Top Five Reasons Why Computer Scientists Should Support Obama
The upcoming election will significantly impact science and technology. Here are some specific things which the Obama administration has done which computer scientists might want to consider when going to the polls:
- Opposition to SOPA (and PIPA). Many netizens don't realize how significant, and politically brave, the administration's response to these bills was: As most of you will recall, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate Counterpart (PIPA) greatly threatened the openness of the Web. These bills were withdrawn after considerable anti-SOPA/PIPA activity on the Web. One of the key nails in the coffin of this legislation was the Administration's response to two We The People petitions requesting that the administration oppose this legislation (particularly the petition "VETO the SOPA bill and any other future bills that threaten to diminish the free flow of information"). The administration summarized their response this way: "the important task of protecting intellectual property online must not threaten an open and innovative internet." This response came out before the "Internet blackout," unlike many political responses which did not come out until afterwards. When one considers that Hollywood, one of the staunchest big-money supporters of the Democratic Party, was backing the legislation you realize that President Obama put his pro-technology principles ahead of his own political fund-raising needs. This alone would be enough to convince me to vote for him, but there's plenty more...
- Creation of "We The People." The petition mentioned above could not have happened without the We the People web site that was created by the administration as part of the Open Government Initiative. This Web site lets ordinary Americans, of any party, create a petition requesting a response from the White House. In the year since it was opened, more than eighty petitions have passed the 25,000 signature criterion and been responded to. These responses, maintained online, show publicly how the Administration responds to these bottom up initiatives. This bold experiment in open democracy was created by the White House itself, not in response to external demand but as an example of the kind of changes towards openness that this Administration has come to represent. From a computer scientist's viewpoint, this is not only an important piece of democratic reform, but clear evidence of this administration's understanding of how our technologies can be deployed to improve government.
- Cleaning up Government Spending on IT. Any computer scientist who has paid attention to prior governments' use of computers and computer infrastructure could tell you what a mess it was. In many cases, contractors were able to exploit a lack of government coordination across systems and acquisitions. This led to the deploying of systems that, in the best case, were inconsistent and generally incompatible and in the more typical case were neither cutting edge nor designed to the best modern practices. This had implications not just in wasted money in acquisitions but also, in all too many cases, to the deployment of systems with bad security practices, out of date code bases, and generally poor designs. One of President Obama's first acts after inauguration was the appointment of Aneesh Chopra as the first Chief Technology Officer of the US and Vivek Kundra as the first CIO of the US (this latter position had been created earlier, but not used). Aneesh and Vivek were given two main missions: open government, which I return to below, and fixing this acquisition mess. The solution that came about was the creation and use of the IT Dashboard website which, among other things, tracked all IT spending and projects for the Federal Government. The review of IT spending undertaken by Kundra saved the government over three billion dollars and also led to better practices in IT acquisition and development across the Executive Branch agencies. (see Video: Vivek Kundra, CIO Of United States, Talks IT Spending for more details).
- Creation of Data.gov and other open government sites. One of the first official acts taken by President Obama was to release the Transparency and Open Government Memorandum asserting that "My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government." Even opponents of this government, or transparency advocates who'd like to see even more transparency, have conceded that this administration is far more open than previous ones, and especially the Bush White House. For example, where Bush refused to release lists of who participated in White House meetings, the Obama administration has made these not only public, but also online and downloadable. In June of 2009, just months after the administration took office, they created the "Data.gov" website, which provides access to large amounts of government data -- in this, it's third year, over 400,000 datasets are available through the site, making it the world's largest government sharing site. This data comes from hundreds of different federal agencies and has been used by companies to create innovative products for travel, labor and insurance, education and much more. In addition, agencies throughout the executive branch have created a number of other sites for sharing data, documents and other government collections. The level of information and data made available for computer scientists and our students to use for data experimentation, open government research, and application development (and commercialization in many cases) is unprecedented. It's also worth noting that in 2010, when the Republicans took the House, the funding for these data sharing projects was cut drastically. Given Ryan's role in these cuts, it's pretty clear that a Romney-Ryan administration would not see this data sharing as any sort of priority, and certainly not as the high-priority, visible projects that the Obama administration has supported.
- Support for research and education in general, and computing research in specific. The administration's support for higher education is well-known , with examples such as preservation of the Pell grants in the face of proposals for significant cuts (the Ryan budget would slash these grants drastically), and the fight to maintain student loans. While one can argue about the context of Romney's statement that students should borrow money from their parents to go to College, it is clear that he would have to cut education tax breaks to afford maintaining the large tax cuts that he proposes (see the independent analysis linked to this story on the effects of Romney's proposals. ) Ryan is even worse, for example the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed Ryan's positions on a number of issues related to college education concluding in a number of cases that his positions would hurt students and colleges (except for "For-profit" colleges, which both Ryan and Romney continue to support despite the growing evidence of the damage these schools are doing to their graduates). More specifically, with respect to research funding in computer science, President Obama has consistently fought to preserve funding for basic research in computing at the NSF and NIH. His ARRA recovery act (opposed by Ryan and Romney) included large funding increases for both organizations, and the administration continues to support funding in critical computing areas, such as the support for the recent Big Data initiatives. Research funding in CS was hurt significantly under Bush's appointed DARPA Director while Obama, through both words and actions, has helped to improve the situation for computing research.
While I think there are many more aspects to this administration's support for computing, and many other problems for our field that would result from a Romney-Ryan administration, these are my top five.--- Jim Hendler, Computer Scientist