We hear quite a bit about our Government wanting feedback.
Here is how its done in the US
Today’s and next week’s Fixes columns will focus on prizes and challenges as catalysts for innovation. This week, David Bornstein is taking a look at examples from the federal government’s open innovation strategies. Next week, Tina Rosenberg will explore how prizes have been used throughout history to accelerate innovation and will highlight examples of how they are being rediscovered today.
“A good government implies two things,” wrote James Madison in 1788. The first is “fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people.” The second is “a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.”
Over the past 224 years, those means have changed. Today, federal and local government agencies undertake challenges that Madison could scarcely have imagined – from space exploration to promoting mass access to higher education to addressing epidemics of obesity and diabetes, to protecting citizens and soldiers from terrorists. In a vast country like the United States in a world of lightning-fast change, it no longer makes sense to presume that governments possess, or even understand, the best ways to address pressing needs and promote “the happiness of the people.”
Today’s problems are complex and unpredictable. Similarly, the problem solving knowledge is not concentrated in any one agency, faculty, company or country. It’s scattered far and wide. How can governments unearth this knowledge and bring it together in a way that is useful for society?
That’s a question that the Obama administration has been working to address in its innovation strategy. Last year the president signed legislation granting all agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions in an effort to engage large numbers of people outside government in problem solving aligned with governing objectives, and to identify and spread solutions already on the ground.
To date, there have been 159 competitions from 40 agencies (see: Challenge.gov for examples). At a time when government departments and agencies are facing serious budget shortfalls, it makes sense for them to think beyond what they can accomplish themselves – to what they can elicit, encourage and amplify from others.
Consider the Vehicle Stopper Challenge that the Air Force Research Laboratory launched last year in conjunction with InnoCentive, a company that specializes in crowd-sourcing solutions. The Air Force Research Laboratory is seeking to address a problem faced by soldiers at checkpoints in conflict zones: how to stop an uncooperative fleeing vehicle without causing permanent damage to the vehicle or harming any of its occupants.
More than 1,000 people expressed interest in the challenge and, within the two month deadline, 150 submitted proposals, vying for a $25,000 prize. The winner was a 66-year-old engineer from Peru who came up with an affordable remote-controlled electric-powered vehicle that can accelerate up to 130 miles per hour within three seconds, position itself under a fleeing car and automatically release an airbag to lift it and slide it to a stop. The idea is now being evaluated by various branches of the military.
Another recent challenge, issued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), was aimed at identifying new methods to assemble shredded documents — or potential vulnerabilities in the military’s current document shredding practices. It was structured as a race to win $50,000 and it drew 9,000 registered teams. The winner — the ‘All Your Shreds Are Belong to U.S. ’— team, pieced together five documents that were shredded into more than 10,000 pieces in 33 days using a combination of computer algorithms and human assembly.
Within the federal government, Darpa and NASA have long been leaders in open innovation. Recently, NASA established a Tournament Lab in partnership with a company called TopCoder to crowd-source solutions to scientific and computer-oriented challenges. For example, NASA introduced a challenge seeking an algorithm to automatically detect moon craters among billions of orbital images, a process that could provide valuable information about the origins of the moon and earth. “In 14 days we had several hundred submissions, and we now have an algorithm that gives us about 80 percent accuracy,” explained Jason Crusan, who directs NASA’s new Center of Excellence in Collaborative Innovation, which helps other government agencies to run their own challenges.
Traditionally, when NASA sought to solve a problem — say develop a piece of software — the process was to write detailed specifications on how it should work, put out a call for proposals, solicit bids, and hire a contractor to do the work. “Challenges are considerably faster,” adds Crusan. Plus, low-cost bidders may not have the best ideas.
“Prizes and challenges allow the government to set a goal without prescribing the best way to achieve that goal and the best team to do it,” explains Tom Kalil, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. From a budgetary standpoint, there are big advantages, too. “You only pay when it’s successful,” adds Kalil. “So it’s a way for agencies to get more with less.”
A number of government branches are using this approach to identify new ways to use the mountains of data they possess. The Department of Labor has made its data available and issued several challenges to software developers to use it to produce user-friendly tools. The winner of a challenge to develop a tool that would inform consumers about restaurants, hotels and shops that had wage or health and safety violations was a free iPhone and iPad app called Eat Shop Sleep. “It’s like an employment law YELP,” explains Seth Harris, deputy secretary at the Labor Department. (I used it and was disappointed to find that some of my favorite restaurants owe tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages.) Agency staffers are now trying to connect this information to search engines.
Two other Web-based applications — Where Are The Jobs? – and OES Map — use Occupation Employment Statistics to help people better understand the job market. The agency is now running an Equal Pay App Challenge to create tools to “educate the public about the pay gap and promote equal pay for women.”
“This is not how government typically does business,” notes Harris. He adds that communicating this strategy within his organization “is a cultural challenge. But more and more are finding it appealing.”
Read previous contributions to this series.
The Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) has also undertaken a variety of initiatives to “liberate” health data from the “government vaults,” explains Todd Park, the agency’s chief technology officer. Park believes this will not only support the agency’s public health goals, but could catalyze new business opportunities, much like the release of weather and GPS data did in recent decades. “About 95 percent of innovators across the country who could turn our data into products and services don’t even know we have it,” he says.
H.H.S. has introduced an open data platform called HealthData.gov, where anyone can access a catalog of free health-related data sets from a range of federal agencies. The platform links with a nonprofit organization, Health 2.0, where users can browse through hundreds of health apps designed for patients and health care providers. H.H.S. has teamed up with the Institute of Medicine to convene an annual Health Data Initiative Forum (video), which attracts technology developers, data and health experts, entrepreneurs and policy makers and showcases new products and ideas.
Governments can also spark innovation through challenges that search for excellence and then help spread it. A good example is the $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which is managed by the Aspen Institute and financed by private foundations, and was developed with assistance from the White House and the Departments of Education and Labor. Community colleges now educate 44 percent of undergraduate students in the United States (see report here). They are essential to assuring social mobility for the most disadvantaged people in the country. So it’s worth asking: Which ones are most effective — and what are they doing right?
The Aspen Prize reviewed applications from more than 100 colleges, looking at educational and labor-market outcomes, as well as equity. Through this process, they discovered colleges that were outperforming others — and saw some key patterns. “The best colleges were dramatically reconsidering remedial education,” explained Joshua Wyner, who directs Aspen’s college excellence program. “They were deeply engaged with employers and talking to them all the time…and they were figuring out seamless pathways from two-year programs to four-year degree programs.”
Valencia College, in Orlando, Fla., the winner, which has a high proportion of minority students from poor backgrounds, has had remarkable success getting its students into the selective University of Central Florida. One thing it did was work to ensure that students got off to a strong start. “Valencia examined its data and found that students who started a course after the class had met for the first day succeeded at much lower rates,” noted Wyner. As a result, the college stopped allowing students to add courses that had already met. This was a radical change. In order to make it work, the college had to rework its application, course assignment and admission processes.
There are two big considerations when running open innovation challenges. The first is coming up with the right question. Bertrand Russell wrote: “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.” The question needs to be open-ended enough so that it does not restrict creativity, or imply a method of solution, but it has to be defined sharply enough so that someone who doesn’t understand your whole mission can still solve your specific problem.
The second is managing the community. “You have to set very clear and transparent rules on how the challenge will be run and stick by them,” explains NASA’s Jason Crusan. “It’s important to be very transparent if you’re making any changes and responsive to the community if they find errors. You have to be fair to your community. Good will is critical.”
“Open innovation is an important element of the President’s national innovation strategy,” says Tom Kalil. “Because it’s a new approach, you need to be able to tolerate some level of risk. [But] agencies are beginning to increase their experiments with these kinds of challenges. We should expect to see more of it.”