Collaborative innovation in open government: Is there an app for that?

Could contests help us realize the vision of participatory democracy outlined by Thomas Jefferson, where citizens collaborate with government to solve the nation’s most difficult problems? The White House hopes so. As the Federal Times reported this morning, agencies are trying to crowdsource their way out of problems.

These efforts won’t always work out as proponents might hope. To date, crowdsourcing government reform has had mixed results. The new British government’s first crowdsourcing attempt fails to alter Whitehall line. And as Wired’s Jeff Home observed last year, crowdsourcing and the President were a “failed marriage” when the new administration tried its first online town hall.

That said, in April the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) began requesting public input on how to implement President Obama’s innovation strategy, which calls for new ways to foster economic growth and create high-quality jobs.

“Government does not have a monopoly on the best ideas,” as Vivek Kundra, the nation’s first federal chief information officer, has emphasized repeatedly. To deliver on the promise of innovation for “government as a platform,” as Tim O’Reilly has framed the concept of “government 2.0,” the White House will have to find ways to empower citizens to contribute to the formation and delivery of effective and efficient policy and services.

The idea of a contest to inspire technological innovation, however, is not a novel concept reliant on Web services, born from the fertile mind of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. One of the most famous scientific achievements in nautical history was spurred by a grand challenge issued in the 18th Century. The issue of safe, long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail was of such great importance that the British government offered a cash award of £20,000 pounds to anyone who could invent a way of precisely determining a ship’s longitude. The Longitude Prize, enacted by the British Parliament in 1714, would be worth some £30 million pounds today, but even by that measure the value of the marine chronometer invented by British clockmaker John Harrison might be a deal.

What has inspired the use of the contests? “There are a number of sources,” said Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy at OSTP. “The organization that gets the most credit for the renaissance in the use of prizes is the X Prize Foundation. The Ansari X Prize and its success was one of the things that got me excited about the potential of these challenges.” Kalil joined Tim O’Reilly and Lesa Mitchell from the Kauffman Foundation next week at the Gov 2.0 Summit to talk about turbocharging American innovation. Their conversation is embedded below:

The Applications of App Contests

“We created Apps for Democracy with Vivek Kundra and Office of the Chief Technology Officer back in 2008,” said Peter Corbett, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based iStrategy Labs. “[Kundra] said ‘Peter, we have all this open data–it’s probably the most comprehensive municipal open data catalog in the world–but it’s not really useful to anybody because it’s just raw data.”

What Corbett suggested to Kundra was to encourage citizen technologists to build Web applications and mobile services on top of that data. “Build on top of that catalog for fame — and a little bit of fortune.” Within two months, they had 47 Web, mobile and iPhone applications developed. Since then, that method and concept has spread throughout the world, said Corbett. The Department of Defense recently announced the winners of the Apps for Army contest, which could shape the future of defense acquisition.

Apps contests are not just a phenomenon in the United States, either: in Canada, an Apps for Climate Change contest just wrapped up. And in Africa, Apps for Africa is focused on leveraging the talent of local developers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.

“There are ‘Apps for Democracy’ contests in Finland, in Australia and ones on the city level like Portland, New York and London,” said Corbett, highlighting the spread of the paradigm globally. Later this year, an Apps for Development contest will leverage an even bigger open data store soon too, explained Corbett, based upon the World Bank’s open data catalog.

While apps contests may be unlocking government innovation, more recently Corbett has focused his technical evangelism on moving beyond apps contests, to building communities of developers. That’s a focus that former Sunlight Labs director Clay Johnson would endorse, as evidenced by his post on building communities, not apps contests. One bellwether for the success of the method for unlocking innovation may be the results of the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge, which is focused upon engaging the development community to make community health data as useful as weather data through developing healthcare apps.

For more perspective, make sure to read Mark Headd here at Govfresh on his “glass half full” view of government app contests, and the thoughts from former DC CTO Bryan Sivak on government app contests moving from cool to useful.

Creating innovation contests with real results

A recent McKinsey article on the promise of innovation held by prize contests offered further instruction, noting that “most successful prize competitions place an equal emphasis on other elements, such as the broader change strategy, the competition itself, and post-award activities designed to enhance the impact of the prize.”

Kalil agreed with that assessment, observing that a strategy that specifies victory conditions is useful. “That’s why a clear goal, like ‘build a spaceship that can go up 200km, and then repeat that within two weeks,’ is helpful,” he said.

Will hardwiring prizes that leverage public sector investments provide a good return on the commitment of time, prize money and other resources?

“We’re finding that to be the case with the NASA Centennial Challenges Program,” said Kalil. “If NASA had had to pay for all of the capabilities created by the Lunar Lander Challenge, they would have had to put in far more money.”

Corbett said that for D.C., the city estimated the value of the first Apps for Democracy program was in excess of $2.3 million dollars, when compared to the traditional costs associated with procurement and development.

Other early results are also promising. “The government is still in early days with respect to its use of prizes,” said Kalil. “The agencies most involved have been NASA and its prizes. DARPA, particularly the DARPA Grand Challenge, have played an important role in advanced unmanned ground vehicles and robotics. The DARPA Network Challenge showed the power of social networks to gather information in a distributed way.”

Riley Crane, a MIT post-doctoral fellow, shares insights on crowdsourcing from his team’s success in the DARPA Network Challenge below. The interview came after his testimony at a recent Senate hearing on technological innovation and government.

The success or failure of these challenges and contests may ultimately rest upon the ability of the White House to draw the attention of innovators to the questions posed. Should we expect a live American Idol panel to judge the potential of ideas?

Kalil laughed: “That will depend on the competition.”

There are already dozens of challenges online at the new Challenge.gov today. Below, Bev Godwin from the General Services Administration talks about the new site:

Crowdsourcing innovation through social media

Contests aren’t the only platform that government entities are looking to in order to spur collaborative innovation. Another platform for communication will come from Expert Labs, a non-profit independent lab that is affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The open source ThinkUp App being developed by award-winning author Gina Trapani will be used by the White House as a crowdsourcing platform for collecting feedback on grand challenges that are submitted on Twitter.

“This first attempt is about whether we can get people to push the button,” said Anil Dash, director of Expert Labs. “The next attempt will be about seeing if we can get them to contribute to something larger, like a collaborative document.”

Dash said that to be successful, people developing these tools need know what they want to achieve at the outset. “You have to have a purpose-built tool,” he said. “You have to tap into as large of a network as possible, and you need to clearly define the outcome you want.”

Will it be possible to draw attention to huge, difficult problems using social media and the Internet? “Look at the number of people that have watched Bill Gates’ TED talk on zero carbon,” said Dash. “You don’t need to get everyone in the world to agree. It’s a matter of activating the people who want to contribute. It’s about getting the doers to do.”

In the video below, you can learn more about Think Up App from Dash and Trapani’s talk at the recent Supernova Hub conference.

For more perspective, see Adriel Hampton’s recent interview on Gov 2.0 Radio, “Getting the BrightIdea: Crowdsourcing in government and enterprise.”

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

12 thoughts on “Collaborative innovation in open government: Is there an app for that?

  1. I have one simple request:

    Could we please stop referring to every online comment form under the sun as “crowdsourcing”? Please!

    The “Programme for Government” website, which the new UK government launched shortly after it came into power in May of this year, had nothing whatsoever to do with crowdsourcing. Blindly repeating The Guardian’s misleading headline doesn’t make it so.

    Here’s what actually happened:

    After the usual negotiations, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats had come to a definite agreement on which to base their coalition government. In the spirit of transparency, they presented the final document on a public website. Yes, they offered citizens the opportunity to comment. But no, it was never their intention to engage in a two-way conversation, let alone incorporate any of the feedback and make changes to their program based on citizens’ input.

    No crowdsourcing there!

    Granted, they did do a rather poor job communicating the scope of this exercise, which led many participants to believe the document was still open to modifications (hence the disappointment), but that’s another issue entirely.

  2. Hi Alex. I’ve only just come across this post – really interesting blog with lots of useful links. Apps development does seem to lend itself well to being the subject of inducement (to use the McKinsey language) prizes, and other open innovation techniques – eg. also this project from 100% Open with Orange http://www.mobilevolunteering.co.uk/.

    It’s really interesting to see the ways the US government is using prizes for public innovation more broadly. There is growing interest in the use of prizes in the UK too (distinct from, but with potential to use crowdsourcing). I recently blogged about this – http://tinyurl.com/4ump5r3 – from NESTA, based on our experience of running a £1m UK inducement prize for social, community-led innovation – the Big Green Challenge, and a roundtable on the topic which included participants from local government and the NHS, who are starting to experiment with challenge prizes.

    Sorry that this comment comes so far after the date of your post!

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