federal agencies turn to crowdsourcing in search of the right stuff

Federal government follows NASA's lead in soliciting innovation, establishes crowdsourcing site.

Federal government agencies are turning to crowdsourcing in a big way to spur innovation to get things done.

The Office of Management and Budget, which has the final word over every penny spent by federal agencies, recently commissioned establishment of a Website called (scheduled to be available for public viewing sometime in September), in which agencies can post problems and challenges, offering financial or other rewards to individuals offering solutions and ideas. The site, to be run by the General Services Administration (GSA), will also include a voting process. Nicole Blake Johnson reports in Federal Times that agencies were spurred by NASA's recent successful experiences with crowdsourcing.

(UPDATE September 7th: is now live for public viewing. Projects open for ideas include
Consumer Apps to Visualize Health Care Quality, created by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and a Poster Contest on Carbon Monoxide Safety, from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.)

In the video below, Bev Godwin, director of New Media and Citizen Engagement at GSA, and Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, explain how will work, and help to deliver innovation to federal government processes.  (Thanks to Alex Howard of O'Reilly Media, who pointed to this video as well as narrated it!)

"It's the next form of citizen engagement beyond participation to co-creation," Godwin explains. The vision of the site is "to develop a challenge platform, so that the technology could be done once, and agencies could use this platform to create challenges, and have a lot of functionality around those challenges with social networking, etc., and also so the public can find federal challenges in one place."

The federal government has already seen some success with a crowdsourcing approach. For example, Bruce Cragin, a retired radio frequency engineer from New Hampshire, won an online NASA competition last year seeking formulas for predicting solar flares. Close to 600 people examined the challenge, five submitted entries, and the winner of the $30,000 incentive, a retired radio frequency engineer, developed a solution that allows for a 24-hour forecast window of solar flare event onset with 75 percent accuracy.

NASA has been leading the way with federal government crowdsourcing, as explored in a previous SmartPlanet post .

One of the stipulations of NASA's competitions was that the winner also would forgo any intellectual property claims, which suggests this could be a sticky issue in future crowdsourcing efforts. Also, it will be interesting to see if the main approach to crowdsourcing evolves as competitions, or if it becomes a more collaborative methodology. It will also be interesting to see if this method replaces some more formal government procurement process, in which ideas are submitted in a series of formal proposals.

NASA's crowdsource challenge was posted on, an online crowdsourcing venue.  NASA is also currently hosting several additional challenges, including augmenting astronauts' "Exercise Experience with Audio-Visual Inputs," and "Improving the First 20 Years of Human Health," which seeks innovations that are preventive with a focus on nutrition, exercise, and health care.

But my favorite is NASA's crowdsource solicitation for a "Simple Microgravity Laundry System," which seeks a way to launder clothes in space on long-distance journeys (With a $25,000 prize for the effort). Yes, when you think about it, a six-month journey to Mars could get pretty smelly, so let's hope some good ideas come out of this.

In other competitions hosted by NASA over the past year, Yury Bodrov, a scientist from Saint Petersburg, Russia, won a partial award for his proposal of a new flexible graphite material that can maintain food over a three-year shelf life, and Alex Altshuler, a mechanical engineer from Foxboro, Mass., won a full award for his proposal for a compact aerobic and resistive exercise device, which delivers the proper motions for exercises in space under very limited or zero gravity and meets very specific size and space requirements.

There are a number of other agencies sponsoring challenges, Godwin adds. The Energy Department, for example,  has a challenge for a more efficient lightbulb. The State Department has a challenge where the goal is to find local developers in east African countries.

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