We had the opportunity to speak with Dan Hammer, the recent recipient of the inaugural Pritzker Award and third-round PIF, about his time in the PIF Program and his current work on Overview News.
What are you currently working on? How did you get involved in this project?
I am working on a nonprofit project to make environmental information more accessible to journalists, called Overview News. I started this project with a personal hero, Steve McCormick, who previously ran The Nature Conservancy and the Moore Foundation. He left these high-powered and distinguished institutions to search for a way to boost the use of environmental data. Satellite imagery for journalists is the least-cost, highest impact way to do that. Our stories have already received hundreds of millions of views.
What are you most excited about with this project?
I know that it is going to work. The reason I know it’s going to work is because I had built another platform called Global Forest Watch, which has received about 4.5 million visits from different people since it was launched in 2014. Most of those visits were generated by news stories that were using the information about deforestation gained from satellite imagery in the service of their reporting. Now, since it worked for deforestation, we’re looking at where the spikes in usage came from and figuring out how to operationalize those spikes. We’re going to double down on those spikes. Just by providing this service for the wildfires in Northern California and the Rohingya Crisis [in Myanmar] we’ve seen hundreds of millions of views, compared to the five and a half million from the previous project. We’re seeing a big difference in what people are viewing, who’s actually viewing it and how they’re planning to view this information, but we’re already seeing success. That’s really exciting to be able to get started while knowing that this is going to work and having a pretty good sense of what we need to do. It’s nice to have that sort of certainty.
Where do you see the project going from here?
Effectively becoming a newswire of satellite imagery, with the ability to push these stories out to news outlets just like how they receive stories from Reuters or the Associated Press. Journalists would get these news images coming directly from satellites. So far, the imagery is primarily used by the defense department. All satellite image providers right now are primarily defense contractors. All we’re doing now is taking the images that are effectively “left on the cutting room floor” and using them for environmental and humanitarian applications.
How did your time with the PIF program influence the work you do now?
I was at NASA and I had been working on their web services. This is directly related to my current work -- since I was building the web services for Mars and Earth imagery. Those projects received a lot more views that anything I had ever worked on before. Granted, there’s built-in demand for government information, but it was still kind of striking that just reducing the cost to access that information yielded so much usage. The Astronomy Picture of the Day API was receiving approximately ten million hits per month, if I remember correctly. Astronomy Picture of the Day has been going since 1995, but all I did was make it marginally easier for developers to access, repurpose and use it. It’s sort of the same concept here, but for commercial imagery - just providing easier access.
Why did you become a PIF?
I saw this as the most effective way for me to publicly serve, given my limited skill set. I’m not able to parachute down and save people in a war zone or do heroic things. But I can deal with data and this is the way in which I can most effectively use those skills for the provision of public goods and services. That’s the whole point of government - to provide those public goods and services.
What surprised you the most about your time in the PIF program?
I couldn’t believe they let me in the room! I spent a lot of time with the administrator of NASA and I worked for Megan [Smith], the Chief Technology Officer of the United States. It was an incredible opportunity. I don’t feel like I’m not more qualified than any other person that applied but it worked out for me. I was in a room with people who were brilliant and smart but also needed help and I could actually help. That was the biggest surprise - that I could actually help.
What was the most thrilling moment for you?
My dad is a professor of economics at Princeton and I was talking to Charlie Bolden, who told me I should bring him in so we all could talk about the economic value of data. So I got to bring my dad to work. It was awesome. We met and talked about the economic value of data with the administrator, his chief of staff and one of my professors from college who was serving as the chief economist for USAID at the time. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a PIF?
The whole point of entrepreneur-in-residence is that there’s not a clear metric of success. You have to find that on your own and you only have a year. I was fortunate enough to work with people who could help guide me and give me enough latitude to figure out what I could do and be helpful with. So instead of just marginally improving the current project, they helped me find these new projects that could benefit from my knowledge and expertise. It’s an accelerated time frame. At the time, with the way the program was structured, I was working by myself without any other PIFs. We would come back together once a week, but for the most part, I was on my own. It was a real rush to figure out how to be successful within that structure and build a successful project.
What was the metric you used to measure your success?
I focused on outcomes I would want as an avid consumer of Earth observation and NASA data, the things I’d want to see. I had access behind the scenes and was able to do things that you could only do behind the firewall. I am probably (and I can say this because how are you going to evaluate this?) the most appreciative consumer of NASA data in the world. Knowing I wasn’t going to be there forever, I took this as a chance to do things for my future self and improve access to NASA data in ways I believed consumers would find useful.
Who influenced you the most as a PIF? Or who served as a mentor or guide to you?
Garren Givens. I mean, there were a lot of people throughout my time in the program as well as all my colleagues at NASA, but there’s something to be said about having someone who really goes to bat for you. Garren was that guy for me. And he still is that guy.
What were the key sources of support you used as a PIF?
I found a lot of support in the broader community and I still keep in touch with other fellows. It’s an amazing community to be a part of - we had regular times that we would meet up. My wife was back in San Francisco that whole time, so I would sort of fly back as much as I could, but my community in DC was the Fellows. That was a powerful motivation. It felt very supportive.
Is there anything you would have done differently while you were a PIF?
Knowing now what I know, I would choose a different development path for sure. It took a learning curve of at least eight months to really hit a stride. A lot of that is learning about the organization and how it relates to other agencies. I would have done a lot more inter-agency work with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], for example, but I had enough trouble understanding NASA. And I don’t actually understand it at all, honestly! I learned a lot during my time.
What would you consider some of your other big successes as a PIF?
It gave me a chance to subsequently work with another part of the OSTP family. Working with the PIFs and at OSTP are great honors and wonderful experiences, which I wouldn’t have had without starting as a PIF. I can’t even believe they let me be a PIF, to be honest. I remember my first interview was with Sean Herron, who was a PIF who preceded me, and Stacy Kane, [Deputy Director of the PIF Program (2014) and Executive Director of the Washington Leadership Academy], and I think they had had a string of terrible interviews before me and I was just lucky to have the right time and place. I’m really thankful for those terrible interviewees before me.
What do you want other people to know about the PIF program?
There are all-stars in the Federal Government and I worked with them, but it’s a slow moving process. Even the best all-stars are subject to the heaviness of the Federal Government, so to be able to come in with the license to talk to administrators and really offer something that can be used is so rare. I don’t know that there’s any other program where people are so hungry to work with an outsider. That was a big win.
PIFs have those skills that are desperately needed in the Federal Government. You’re coming in with an outside perspective and you have the license to be able to operate outside of the large scale mechanisms of the Federal government, to a certain extent. And they want you to do that, which is so weird and awesome. It’s great to be in that position.
What do you think will change in the PIF program and/or the government in the next 5 years?
I have no idea. It’s changed a lot even since I’ve been aware and around. I was privileged to be a PIF during a time when you had lots of access and a level of freedom which is, again, very rare. I don’t know how that may change over time, but I hope that PIFs keep having the ability to build stuff. For example, code that I was working on still lives in the Federal Government. The fact that you can leave behind actual stuff at the highest levels and push on things in a way that is semi-permanent is a very cool aspect of the PIF program. You’re able to create something that is lasting and make that change at the highest levels of the branches. Since the government is a hierarchy, things can take a while to percolate up, so to be able to bypass that and leave something lasting behind was very powerful.
What do you hope the PIFs will work on next?
I want them to build things that they would want to use themselves. My advice is to take ownership over these processes.
For example, I hate not knowing where my tax refund is or having to login multiple times to different websites across the Federal ecosystem. People should fix that and the PIFs are in a position to do that. They actually have already done that. They haven’t solved in completely yet, but they are moving the needle.
What advice do you have for other people who want to affect change in the world?
I think the important thing to remember is that government is not just the Federal Government; in fact, it’s mostly local government and to be able to get involved in public service at the local level is a big deal and it’s accessible. It’s not crazy hard to get started there. It’s not a wildly competitive application process. It could be as simple as helping a community center with a Squarespace page.
What's next for you? What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to seeing where this project goes and I see it as a having a major impact. I love the people I work with. I’m working on something I care about with people that I really like -- that’s a big deal.