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Uncle Sam Needs Techies and Vice Versa

October 18, 2016, 11:16 PM UTC

The Obama Administration has attracted some high-powered tech talent to do government work over the last eight years, but the need to recruit the best and brightest technologists to work in the public sector will continue past the current election.

Megan Smith and Michelle Lee, both former Google (GOOG) executives who are now federal employees, said that the tech and government sectors are a match made in heaven in many respects. Why? State, local, and federal government agencies have lots of data. And the right technologists can make that data useful, said Smith, the U.S. chief technology officer. Smith and Lee, who is the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), both spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Tuesday.

Lee emphasized the value of the patent records kept by her office that go back to 1790. The last 40 years of these documents are searchable by computer.

“In the old days the patents were in a shoebox held by Thomas Jefferson, the first patent examiner, so you had to go and get them. Now anyone with skills can mine that data,” Lee said.

The Obama administration focused both on modernizing the government’s technology infrastructure and making more government data available to the public, Smith said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, collects climate data while the U.S. Census Bureau, as Smith pointed out, has information about hundreds of millions of people going back decades.

“One lesson from the commercial sector is that the companies that have the most data and the best data have a competitive advantage,” Lee said. “The president recognized that generally and in particular that data gathered by the government is some of the most reliable, accurate data around.”

Tools are now available to help individual and companies use some of that government data to study demographic or other trends. And there are similar tools available to work with local data in some cities like Los Angeles, Smith said.

Companies that want to sell products or uncover information about consumer tastes could use this data.

“There is so much opportunity now. This feels like the beginning of the Internet back in 1997,” Smith noted.

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One of the administration’s key goals was to make sure technologists have a seat at the table on government projects instead of being cloistered in server rooms. “The president noticed at a high level that techies were not ‘in’ with their colleagues. They were either buried or sitting over in some contractor space. You need interaction, you need to have that tech knowledge,” Smith said.

Recognizing government techies as being part of the A-list probably helped agencies recruit top talent from Silicon Valley and other tech hotbeds. Smith said there are more than 400 people who used to work at Amazon (AMZN), Google, Twitter (TWTR), and Dropbox now working in Washington.

And that flow of talent between tech to government needs to continue. “If you look at lawyers, at some point in their career, most of them clerked for a judge. We didn’t have that in tech. Now there’s this idea of a tour of duty. Come in as an innovation fellow for a year.” Smith said.

Note: This story was updated to correct the attribution of one quote.