November 13, 2008, 8:26 PM — Barack Obama hasn't even appointed a chief technology officer yet, but thousands of people are using a new Web site to suggest and vote on ideas they think his CTO should work on.
Obama said last year that he'd be the first president to appoint a CTO. Speculation has such high-profile leaders as Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in the running, but the Obama team hasn't offered any hints about the candidate they are considering.
Whoever ends up with the job can look at the new Obama CTO Web site to see what issues the general public thinks should be made priorities. The site, created by Seattle's Front Seat, went live Wednesday and already has hundreds of ideas posted. The top idea, "ensure the Internet is widely accessible and network neutral," had more than 8,300 votes by Thursday afternoon.
Front Seat founder and chairman Mike Mathieu has no idea if anyone working for Obama knows the site exists. But perhaps reflecting the true bottom-up approach that his new Web site promotes, he said that someone who supposedly knows the person doing the CTO search for Obama told Mathieu he would send a link to the site to that person, but Mathieu has no idea if that actually happened.
Front Seat did very minimal promotion of the new site, amounting to several hundred e-mails sent to friends of Mathieu and his two colleagues. By Wednesday night the site was receiving a thousand or more votes per hour, he said.
The voting system isn't precise, but it's close enough to give an idea what people favor. Each visitor, based on their IP address, gets 10 votes on the site and is limited to three votes for any one item.
The second-most-popular idea, with 6,200 votes, is to repeal the Patriot Act in an effort to restore greater privacy rights for people. Other ideas include requiring government agencies to use open software, migrating to the metric measurement system, and restoring the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) "to its former glory and autonomy."
The relatively heavy early use of the site indicates the interest people have in participating in government, Mathieu said. "Based on the response, it's clearly a pent-up demand. People are craving that kind of participation. The idea that there will be a CTO, the nation's first, is a promising idea, and I think it's serving to get more of the tech community thinking about, 'Hey, we have a role to play in the way our country goes,'" he said.
The CTO site fits with Front Seat's mission of building Web sites and software for public service. The idea for the site came up after Mathieu attended the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco and started thinking about how to build Web sites very cheaply, an issue important for his company, which often doesn't earn any revenue from its sites. Front Seat is primarily interested in making a social impact and eschews revenue-earning mechanisms if they run counter to the Web site's mission, he said.
Including labor, Mathieu figures that building the Obama CTO site cost US$75. The site relies on free technology from UserVoice that lets anyone build a Web site where people can suggest ideas and vote on them. Front Seat also bears the back-end costs of supporting its Web sites.
"What we want to do is ultimately figure out how to build $0.50 sites that have civic value to them," he said.
Front Seat has also launched a site similar to the CTO one that collects ideas for Obama's urban policy officers. That site has about 45 ideas posted, and the top one has just over 500 votes.
Other Front Seat sites include Walk Score, which scores apartment and house locations based on how easy it is for someone living there to walk rather than drive, and CountMore.org, which lets students decide if their vote would be more useful in the state where they attend college or where they grew up.