Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • The Role of Student-Led Innovation in “Killer Apps” for Broadband Networks

    Students have contributed (pdf) some of the most important advances in information and communications technologies—including data compression, interactive computer graphics, Ethernet, Berkeley Unix, the spreadsheet, public key cryptography, speech recognition, Mosaic, and Google.

    Today, with the right kind of support, students can play the role of innovators again—by leading the way in the development of broadband applications. In the same way that Mosaic and Google drove demand for today’s Internet, new applications could drive demand for a gigabit/second Internet and 4G wireless. Indeed, a key component of the Federal Communications Commission’s recently released National Broadband Plan is the development of new broadband applications.

    Now is the time to launch an initiative that would cultivate, with student involvement, such a wave of innovation. Although it’s impossible to predict what the next generation of applications will be, universities, companies, and students could work together under such an initiative, which would serve as a sort of “Petri dish” where new ideas could incubate and grow. This initiative could be led by the private sector, encourage multi-campus and even global collaboration, build on investments already made in high-speed research networks such as Internet2 and National LambdaRail, and take advantage of a growing number of grants from the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

    The initiative could have a number of elements, including:

    • Campus-based incubators for the development of broadband applications, with access to high-speed networks, cutting-edge peripherals, software development kits, and cloud computing services.
    • Relevant courses that encourage multidisciplinary teams of students to design and develop broadband applications.
    • Competitions that recognize compelling applications developed by students. Some existing competitions that could serve as models include Google’s Android Developer Challenge, Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, and the FCC-Knight Foundation’s “Apps for Inclusion” competition.

    Let us know what you think of this idea. You can send us e-mail at

    Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

    Aneesh Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Associate Director for Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

  • Investing in Innovation to Reach "Education's Moonshot"

    Education in FocusIn February 2009, President Obama stood before a joint session of Congress and announced that by 2020 the United States would once again have the highest percentage of college-educated adults in the world. 

    We need new solutions to achieve that ambitious goal, and as a nation we cannot afford to fail. Soon, the Department of Education will request applications to the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund, which will support the development of path-breaking new ideas, the validation of approaches that have demonstrated promise, and the scale-up of our nation’s most successful and proven education innovations.
    i3 takes a new approach to funding education programs: small grants to develop new ideas; significant money for moderate evidence; and, if you want the biggest dollars, you need to demonstrate not just great results but also prove that those results can scale to benefit large numbers of students. Those working in and around schools know that this work takes place against a backdrop of flat funding (at best) for education at the local and state level. Producing far better outcomes, for many more students, with the same resources as we have today, is a daunting challenge, but one we must accept.
    We know that educators and others are working everyday to meet these needs.  That is why one of the most exciting features of i3 is that it finally provides a way to identify the best ideas and practices from our nation’s teachers, schools, districts, and non-profits; highlight them on a national stage; and provide unprecedented resources for them to expand while we learn whether and how they work at scale. 
    Another new effort with a similar aspiration, the Open Innovation Portal (, provides a public forum for all who wish to participate in creating opportunities for partnership and local private and public funding - potentially multiplying many times over the federal funding opportunity. We are hopeful this community of innovators and supporters will be another way that the best our country and the world has to offer spreads to serve more students.

    Secretary Duncan has called the reform effort “education’s moonshot” a reminder of our nation’s ability to reach higher goals. Surely, with our children’s futures at stake, we can go there again.

    Jim Shelton is the Education Department’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and  Improvement

  • Open Government Laboratories of Democracy

    Cross-posted from the Office of Science and Technology's OSTP Blog 

    "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system," Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932, "that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."  The Obama Administration is taking unprecedented strides toward creating the most open and accountable government in history. And in so doing, we’re learning from those states and municipalities, which are undertaking exciting experiments to bring transparency, participation, and collaboration to the way they work as well.

    Inspired by the President’s call for more open government, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts launched its data catalogue, following in the footsteps of Washington, DC, San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere around the country (as well as cities in Canada and the UK), to provide public access to information by and about government. What makes this exciting is not merely having transportation information available in machine-readable formats, but that professional and amateur enthusiasts can then get together, as they did last weekend, to create new software applications and data visualizations to better enable public transit riders to track arrival times for the next subway, bus, or ferry. Publishing government information online facilitates this kind of useful collaboration between government and the public that transforms dry data into the tools that improve people’s lives. (For another great example, check out what happened when we published the Federal Register for people to use.)

    The National Association of State CIOs is helping to spur this movement toward greater data transparency at the state level by publishing “Guidance for Opening the Doors to State Data.”

    Just as the federal government is using online brainstorming with government employees and the public to generate ideas for saving money or going green, state and local governments are also using new technology to tap people’s intelligence and expertise. The City of Manor, Texas (pop. 5800) has launched “Manor Labs,” an innovation marketplace for improving city services.  A participant can sign up to suggest “ideas and solutions” for the police department, the municipal court, and everything in between. Each participant’s suggestion is ranked and rewarded with “innobucks.” These innobucks points can be redeemed for prizes: a million innobucks points wins “mayor for the day” while 400,000 points can be traded for a ride-along with the Chief of Police.

    Manor is also one of the few cities currently using bar codes (known as QR or Quick Response Codes) to label physical locations around town. These bar codes can be scanned with a mobile phone to communicate historical and touristic information, data about the cost of a municipal service, or emergency management information. Manor is experimenting with techniques for providing different information to different audiences. If a resident scans a QR code outside a home for sale, she gets the floor plan and purchase price; whereas the building inspector gets the inspection history; and the first responder gets information about the current occupant.

    As more of these innovative projects that foster open government go live and achieve results, we look forward to showcasing some of them on our blog and eventually making details available on the Open Government Innovation Gallery.  Developers with new tools to offer to facilitate open government – including free social media applications -- should also check out and list their products (here’s how) for others to use. Openness and accountability are the responsibility of government at every level.  By getting out the word about innovations that help to realize open government in practice, we can both promote new experiments and help people find and re-use the best ones.

    Visit the OSTP blog to comment on this post.

    Beth Noveck is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government

  • Openness and Patent Reform: USPTO Launches Director’s Blog

    David Kappos, the new Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), has taken on a tough mission that is critically important for the future of American innovation:  fix our broken patent system and reduce the USPTO’s backlog of applications in order to foster job creation and economic growth. Mobilizing the skills and expertise of the USPTO’s staff, he has already begun to make noticeable progress towards reform.

    On the open government front, we’re particularly excited to see Director Kappos’s new blog.  In his first post, he lays out his priorities and goals, presents the results of some early reforms, dives right into the substantive debate around patent reform legislation, and invites input from stakeholders across the spectrum of IP interests. It’s a terrific start to a blog that we’ll be reading avidly.

  • Recognizing the Scientists of Today and Tomorrow

    First Lady Michelle Obama at Dept. of Energy

    (First Lady Michelle Obama visits the Department of Energy for the National Science Bowl competition in Washington, D.C., Nov. 5, 2009. Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton) November 5, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

    During a visit yesterday to the Department of Energy, First Lady Michelle Obama was all smiles as she praised employees for their bright ideas, innovation, and hard work—all in the name of making the United States a more energy-efficient country. She also made sure to highlight the importance of investing in the future scientists of the country—the children who today sit in math and science classes across the country, and tomorrow will be working in our labs:

    But whether it's doing groundbreaking scientific research; or ensuring our nuclear security; making our homes, our offices, our cars, appliances more efficient; or fighting to turn the tide on climate change, what you're doing here couldn't be more urgent.  Your work is critical for our economy and our national security and preserving our environment for our kids and our grandkids.  That's the work that you do.

    And it's not easy.  Everyone knows it's not easy.  And I know that most of what you're working on right now, as hard as you're working, probably won't even be finished this year, or maybe not even this administration, or even during the course of your careers here at the Department.  You may not see the final outcome of the work that you're doing.

    So in the coming decades, you all will be passing the torch to the next generation.  Truly, you're going to be handing over what you've begun to a lot of young people who are right now just beginning to develop -- those future scientists and public servants.  And it truly will be up to that next generation, it's going to be up to them, our children, our grandchildren, the young people that we mentor, it's going to be up to them to carry all of this wonderful work forward. 

    Steven Chu at Dept. of Energy

    First Lady Michelle Obama listens as Energy Secretary Steven Chu asks questions during the National Science Bowl competition at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., Nov. 5, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton) November 5, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

  • A Community on the Cutting Edge of Science

    Two weeks ago, the National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas took us to Seattle, Washington to see the city’s marriage of economic development and livability. Joined by Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims, Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for the U.S. Department of Commerce John Fernandez, and NIH Director for the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Dr. Robert Croyle, we toured the South Lake Union neighborhood.

    SBRI’s Bioquest education program

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Assistant Secretary John Fernandez, Adolfo Carrion, and Ron Sims meet with kids that are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    In the past five years, over 2.7 million square feet of space has been constructed at South Lake Union for the biotech and life science industry, placing Seattle at the forefront of medical innovation. This neighborhood, combined with mixed-use and affordable-housing development and public transportation solutions, showed us how regional economic development initiatives can include and foster smart growth.

    Our day began with an overview of the South Lake Union neighborhood at the Vulcan, Inc. Discovery Center. There we learned of Mayor Greg Nickels’ successful efforts since 2002 to recruit biotech and life science organizations. Why? Good jobs. These businesses provide high-wage jobs and like to locate close to one another to foster collaboration. In short, biotech businesses make good “regional innovation clusters.” In Seattle’s case, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington (UW) were early biotech anchors that helped to attract other biotech businesses. 

    I especially enjoyed our stop at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), a leader in infectious disease research. There we received presentations on the work of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and the Washington Global Health Alliance. All of these “heavyweight” research and global health institutions are housed in a 60-block radius, sharing ideas, students, facilities and often clientele.

    The reason the visit to SBRI was special is because we got to talk to high school students who are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. The aim of Bioquest is to inspire the next generation of scientists by allowing teenagers to get hands-on experience in a lab and meet working scientists and researchers. Dr. Robert Croyle found it particularly rewarding to see kids benefiting from the over $86,000 in Recovery Funding that was awarded to SBRI to expand the Bioquest program, offering college credit to high school seniors.

    Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Adolfo Carrion, and Deputy Secretary Ron Sims outside the Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    But South Lake Union is not just about science, collaboration and commercialization. It is about community. During our walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Bart Harvey residence for low-income seniors. The six-story building has an enviable array of amenities—a library room with a computer lab, community meeting space, offices for case management and support services, and a green roof that provides a  panoramic view of the Seattle skyline – my favorite though, a rooftop herb garden.  We spoke to one resident who expressed her love for her new home. She said, “I am comfortable here. We have everything at our fingertips. Maybe it’s just me, but I love to go up to the garden on the roof and watch the planes touch down.” 

    Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute explained, “We need to make sure low-income people can live in middle-class neighborhoods not only in distressed communities.We have changed the look of low-income housing. Not only is it well designed, it’s green.”

    We topped off the day with an important policy discussion about the qualities that define a successful regional innovation cluster, the role of the federal government in supporting that type of development, and lessons learned from the South Lake Union experience. Ada Healy, Vice President of Real Estate for Vulcan, Inc., the key local private sector partner noted, “This group came together because of extraordinary leadership, coordination, and cooperation from the Mayor’s Office, the Gates Foundation, the non-profit community, government, and business. There was an atmosphere of trust and a commitment to not just create offices where people work from 9-to-5, but real communities.”  

    Assistant Secretary John Fernandez explained that the Economic Development Administration is looking to “create a bridge” to encourage innovations that reach beyond the center and positively affect the whole region.”

    Our trip to Seattle showed us that smart, coordinated planning can attract a cluster of businesses to a neighborhood and spur regional economic development, and train the next generation of scientists, provide housing for seniors, and create a more livable community. Thanks, Seattle!!

    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President