Megan Smith: ‘More APIs, Less RFPs’

One of the White House's top IT advisers stopped by a weekend hackathon sponsored by the Interior and Agriculture departments.

Megan Smith popped out of her seat during a hackathon held this weekend at the Interior Department.

“This is so awesome,” the first woman chief technology officer told a team of developers who were answering questions about an idea to merge parks data with facts about movies shot on federal lands. “So, a little, tiny suggestion …”

Smith, who has spoken at length about the importance of encouraging women and minorities to pursue science careers, suggested the developers include facts about female characters in the featured films. “Out of every four characters in children’s TV, only one’s a girl,” she told the developers. “It’s really important for [girls] to see themselves in the parks,” she said later.

Smith was getting in the spirit of the myAmerica Developers Summit, an effort to encourage developers to tap public lands data to create new products and applications. During the last few hours of the two-day event, teams were presenting their ideas, offering feedback on other projects and looking for ways to collaborate.


Smith, who took her fourth grade son Alex to the event, told FedScoop she sees potential for more hackathons and datapaloozas in government.

“This is part of all the momentum that existed in industry,” she said on the sidelines of the presentations. “Government is joining in on their best practice.”

Since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has released 130,000 datasets, she said, and there’s been a wave of interest in using that data. The Labor Department was recently involved in a jobs hackathon, the General Services Administration held another symposium to make government websites more accessible to blind and deaf users, and Energy Department held its own event on data related to energy. But Smith said there is a particular hunger for information about public lands — including, national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and tracts held by the Bureau of Land Management

Organizers of the myAmerica summit have “shown great leadership,” said Smith, who was recently recognized by FedScoop as one D.C.’s Top 50 Women in Tech.

Sponsored by the Interior and Agriculture departments, the myAmerica hackathon comes after several groups criticized the government for not doing enough to promote the use of open data in its plans for, a site that holds booking information on about 90,000 federal lands reservable sites. When agencies announced the event, they also debuted a new API, or application programming interface, that allows the public to access planning and booking-related recreation data.


Sitting with Smith and taking notes during the presentations was Jason Goldman, a former Silicon Valley guru who started his new job as White House chief digital officer last week.

“As I’ve come into this role, just asking people for help and perspective has been one of the most useful things for me to learn how I can approach this job and be of service,” he told FedScoop.

Dozens of attendees came from across the country to take part, including Joseph Knox, a developer for the startup Topophi, who had flown in from the West Coast. He said a member of his team originally heard about the hackathon from a coworker.

“We all looked at it … and then we all bought tickets the next day,” said Knox, whose company brings together permitting, public lands trails, regulations and parking information from various government sites and puts it into one searchable database. He said the event has served as a great way to make connections and show off their work.

Tim Fullerton, Interior’s director of new media, said many of the teams, like Topophi, came in with ideas in place. In fact, one group came in asking the agencies to add park visitation data to their new API for their product, which the agencies did. Overall, he said, Interior and Agriculture were floored by the success of the event.


“This is the beginning of the conversation,” Fullerton said. “At the end of the day, this is going to make the public’s experience on public lands better.”

Speaking during the conclusion of the event, Smith touched on one of her favorite talking points: getting more technical people into government.

“Government will be what we make of it — or not,” she said.

As Silicon Valley tech leaders continue to inundate the ranks of federal government IT, Smith, herself a Google alumna, pitched moving away from old systems and pursuing technologies like open source and APIs.

“We just need to leapfrog there — that’s what today’s about,” she said. “More APIs, less RFPs,” she added.

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