the wheat from the chaff themselves, identifying and refining the best ideas with editing tools akin to Wikipedia’s. The resulting suggestions have since been added to the policy-making pipeline. The process offers one example of how government can—and should— use technology in transformative ways, Chopra said.

Representatives in the House

Sponsored by SCU’s High Tech Law Institute (HTLI) in conjunction with the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, the State of the Net West is a budding SCU tradition, bringing Washington leaders to Silicon Valley to talk with academics, industry insiders, and others. This year’s event featured three members of Congress. SCU alumna Rep. Zoe Lofgren J.D. ’75, chairwoman of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, who represents much of Santa Clara County, was joined by two gentlemen from Virginia, Rep. Rick Boucher (D) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R), co-chairs of the House Internet Caucus.

Discussions ranged from online privacy to broadband access in poor areas to immigration law. Lofgren is one of a handful of members of Congress to have practiced immigration law. While foreign-born high-tech workers with advanced degrees are essential in Silicon Valley, she said, tech-savvy immigrants are increasingly moving to other countries out of frustration with bureaucratic backlogs with visas.

“Ten years ago, if you asked immigrants in Silicon Valley, they would say this is the best place in the world to work,” Lofgren said. “Now there’s a lot of hesitation.”

The rock star

Formerly Virginia’s secretary of technology, Chopra was on his first visit to Silicon Valley as the nation’s CTO. His arrival brought out a scrum of reporters clamoring for interviews. Surveying from 100,000 feet, Chopra said national policy has not kept up with the rapid rise in use of technology in a country where cell phones are now more common than dishwashers. But smart technology policy must be part of the answer if America is to successfully tackle challenges like strains on the energy grid, health insurance reform, and access to higher education.

“No matter how you look at it, if we are to achieve our higher education attainment goals, we are going to have to find a way to harness online learning capabilities and other emerging technologies,” Chopra said.

Eric Goldman, director of the Santa Clara law school’s HTLI, assessed that the conference brought together two worlds that are often cocooned in their own concerns. “The real upside here is to help the Silicon Valley community engage the D.C. machine and hopefully interject our thought process into it,” Goldman said.

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