When local entrepreneur Josh Knauer first got the call in May, telling him the White House needed his expertise in bioinformatics — the field of managing and analyzing biological data — the news caught him off-guard.
“It was a neat surprise,” said Knauer, a transplant from New Jersey, and a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, whom the Obama administration recently tapped to serve on the Working Group on Biodiversity Preservation and Ecosystem Sustainability.
The BPES is part of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which provides advice to the president.
“Somebody in the [White House] Office of Science and Technology must have suggested me for this position,” Knauer said. “I never lobbied for it. I was never even aware of these working groups.”
Knauer, CEO of Rhiza Labs, which makes software for collecting and mapping data, has worked for years on conservation issues and data management, and has made a name for himself within those industries. As one of the 15 members of the BPES, he is identifying priorities and best practices in managing the data generated by the billions of dollars in federal research funding on our planet and its ecosystems.
“The gist is, there are huge volumes of data produced,” he said. “The question is: what do you do with the data generated? If the data is federally funded, I believe that data should be shared with the public, and be available for other uses.”
The concept is known as “open data,” and Knauer is working to develop recommendations for standardizing how that data can be defined, collected and published by federal agencies to facilitate collaboration between various organizations.
Knauer, who since 1995 has developed six nonprofit organizations as well as three start-up businesses, never had federal policy-making on his to-do list, but he is now inspired by the possibilities.
“Working with the group is very humbling for me,” he said. “I realize how much potential influence we could have on the policies being generated. It may be that we could issue a recommendation to the president, and he could issue it as a directive. The importance of the task is what has become awe-inspiring to me.”
Although the position is unpaid, and requires a lot of time and energy, Knauer is more than happy to give back to his country.
“It’s the idea of public service, going back to my Jewish upbringing,” he said. “It’s what we’re taught to do.”
Knauer is no stranger to lending his expertise for the good of the community. He has served on the boards of directors of Temple Sinai, the Regional Development Funding Corporation, the Organic Trade Association’s Fiber Council and the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club. He is currently on the board of directors of the Institute for Global Communications, the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, the EnviroLink Network and Rhiza Labs. He is also an active member of the Social Venture Network, where he mentors young entrepreneurs on how to run socially responsible businesses.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)