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Charting a course from virtual reality to the White House

President Obama's deputy CTO was a leading legal expert on virtual worlds and tech patent issues before joining the administration.

Beth Noveck is deputy chief technology officer for the Obama administration. Her path to that role began with putting together the first academic conference on virtual worlds and led her to create what may be the first open social networking project in American government history, a re-working of the U.S. patent review process known as peer-to-patent.
Flickr user Joi Ito

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles discussing how people in the tech industry are working with or around federal and state governments.

Can you chart a logical path from a 2003 academic conference on the legal issues surrounding virtual worlds and online games to Barack Obama's first executive action as president?

Beth Noveck can.

If you're not familiar with her--and few outside her specific professional and social circles would be--Noveck, a 38-year-old lawyer originally from Toms River, N.J., is Obama's deputy chief technology officer for open government.

Precisely what "open government" means probably depends on whom you ask. But in her official role in the current presidential administration, Noveck framed it as an attempt to make our federal institutions embrace technology in a bid to share information with the public.

"Open government is the effort to create government institutions that are more transparent," Noveck explained, "that work more in the open and that provide information more readily online and in real time--and that are also more participatory."

On January 21, as many in Washington, D.C. were still shaking off hangovers from the inaugural parties the night before, Obama, in his first official action as president, signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open government, a short document that declared, "We shall work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

Noveck (see video below) was a principal contributor to the memorandum, and the first member of the Obama-Biden transition's Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform team, which advised the president-elect on ways to incorporate technology into his larger reform goals. So one could say that the new president's adoption of these concepts was a very high-profile validation of years of Noveck's work on a wide range of issues revolving around technology policy and using technology to help craft policy.

Indeed, her work over the years has won her not just an office in the White House, but the professional admiration and praise of some of the biggest names in technology.

"With a compelling blend of high theory and practical know-how," Google CEO Eric Schmidt wrote in a back-cover review of her 2009 book, "Wiki Government," "Beth Noveck explains how political institutions can directly engage the public to solve complex problems and create a better democracy."

Or, as former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown put it in talking about the "constitution" of new technological systems, Noveck "has a very long history of being one of the most advanced thinkers on change institutions to make a big difference."

State of Play
Noveck earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard University and then both a law degree from Yale Law School and a doctoral degree from the University of Innsbruck. Throw in a fellowship at Oxford and it's easy to see that she was headed toward a career in academia. While she worked for a time as a telecommunications and Internet attorney, she eventually settled into a position on the faculty of New York Law School.

It was there that Noveck first began attracting public attention. In 2003, not long after the virtual worlds Second Life and launched, and as massively multiplayer online games like Everquest were becoming established in the mainstream, Noveck put together the first State of Play conference as a place to talk about whether these relatively new digital fun houses might actually be used to help change the world.

"My supposition is that virtual worlds are going to be the best training ground for teaching the practices of democracy, not simply simulations that passively demonstrate something," Noveck said at the time. "They offer a playground for complex social interactions and collaborative decision making, according to a set of rules defined by the game space."

It might have been tempting to laugh, but Noveck's brainchild attracted lawyers and academics from some of the best schools in the country, eager to talk about what they saw as one of the newest and most exciting fields of study.

After all, outside of a few research papers and articles, almost no one had ever bothered to put any real thought into the idea that virtual worlds could foster real society, and all the legal, financial, intellectual, and social opportunities and problems that come along with that.

"It was the first conference that took virtual worlds seriously," said Dan Hunter, today a New York Law School legal studies professor, but back then at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "It felt like the Woodstock moment for all these people and...a catalyst for people to start writing about it and for people like me to start looking at the legal and governance side of it."

Added Hunter, Noveck "managed to realize what no one else had (understood) all that clearly, that there was an opportunity to bring people together, and that there was a nascent movement there....(That) was kind of characteristic of her. She's really fast at picking up on movements and ideas people can come together around."

Peer to patent
For Noveck, being the prime instigator of a burgeoning intellectual field of study was a career boost. But it was likely another big move of hers that got her to the big time.

In 2005, still at New York Law School and still running State of Play, she began thinking about a different, though related, set of issues.

In her Introduction to Intellectual Property course, she put students through a grueling look at the American patent law process. One glaring hole, she knew, was that while the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office employs thousands of trained examiners, few are versed in the cutting edge of technology and scientific research.

"(An examiner) does not necessarily have a Ph.D. in science, and there is little opportunity on the job for continuing education," Noveck wrote in "Wiki Government." "As an expert in patent examination, she is not and is not expected to be a master of all areas of innovation."

This problem clearly bothered Noveck, and it was partly responsible for a huge backlog causing lengthy delays in the patent review process.

Inspired, Noveck crafted a blog post, Peer- to-Patent: A Modest Proposal, in which she argued forcefully that the patent review system was woefully broken and that if social software--a fairly new concept in 2005--was applied to the process, it could make the system work better. Wouldn't it be better for countless experts to weigh in on applications rather than a single examiner, she argued?

The idea, like so many others born in blog posts, might have died there. But, alerted to her groundbreaking idea, a top IBM intellectual property attorney contacted her and asked to talk. This was no small development. IBM is the Patent Office's single biggest client, receiving more than 3,000 patents a year. If Big Blue thought there was something to her idea, she had found the right partner.

A little IBM grant money later, Noveck found herself pursuing the project and, she wrote in her book, "running the government's first open social networking project."

Other corporate titans followed IBM's lead: First Microsoft, then Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, and others. Each offered to submit their patents applications through Peer-to-Patent, and to provide funding. On June 15, 2007, Peer-to-Patent went live as an official U.S. Patent Office pilot project.

Now, the Patent Office is studying the pilot's results. And while it's not clear what the outcome will be, it is certain that Noveck continues to have friends in the right places, in this case, the new director of the Patent Office, David Kappos, who had served as the chair of the steering committee for Peer-to-Patent.

Open Government
As someone with a core belief--and the record to prove it--that technology can help re-shape government, Noveck decided to get involved in the 2008 presidential election as a very early volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign. Through a friend, Seth Harris, who was helping the campaign on labor and employment and disabilities issues--and who is now the deputy secretary of labor--Noveck found herself in a position, and with the access, to apply her unique set of skills.

"He knew that I knew a lot about technology and technology in government, in particular," Noveck recalled, "and helped to make the introduction so that I could share (that) expertise both on the issue of how to use technology in the campaign...and also how we think about technology and governance and the open government work that we are doing now to help shape that agenda."

Noveck speaking with Tim O'Reilly at the 2009 Web 2.0 Expo in New York. O'Reilly Conferences

Clearly, her efforts were appreciated--and rewarded. And the rest is history.

On December 8, 2009, the Obama administration's chief information officer, Vivek Kundra and chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, held a live Web cast to formally announce out the Open Government directive. Stemming from the president's January 21 executive action, the directive spelled out the administration's philosophy on achieving openness, transparency and collaboration.

It called for, among other things, each federal agency making publicly available, within 45 days, three "high-value" data sets; that within 60 days, the White House will launch an online dashboard intended to hold each agency accountable for the contents of the directive; and that within 120 days, each agency will create its own open government plan geared toward meeting the directive's philosophies.

Examples of projects the administration hopes for that are already in the works are an Army program under which its personnel can use wikis to collaboratively recraft the service's field manuals, and a Federal Aviation Administration program which made flight departure data publicly available, enabling a member of the public to build an iPhone app that lets people see the most accurate departure and arrival information.

Though many people worked on the directive, Kundra and Chopra named, and praised, only one: Noveck. To observers of the administration's open government efforts, this doubtless came as no surprise.

"It's clear that they have very firm intentions and that the administration does have a commitment to making very fundamental changes," said John Wonderlich, the policy director at the watchdog organization the Sunlight Foundation. "One of the ways we can see their commitment is that they have brought on someone like Beth to serve as a central point of contact for transparency issues."

Wonderlich also pointed to Noveck's Peer-to-Patent work as proof of her understanding of how to incorporate technology and wide public involvement in at least attempting to make government work better for the people at large.

Out-of-the-Beltway thinking to the Beltway
One reason she may be succeeding in government is that she's seen to be bringing new thinking to stodgy Washington.

"The deal is that she's bringing this...out-of-the-Beltway thinking to the Beltway," said Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who has worked with Noveck since Obama took office on open government issues involving the federal Veterans Administration. "She's one of the hubs of this, people who see how things work in Washington and see how things work in Silicon Valley, and bringing the best of both."

So how does all her work tie together? For Noveck, it begins with the evolution of three-dimensional visual technologies and the question of how to apply technological innovations for the greater public good.

"State of Play was always intended to be a look at whatever the latest tools are that help us to understand how we can collaborate and work together in a peaceful fashion," Noveck said. "And that's really the essence of what our political institutions do: create vehicles for us to work together to solve collective public problems....And for me, it's a very direct path from that set of ideas, that informed the creation of those conferences, to the development of the Peer-to-Patent platform for getting people involved in the patent process, to now, creating a national agenda on open government, and trying to bring together the technology worlds and the world of government institutions to improve the way we make decisions for all of our benefit."