/ 23 January 2009

Tech-savvy Obama keeps online lifeline

Barack Obama is likely to become the United States’s first emailing president, as part of sweeping changes to the way the White House uses technology aimed at making his presidency the most open and connected in history.

After several months of questions over whether avid BlackBerry user Obama would be able to continue using email while in office, reports suggest that secret service agents have approved the use of a highly protected cellphone for personal email.

Past presidents have eschewed email for a mixture of security and legal reasons. George Bush sent his last email shortly before taking office in 2001, and there is no computer in the Oval Office.

The news that he has been sanctioned for personal email will come as a relief to Obama, who had said he was so attached to his BlackBerry that “they’re going to have to prise it out of my hands”.

Within seconds of his swearing-in on Tuesday, the White House website was given a facelift, with a series of additions aimed at internet-savvy Americans.

As well as a weekly video address — which goes out on YouTube — the site contains a blog written by advisers and detailed descriptions of his agenda.

“WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement,” wrote Macon Phillips, the White House’s director of new media.

Using the site to gauge public opinion and gather feedback would translate some of the successes of the Obama campaign, which used its website, email and text messages to help raise unprecedented funds and give the illusion of a direct connection between the candidate and the millions of people who signed up to support him.

Despite revelling in its high-tech image, the Obama administration still has decisions to make about its approach to technology. Among them is the choice of chief technology officer (CTO), a new post that many hope will be filled by a senior figure from Silicon Valley who can help to lift the US economy out of recession.

Although many names have been thrown around over the past few months — including Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, and Apple’s boss, Steve Jobs — the administration has yet to make a public decision. It is believed the shortlist has narrowed to two candidates; Padmasree Warrior, the chief technical officer of computer networking giant Cisco, and Vivek Kundra, who has the same job for the government of Washington, DC.

“I think President Obama’s CTO should be from Silicon Valley,” said Tom Foremski, a technology industry pundit. “We have some very capable people here, but more importantly it would serve as a fantastic recognition that we have a national treasure here.”

Among Obama’s ambitious plans is a scheme to fully computerise the US health system with electronic medical records. The proposal — which would cost $50-billion over five years — is aimed at upgrading the American medical system and eliminating bureaucratic waste caused by keeping paper records.

However, the scheme’s main precedent, the £13-billion programme to computerise the NHS, may not fill fans with optimism. The NHS project, which is the world’s biggest public IT scheme, is running four years behind schedule and has been plagued by problems. — guardian.co.uk