Data innovation, crowdsourcing on the horizon for Innovation Fellows program

Thursday - 4/3/2014, 4:00am EDT

After the first two rounds of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program showed marked success, the White House announced applications are open for Round 3 of the program.

"We are accepting applications right now through April 7," said Jennifer Pahlka, deputy chief technology officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and one of the executives that runs the PIF program. "I really, really encourage anybody who's ever thought about serving their country in this particular way to check it out and fill out an application."

In Round 2, nearly 3,000 people applied to the fellows program.

"The quality of the applications and the quality of the skill sets we've seen has been very high consistently throughout...and we're expecting the same in Round 3," said Lena Trudeau, associate commissioner for the Office of Strategic Innovations at the General Services Administration. Trudeau also oversees the PIF program.

Federal News Radio looks forward to Round 3 as part of our special report, Solving Our Nation's Toughest Challenges: The Presidential Innovation Fellows. The projects for Round 3 will focus on three key areas: data innovation, making digital the default and crowdsourcing.

Data Innovation

Pahlka said many of the Round 3 projects will expand on projects from the first two rounds.

"One of the points of consistency you'll see is in one of the three categories of fellows for Round 3, which is data innovation," Pahlka said. "That is building off two years of successful outcomes with Open Data fellows, who work to make data available, and the MyData Initiatives, like the Green Button, Blue Button and Gold Button Initiative."

Round 3 fellows will work on eight data innovation projects across different agencies.

The Department of Health and Human Services will work with the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense on continuing to expand the Blue Button Initiative, scaling the effort across healthcare industries.

"The PIF program is really meant to be a catalyst for these types of initiatives to get started," Trudeau said. "[But] I think we're going to continue support at least through the next round on Blue Button. There are a number of new aspects to that initiative that we want to take on that can be really catalyzed by having some PIF presence in that program."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA want to make their earth observation data easier to find and available in the cloud.

The Department of the Interior wants its data about tourism in public lands and water more discoverable.

The Census Bureau, Department of Labor, Internal Revenue Service and Department of Energy all want to make the data they collect easier for the public to access.

"The ability to take previously private data sets and make them public, and the work that we can do through this program to create applications and ecosystems of partners around those data sets is very, very powerful," Trudeau said.

Making Digital the Default

Another group of Round 3 fellows will work with VA on a project called "Building a 21st Century Veterans Experience."

"I think we all know that is a national priority," Trudeau said.

The project will create a digital "one-stop shop" for veterans to access services and benefits from the VA. Partners at VA and the fellows will use modern approaches and platforms, such as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

"We really do need to make the VA more digital so it can serve veterans better, and I'm incredibly excited that we'll be able to see that work in Round 3," Pahlka said.

While making services easier to access for veterans, the project will also help to improve efficiency in clearing the VA's disability claims backlog.

Crowdsourcing

A handful of fellows will work on five projects under the crowdsourcing initiative. Crowdsourcing engages and involves the community in various projects, allowing the American public to contribute ideas and help with solving challenges.

"This is something that really wasn't called out as a category in the past two rounds, but has been part of the experimentation," Pahlka said.

Crowdsourcing in Round 3 will build off a current Round 2 effort of fellows working at the Smithsonian Institution.

The fellows have created a digital database of collections at the Smithsonian. But if a historic artifact has handwriting on it, that handwriting must be converted into a digital and searchable format.

"That's an enormous amount of work," Pahlka said. "But if you create a platform of those images that are available and people can transcribe them, then you're able to effectively crowdsource an enormous amount of work to any volunteer who has access to the Internet and wants to help."

In Round 3, fellows at the State Department will work on OpenStreetMap for Diplomacy. The project creates an editable map of the world. The map is especially helpful during natural disasters, so that volunteers worldwide can add uncharted territories onto the map.

The Department of Energy will crowdsource disaster response information and utilize social media for speedy disaster response and recovery. DoE wants to enhance the use of its new mobile app, Lantern, developed by Round 2 fellow Derek Frempong. The app allows the public to report power outages and fallen power lines.

"Crowdsourcing is absolutely essential in times of disaster," Trudeau said. "People on the ground, in the area that's affected, are the best source of data and information about what resources are available, what's working and what's not working."

NASA will use crowdsourcing for its Asteroid Grand Challenge, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office will use it to determine whether a particular invention seeking a patent is novel and patent-worthy.

Crowdsourcing tools will be able to help unlock information in the National Archives and Records Administration's 12 billion-plus pages of records. Citizen developers can develop applications that allow easy and intuitive access to the records.

"This is something that many fellows do — they make the data open and then they bring the community in to make more out of it than just the government could or just the fellows program could," Pahlka said.

The selection process

The deadline to apply to the fellows program is Monday, April 7.

After the application period closes, representatives from OSTP and GSA, subject matter experts and agency partners review the applications.

"Evaluating all of those and being able to distill...the most highly qualified applicants, to be able to match their skill sets to the projects that we have available, takes a little bit of time," Trudeau said.

She said GSA and OSTP expect the Round 3 fellows to begin working this summer.

"As soon as we finish really making final decisions and onboarding Presidential Innovation Fellows in Round 3, the planning for Round 4 will begin," Trudeau said.

Watch the White House's video soliciting fellows for Round 3, featuring Jennifer Pahlka.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, SOLVING OUR NATION'S TOUGHEST CHALLENGES: THE PRESIDENTIAL INNOVATION FELLOWS

Inside the Presidential Innovation Fellows program: A Q&A with the White House

Saving lives ... one mobile app at a time

How the future of health care lies behind a Blue Button

Photos: Meet the Round 2 Presidential Innovation Fellows

Video: What is a Presidential Innovation Fellow?