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Help needed at the White House?

PRINCETON — A Princeton native participated in a recent “think tank” exercise at the White House ... yes, the one in Washington, D.C.

Ben Parr, now based in San Francisco, was among an estimated 70 innovators from around the country invited to the Aug. 27 Data/Jam Think Tank organized and hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The purpose of the meeting was to come up with ways to improve disaster response and recovery efforts through the use of technology, including new tools, products, services, programs and apps.

Parr said he was selected for the Think Tank because of his deep knowledge of tech companies and tools which could be useful to FEMA’s efforts. Though he represented DominateFund, the company which he co-founded, selection was more about the minds and brainpower than the companies present, he said.

Describing the event, Parr said the day-long think tank was spent in small brainstorming groups, but the groups were switched up throughout the day to keep ides fresh. By the end of the day, the groups had created 10 actionable plans that the think tank is following up on and executing, he said.

Ideas ranged from creating a more efficient social media alert system (which the group coded and prototyped that very day) to creating a plan for distributing power to help people charge their cell phones and to contact loved ones through the use of things like crank chargers and power trucks, Parr said. Other ideas included ways to teach children about disaster preparedness and bringing Broadway entertainment to disaster areas to lift spirits. The ideas ran the gambit, Parr said.

FEMA will be primarily responsible for driving these initiatives forward, Parr said. This is still an experiment by FEMA and may take some time to figure out the best way to keep ideas, including those which future FEMA brainstorms generate, moving toward implementation, he said.

When asked if he thought the day was time well spent, Parr was quick with his answer.

“Absolutely. It was an honor to help the White House and FEMA find ways to improve first response and empower victims through innovation,” Parr said.

Being invited to the White House isn’t the only honor received by Parr in recent months.

In December, Parr was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the “Top 30 Under 30” in technology and applications. The magazine described its selections as their field’s brightest leaders, engaging, surprising and incredibly hard-working, representing the entrepreneurial, creative and intellectual best of their generation. Parr was photographed for the Forbes article with Matt Schlicht and Mazy Kazerooni as co-founders of DominateFund, a seed-stage capital fund investment firm.

Parr also has an upcoming book on the science and psychology of attention debuting next year. He is a columnist and commentator for CNET, a technology media website, and has extensive social media outlets, including Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and Google.

On Friday, Parr said it’s nice to be recognized for the work he has done and is doing, but that’s never the goal. He just picked something he wanted to accomplish and did the work to make that happen.

There’s no doubt that Parr has experienced a lot and accomplished a lot since leaving his hometown to attend college at Northwestern University. But in some ways, he’s not that different than what he was when he lived in Princeton, Parr said.

“My values haven’t changed all that much. I’m still a Midwestern man at heart,” Parr said.

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