Continued Progress: Engaging Citizen Solvers through Prizes

Today OSTP released its second annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation and solve Grand Challenges. Those efforts have expanded in the last two years under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which granted all Federal agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions.

This year’s report details the remarkable benefits the Federal Government reaped in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 from more than 45 prize competitions across 10 agencies. To date, nearly 300 prize competitions have been implemented by 45 agencies through the website Challenge.gov.  

Over the past four years, the Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox. In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. In March 2010, the Office of Management and Budget issued a policy framework to guide agencies in using prizes to mobilize American ingenuity and advance their respective core missions. Then, in September 2010, the Administration launched Challenge.gov, a one-stop shop where entrepreneurs and citizen solvers can find public-sector prize competitions.

The prize authority in COMPETES is a key piece of this effort. By giving agencies a clear legal path and expanded authority to deploy competitions and challenges, the legislation makes it dramatically easier for agencies to enlist this powerful approach to problem-solving and to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.

As the report released today makes clear, agencies made big strides in the challenge arena in FY 2012. In FY 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began establishing strategies to expand its use of the new prize authority – and by FY 2012, HHS emerged as a leader in implementing prize programs, offering 18 prize competitions, many conducted through public-private partnerships. Also in FY 2012, the Department of Labor and the Small Business Administration issued challenges focused on leveraging open government data to benefit entrepreneurs, job-seekers, and small businesses.

To support these ongoing efforts, the General Services Administration  continues to train agencies about resources and vendors available to help them administer prize competitions. In addition, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) provides other agencies with a full suite of services for incentive prize pilots – from prize design, through implementation, to post-prize evaluation. 

Notable FY 2012 prizes detailed in the report include:

  • Apps for Energy – The Department of Energy offered $100,000 in prizes to software developers for the best new applications (apps) that help utility customers make the most out of their Green Button electricity usage data. The Grand Prize winner, Leafully, helps people understand energy usage through diving deep into the hourly data with historic trends, understanding the effect of the abstract units of energy, and taking action with tree values in mind along with friends.
  • Census Return Rate Challenge – The U.S. Census Bureau conducted a prize competition that challenged statisticians, mathematicians, and other data scientists to analyze Census data in order to create a statistical model to predict Decennial Census mail return rates at the Census block group level of geography. The winning teams’ models used statistical methods not previously utilized by the agency and will be used in modeling for the decennial census and demographic sample surveys.
  • DARPA Shredder Challenge – DARPA’s Shredder Challenge called upon computer scientists and puzzle enthusiasts to compete for up to $50,000 by piecing together a series of shredded documents. The prize’s goal was to identify and assess potential capabilities that could be used by U.S. warfighters or that might also create vulnerabilities related to sensitive information.  Almost 9,000 teams registered to participate in DARPA's Shredder Challenge and 33 days after the challenge was announced, one small San Francisco-based team correctly solved the puzzles, piecing together documents that were shredded into more than 10,000 pieces.
  • Disability Employment App Challenge – The Department of Labor asked developers to help build innovative tools to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for people with disabilities. There were three winners: Access Jobs, a job search portal designed for job seekers with disabilities; VoisPal, an Android-based app designed to help people with speech difficulties; and Accelerated Dynamic Content, a management system that automates dynamic content to ensure accessibility for screen reader and keyboard-only users.

All indications from the first two years of implementation are that the prize authority in COMPETES is continuing to help agencies across the Federal Government reap the benefits of high-impact prizes.

You can learn more about the prize competitions being run across the Federal Government at Challenge.gov.

You can read the full FY 2012 progress report here

Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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