Climate change, the dearth of women in tech and reforming the criminal justice system are all thorny issues with no easy solutions.
Time may be ticking down on the Obama administration, but the President has no intention of running out the clock.
Obama has told his staff that, while his presidency is in the fourth quarter, “interesting stuff happens In the fourth quarter.”
But that’s not usually the way things work in Washington. And with a lot of big problems still to tackle and not much time left, Obama is looking to the tech industry to help the administration make the most of its remaining days.
On Tuesday the White House used a gathering of LGBT tech leaders to seek help in addressing issues ranging from climate change to the lack of women in tech to inequalities in the criminal justice system.
In the morning, representatives from different government agencies talked about the gains the administration has made in modernizing and the challenges remaining.
No longer, for example, do those visiting the White House have to submit their personal data by fax. Yet the goal of opening up government data remains a work in progress.
It’s the third time that the White House has gathered LGBT tech leaders. The first year was more of a get-to-know-each other session for about 170 invited guests. Last year’s gathering divided attendees into various interest areas and put them to work on a three-month project.
This year, more than 3,500 people applied, inspiring the idea for an even bigger conference in DC, dubbed TechUp, to will take place the week after the presidential election.
The afternoon work session was devoted to planning what such an event should focus on.
One group looked at health and mental health issues, noting how we live in a world where you can order a cheeseburger on demand from your phone, but still have a tough time finding a doctor near you or knowing how much a hospital procedure should cost.
Another group focused on the complexities of collecting data from the LGBT community. Historically, the government hasn’t gathered much information, making it hard to tell where LGBT Americans are underrepresented.
Meanwhile, there are all manner of labels that people use in describing their sexuality and gender, and those terms have shifted over time. The group wrestled with how governments and businesses can seek data in a way that allows people to self-identify but has enough rigor to be statistically useful.
Also an issue: Even well-intentioned data collection could put people at risk, especially if that information is not properly protected or is shared in the wrong circumstances. So how do you get more data, thoughtfully and safely.
That’s one of the topics the group hopes the November conference can start to answer.
“Everybody wants to get it right, but there’s also a need to get it,” said Donna Riley, a professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech. “If we argue for 10 years about how to get it, we are missing 10 years.”
At one point, U.S. Chief Data Scientist D.J. Patil stopped by, urging the group to consider the dangers of mishandling data and the algorithms that use the data while seconding Riley’s concern that legitimate concern not lead to inaction. Some laws, he said, are only written or edited every 20 to 50 years, and if the data isn’t collected, the laws will fail to address the needs of the LGBT community.
Inclusivity was a focus for both Tuesday’s event and the November gathering. Organizer Leanne Pittsford, head of Lesbians Who Tech, made sure that people from significant companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook were part of the conversation. But even more attention was given to ensuring diversity, with the event consisting of more women than men, more than 50 percent people of color and 20 percent people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
While most of the day was work, there were a number of lighthearted moments, including when statistician Jennifer Park had trouble with her slides.
“Who’s a tech person in the room,” she asked, to significant laughter.
And the event’s agenda was briefly scrapped midmorning for two surprise guests—presidential dogs Bo and Sunny. The attendees quickly gathered around the two Portuguese water dogs for a photo.
At the end of day, as the event was wrapping up with a reception in the Indian Treaty Room, attendees rushed to the windows at the sound of a helicopter’s rotors whirring. Dozens of attendees whipped out their cellphones to try to catch a glimpse of President Obama, who had returned on Marine One after spending the day touring flood damage in Louisiana.