Can government innovation rise above partisan politics?

Earlier today, the White House announced the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows. Following is the story you might have missed on the Twitter backchannel, followed by a NodeX graph of the tweets around #InnovateGov.

In the network graph below, you’ll see there are 3 discreet groups around the White House, Tim O’Reilly and me, and Michelle Malkin. The lines between the nodes show replies.

NASA to launch inexpensive Android ‘phonesats’ into space

Android….in….space! This morning, Will Marshall of NASA showed the Android Open Conference plans for a sub-$10,000 Nexus One “phonesat.” Given that the cost of satellites usually measure in the tens or hundreds of millions or so, that’s a rather spectacular cost savings.

Marshall says that this will be the fastest processor to govern a satellite. For reference, Mars Explorer used a 33MHz processor. It sends signals back via amateur radio packet system, rather than ground tracking. The launch video is embedded below:

Great anecdote: when a launch failed, the entire payload fell without parachute into desert. The data was left intact.

William launching 3 Android phonesats in December, in space for 3 weeks. As O’Reilly Media’s Gina Blaber pointed out, they’re “iterating Silicon Valley-style.”

For more, check out the short documentary below about the PhoneSat suborbital test launch in the Black Rock desert:

PhoneSat Rocket Launch Documentary from Ben Howard on Vimeo.

You can follow @NASA_Phonesat on Twitter — there’s no official website yet – and, according to Marshall, eventually check out code on Github, where NASA is open sourcing some software behind it. (And yes, that’s a big deal.)

Presentation: Health Data Innovation at the Wolfram Data Summit

Earlier today, Peter Speyer gave a great talk about the Global Health Data Exchange and health data innovation at the Wolfram Data Summit in Washington, D.C.

For more context, read: about unlocking innovation through opening health data, better mobile healthcare decisions through open data and “Can Todd Park revolutionize the health care industry?

How Socializing Data Built A Better Government Platform

Can social media, open government and an API lead to a better pill identification system? What about a collaborative effort between Big Pharma and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that could result in pictures of medications on labels for the first time?

As David Hale’s interview in my most recent article at Mashable showed, the power of social media, open data and innovation led to a better healthcare platform at the National Library of Medicine:

Every year, poison control centers get more than one million calls for pill identification. Each one of those calls costs nearly $50. Social software is helping biomedical researchers collaborate on better ways of identifying drugs. “Pillbox is a digital platform for communities to solve challenges related to pharmaceutical identification and reference,” says David Hale, the program manager. The National Library of Medicine’s mission is to gather, curate and distribute the world’s biomedical information, said Hale.

Pillbox is an open government initiative from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration that could transform how pharmaceuticals are labeled in the future. The interactive web application currently allows visitors to rapidly identify unknown solid medications, like tablets or capsules, based upon their shape, color and other markings. Pillbox remains a research and development project, so users should not be making clinical decisions just yet. Right now there are over 1,000 images of prescription drugs in the system, with many more to come in the next few months.

In the video below, Hale demonstrates the platform:

Hale will share more about new updates to Pillbox and how the healthcare community and developers partnering to restructure federal drug label data at the Gov 2.0 Summit next week in Washington on September 8th.

His last presentation, “Open Gov Ninja 101,” is embedded below:

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.”