Meet the Presidential Innovation Fellows

The Obama White House
14 min readAug 17, 2015

(And Learn Why President Obama Just Made This Program Permanent)

Today, with an Executive Order, President Obama made the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program a permanent part of the Federal government going forward. The program brings entrepreneurs, executives, technologists, designers and other innovators into government, and teams them up with Federal employees to improve programs that serve more than 150 million Americans.

Since the launch of the program in 2012, 96 top innovators have been recruited into this highly-competitive program from across the country, including places like: Silicon Valley, New York, Austin, Washington, D.C. and Boston.

The program is on the lookout for more talented innovators and technologists to join the team and work on our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Fellows serve for 12 months as embedded entrepreneurs-in-residence, working quickly and iteratively to turn promising ideas into game-changing solutions.

Apply online at

What We’ve Been Working On:
Stories from the Presidential Innovation Fellows and Leadership

The Police Data Initiative. (Photo by Ryan Panchadsaram) The first moveForward(100) event with digital service teams across government. (Photo by Matthew McAllister) The President meeting with Megan Smith and Dr. John Holdren (Photo by Pete Souza)

Megan Smith
U.S. Chief Technology Officer

The tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States is one of our greatest national assets. It is an evolving and evergreen tradition: At no point in our history have we been without passionate innovators who have used the technology, innovation, and design thinking of their time to advance solutions to pressing problems and needs — and move our country forward.

Our Founders had these skills — they, of course, were statesmen, writers, leaders, orators, organizers — they were also inventors, engineers and systems thinkers. George Washington founded what is now the Army Corps of Engineers prior to the founding of the United States, knowing that technical capability and ingenuity were needed.

The innovator’s seat at the table is part of our longstanding American tradition.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program gives our country a powerful mechanism to ensure that the most current cross-functional innovative thinking can be part of our governance. That technology innovation and design talent can join expert colleagues already in government and together address the greatest challenges our leaders are facing.

Like similar Federal and external fellowships designed to bring top American talent to serve in our government — White House Fellowships, Presidential Management Fellowships, Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and others — the Presidential Innovation Fellows program gives us a path for bringing talent with the latest innovative approaches and technology skills into the Federal government for a burst of time.

Fellows have already delivered extraordinary value for the American people in just the first three years.

We can only imagine the kind of impact we will see year after year as the program supports this top American talent to collaborate and innovate with colleagues across government — providing great value, lowering costs, and together solving the many challenges we face as a nation.

The Presidential Innovation Fellow Leadership Team — Ben, Garren, Nathan, Smita, Andrew, and Puja (Photo by Jeff Chen)

Garren Givens (2013 Fellow)
Director of Presidential Innovation Fellows Program

In building the Presidential Innovation Fellows program to meet the challenges of our great nation, we must ourselves reflect the diversity that makes our country so great to begin with.

We believe that good ideas, just like good design, stem from empathy; and that creativity stems from a richness of experience and context.

The team that manages the PIF program is a great example of this diversity, which cuts across all dimensions of geography, age, skill, race, gender, professional and life experiences.

As a team, we’ve been empowered to look across the vast federal government for change agents and forward-thinkers working on complex challenges. We home in on problems where new ideas and new technology will enable us to design new solutions and gain valuable insights quickly. We then look to the private sector and focus on building a large pool of candidates with experiences, skills, and backgrounds as diverse as the challenges they will face here in government.

To date, we’ve enjoyed amazing success, attracting leaders from top tech companies, academia, non-profits, and startups. Together with their federal partners, all of these Fellows have helped deliver amazing results. What binds them and us together is that we all are working to create the best possible government, and that all represent the change we want to see. If you believe you are one of us, we invite you to apply!

Ryan Panchadsaram demoing the Digital Analytics Dashboard to the President (Photo by Pete Souza)

Ryan Panchadsaram (2012 Fellow)
U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer

Just like companies, the Federal government must focus on serving its customers. That customer is the American public. That’s why the first “play” in the Digital Services Playbook we put out last year focused on “understanding what people need.”

By understanding the needs of the people, we can design better programs, and better policies to serve them, which benefits all of us.

In other words, we can create a more responsive and agile government that acts like the best companies we find in the private sector.

As a Presidential Innovation Fellow, you are an “entrepreneur-in-residence” working alongside other talented civil servants within agencies. I can tell you firsthand that you will be inspired by the commitment and dedication of your partners at those agencies. Together, you will work as a team, building on each of your unique experiences to strive for results at “startup speed,” which is months — not years.

Our team’s mission at the White House is to ensure the United States continues to be the best place for engineers and technologists. Part of that mission is making sure the best people and practices from the private sector are infused into government.

With each success, we are changing how government works and serving people better. If you think there is a part of government that could be improved, roll up your sleeves and come serve. We need more Americans like you in public service.

Cities participating in the Police Data Initiative (Graphic by Chris Wong) & Student helps Police Superintendent Harrison write his first line of code (Photo by Tyler Gamble of the New Orleans Police Department)

Dr. Clarence Wardell III & Denice Ross (2014 Fellows)
Police Data Initiative

Prior to joining this program, Clarence was working as research scientist and social entrepreneur. Denice was working as an open data evangelist to local government and non-profits. Despite our different backgrounds, we both joined the Presidential Innovation Fellows program with a commitment to social justice and the drive to use our year of service for maximum impact.

As the issue of policing reform took hold in the national consciousness, we saw an opportunity to use open data to help improve the national dialogue and build community trust.

Our proposal was this: Create a new culture of open data in law enforcement agencies where police collaborate with their tech counterparts in local government and the community to publicly release incident-level, structured, machine-readable data on policing. These data sets go beyond the typical release of crime incidents, and include officer-involved shootings, vehicle and pedestrian stops, and community meetings attended.

We successfully pitched the idea to our White House colleagues, and a few months later, the President announced the launch of the Police Data Initiative, of which our open data concept is one of two central pillars. There are now 21 jurisdictions participating in the effort, which is intended to catalyze a new era in open data as a critical part of the response to national priorities.

The participating cities have begun to develop a vibrant community of practice around how best to not only collect and publish data, but how to use it to drive local dialogue and build community trust. For instance, we’ve already seen innovations in one city serve as inspiration to others, such as New Orleans previewing policing data sets with a group of young coders and their tech mentors.

Images from the Photos VA Center for Innovation and their field work report.

Mollie Ruskin (2013) & Sarah Brooks (2014)
Human-Centered Design for Veterans

We have been part of a larger effort to bring human-centered design to the Department of Veterans Affairs. It has been incredible to witness how — alongside leaders and advocates within the organization — we are creating waves which are beginning to have lasting impact.

We both spent countless hours traveling across the country speaking directly with Veterans about their experiences at VA.

We reflected those voices back to the organization in ways that can contribute to making service delivery at VA more predictable, consistent and easy.

To see the impact of our findings and the adoption of these methods is humbling. There’s still immense work to be done, but this organization now has a better understanding of their customers — America’s Veterans, their families and supporters.

We both came to the Fellowship with similar backgrounds in service design for social impact and civic engagement. We feel very grateful to be part of such a diverse, collaborative, committed network of people working hand-in-hand with agency partners as part of this incredible civic service design movement.

Aaron Snow & Hillary Hartley (2013 Fellows)
Building and Scaling 18F

When we were Fellows, Deputy CTO Jen Pahlka talked a lot about “PIF-iness” — the signature traits of PIFs. These included a bias toward action over talk and open systems over closed ones. PIFs were humble, curious, diplomatic, and empathetic, she said. They had an outsider perspective, a willingness to challenge assumptions, and — most of all — a drive to serve.

In the spirit of those qualities, nineteen months ago today, nine Fellows and one gifted, dedicated bureaucracy sherpa held the first meeting of what became 18F, the digital consultancy inside the General Services Administration.

It might be the “PIF-iest” thing we’ve ever done.

We eschewed talk and just started building stuff, in the open, putting users first, listening to our agency partners and finding ways to help them deliver great digital solutions to the public.

Now, 18F is home to over 110 specialists who provide digital delivery, consulting, infrastructure, vendor marketplace, and talent services in partnerships with nearly every major Federal agency. Every day we’re grateful that PIF made it possible.

Images courtesy of American Red Cross and British Red Cross; Canadian Forces; and Kathmandu Living Labs

Mikel Maron (2014 Fellow)
Crowd Mapping for Disaster Response

MapGive is the State Department’s public diplomacy program to support OpenStreetMap in humanitarian response and development. As part of this global community, among many other partners and volunteers, MapGive helps with imagery and technical services, event support, getting the word out and networking. The goal is to get up-to-date, actionable data and maps in the hands of humanitarians — and especially local communities — to better respond, plan logistics, trace locations of people in need, and identify resources.

In the face of disaster risk around the globe, the best we can hope for is good preparation and local mapping communities.

In Nepal, Kathmandu Living Labs had built data and capacity in advance of the earthquake, and during the response became the focal point for the international and local response, guiding specific mapping needs.

With MapGive, the State Department is putting forward an ambitious program, allowing a government entity to engage with the technical community I come from. The Fellowship was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help bring a new way of working together into the government.

People are doing amazing work across government, but it’s not always obvious how to work across institutional barriers. With the right technology to trigger the right mindset, massive collaboration is absolutely possible.

Images courtesy of Steven Goetsch, McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia

Andrea Ippolito (2014 Fellow)
Prosthetic & Assistive Technology Challenge

We launched a program called the VA Innovation Creation Series where our aim was to accelerate the development of personalized assistive technologies and prosthetics to improve care and quality of life for Veterans faced with disabilities. We’ve developed 150 designs (and counting) of 3D-printed assistive technologies and prosthetics and have made them available to the public.

This means that people in their communities can create, upload, and adapt existing designs for people that they know.

This not only benefits Veterans, but also helps patients faced with disabilities across the country and world.

For me, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program created this amazing entryway to come to the Federal government and make a difference. This was made possible by the passionate employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who I have been honored to learn from and collaborate with throughout my fellowship experience.

Photo Credit: Evan Golub 2015. Left: Testing the Every Kid in a Park Initiative with Kids. Right: Kids sharing their “Big Big Ideas” back to the group. Seated is Secretary Jewell.

Chris Goranson (2014 Fellow)
Every Kid in a Park

Government is full of hardworking, industrious and creative people. During my fellowship, I was regularly inspired by those who serve as our stewards of public lands and waters within the U.S. Department of the Interior. These individuals work incredibly hard to protect and promote our country’s natural treasures, and had no shortage of innovative ideas to explore through technology. Having grown up in Colorado, this was an opportunity to bring technology and an appreciation for the outdoors together.

Whether the work involved showcasing APIs for customers of recreation data, incorporating an agile methodology into business practices, or developing web services designed for 4th graders, there were numerous opportunities to improve public services.

The Every Kid in a Park initiative also provided an opportunity to hear directly from our users. Testing our design ideas with the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab Kid’s Team reminded us of the creativity that can come from young minds.

In the end, it means a better service for all of us — we just have to listen.

NOAA’s ships, along with its buoys, satellites, and sensors, collect tens of terabytes of data daily (Photo by Crew and Officers of NOAA Ship Fairweather)

Maia Hansen & Alan Steremberg (2014 Fellows)
Big Data at NOAA

We became PIFs because we believe in the mission of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and in the promise of open data.

Every day, NOAA saves lives and protects property using the vast stores of environmental data it collects, and some of this same data already supports multi-billion dollar private industries such as weather forecasting.

We’ve been working to increase availability and application of NOAA data through research and development agreements with Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and the Open Cloud Consortium. These cloud providers will be working with NOAA to create open platforms where private industry, academia, and individual innovators can access NOAA data on a completely new scale, without increased infrastructure cost to taxpayers.

Cloud-based data access opens up countless opportunities to combine the power of commercial cloud platforms and government data, resulting in new products, analytics, and collaborations that could literally change the world.

President meeting with first round Fellows in 2013 (Photo by Pete Souza) & Todd Park speaking to four rounds of Fellows last week (Photo by Lea Shanley)

Todd Park
Technology Advisor to the White House

At a recent gathering of Presidential Innovation Fellows past and present, current Fellows and alumni of the program who have elected to stay in government presented work they’ve done over the past year.

It was stunning. Fellows showed how they had partnered with people across government to crowdsource improved designs for prosthetics for veterans and better mapping data to aid disaster response; open up vast new reservoirs of government weather data as raw material for private sector innovation; co-found the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, the foundations of a new ecosystem devoted to helping government deliver great digital services to the American public at radically lower cost; and much more.

Immersed in what seemed like an endless parade of innovations, I was overwhelmed by emotion — by gratitude — as an American to a growing group of amazing people who are helping to transform our government dramatically for the better, shipping one innovation at a time.

What our Presidential Innovation Fellows have done, teamed up with remarkable civil servants across government, is nothing less than the creation of a movement — an expanding network of startup initiatives that are remaking government from the inside out. It’s a movement that is already much more powerful than we could have possibly envisioned when we created the Fellows program in 2012. And it’s a movement that has the very real potential to incorporate lean startup, open innovation, and modern digital service development approaches into the heart of how government operates — improving lives, saving lives, saving taxpayer dollars, and benefiting the future of the nation in countless profound ways.

And whether its momentum continues is a function of one thing above all other things: Will amazing innovators across America continue to sign up to serve our country?

I hope and believe that they will — powered by the deep love of country and our fellow Americans that binds our movement together.

Let’s make it a new tradition in America: If you’re the best of the best at lean startup, open innovation, and digital service development, consider a tour of duty serving our country to be an essential part of a truly fulfilling life.

And if you are one of those Americans, help further that tradition by applying now to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow. Join the movement, and help change the future of our nation and the world for the better.

Become a Presidential Innovation Fellow and serve as an agent for change, helping shape our country. Learn more at

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