Agencies to challenge citizens for solutions

Wednesday - 9/1/2010, 7:15am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

Click below to hear the report

Download mp3

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

By the end of December, NASA will have held about 34 competitions where they challenged experts from inside and outside the space agency to help solve a variety of problems.

Jeff Davis, the director of Space Life Sciences at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said NASA developed a Web portal, called Innovation Pavilion, to reach a broader audience for ideas on how to solve everything from predicting solar flares to improving food packaging in space to a design for a compact exercise equipment for astronauts.

"In the first set of pilots, the solar flare challenge was about coming up with an algorithm that would predict a solar flare in the future and we had set the parameters of that award and the results we got in some ways exceeded the parameters we set," Davis said after a panel discussion on competition after the a recent conference sponsored by FedScoop in Washington. "We were very excited about it because it was an algorithm that moves us down the road on coming up with a complete algorithm to predict a solar flare in the future because it's important for us during space flight to know what the sun might be doing in the next 24 hour period."

NASA is offering anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 for the winning ideas on challenges to the public.

Now NASA, Davis said, has kicked off an internal challenge, called NASA-At-Work, to see if employees can help improve the space agency's internal processes.

NASA eventually will move its challenges to the new governmentwide portal, Challenge.gov.

The General Services Administration will launch the site publicly in the next few months.

Bev Godwin, director of GSA's Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement, said the agency met the requirements in White House's March memo to develop an online portal for all challenges by July 6, and invite the public to participate.

Godwin said GSA did market research when eight companies submitted bids to give challenge platform at no cost. GSA went through a competitive procurement and chose Challenge Post.

"There was no content in it for agencies to either start creating new challenges or put in existing challenges that exist on other Web sites," said Godwin describing why Challenge.gov has not yet been made public. "That is what we have been doing since then."

Godwin added that GSA had to find out who in the agencies ran the challenges-whether the chief technology officer's office, an Innovation office or in a specific program office oversees the competitions.

"We started developing a point of contact in each agency for challenges, brought them together and gave them training." Godwin said. "We've done four-sets of training, two Webinars that had over 200 people each, and some in person training in using Challenge.gov. So now the existing challenges are in there and some agencies and there are several agencies creating new challenges when this launches."

Several agencies already are holding challenges, such as the Agriculture Department's Apps for Health Kids, the Social Security Administration's contest asking for videos on how Social Security has made a difference in citizens' lives and the Environmental Protection Agency's contest to asking for why federal regulations are important to everyone. And, of course, the Office of Management and Budget held the SAVE awards for the second year in a row for federal employees.

"Some agencies are getting their feet wet with easier challenges whether it's a photo or video contest," she said. "I think those agencies that have had explicit prize authorities and have been thinking about this longer are doing the game million dollar challenges. But I've seen this all over the place. Agencies are talking about this."

In fact, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Case Foundation earlier this summer held a session where they asked agencies to bring challenge ideas and receive feedback from experts. Godwin said more than 200 people showed up and there was a waiting list of another 200.

Godwin said Challenge.gov will make it easier for agencies to run these competitions.

"On the technology platform, we covered all the policy bases so they can use this platform without redoing any of the things we did," she said. "We did the security review of both the hosting environment and scans at the application level. We've done the Privacy Impact Assessment and the privacy policy. We looked at the Paperwork Reduction Act. We did 508 testing and user testing. They don't have to redo that."