Open Government Initiative Blog

  • OSTP and USPTO Welcome Game-Changing Innovators for the 2015 Patents for Humanity Ceremony

    On April 20, OSTP and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) hosted the 2015 Patents for Humanity award winners for a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Patents for Humanity, which was launched at the White House in February 2012, is a USPTO program that recognizes innovators who use pioneering technology to confront humanitarian challenges.

    Under Secretary Michelle Lee with representatives of the 2015 Patents for Humanity award winners: American Standard Brands, Global Research Innovation & Technology (GRIT), Golden Rice, Novartis, Nutriset, Sanofi, and SunPower Corp. (Photo Credit: Jeff Isaacs, USPTO)

    OSTP has long recognized the promise of such pull mechanisms to help overcome market failures and catalyze potentially game-changing innovations through market incentives. The Administration’s efforts in this area focus on making the best use of the technological and scientific breakthroughs that are characteristic of America’s entrepreneurs, innovators, and researchers by expediting commercialization of inventions for humanitarian purposes and rewarding companies that use their patented technologies to solve societal challenges.

  • 21st-Century Public Servants: Using Prizes and Challenges to Spur Innovation

    Thousands of Federal employees across the government are using a variety of modern tools and techniques to deliver services more effectively and efficiently, and to solve problems that relate to the missions of their Agencies. These 21st-century public servants are accomplishing meaningful results by applying new tools and techniques to their programs and projects, such as prizes and challenges, citizen science and crowdsourcing, open data, and human-centered design.

    Prizes and challenges have been a particularly popular tool at Federal agencies. With 397 prizes and challenges posted on since September 2010, there are hundreds of examples of the many different ways these tools can be designed for a variety of goals. For example:

    • NASA’s Mars Balance Mass Challenge: When NASA’s Curiosity rover pummeled through the Martian atmosphere and came to rest on the surface of Mars in 2012, about 300 kilograms of solid tungsten mass had to be jettisoned to ensure the spacecraft was in a safe orientation for landing. In an effort to seek creative concepts for small science and technology payloads that could potentially replace a portion of such jettisoned mass on future missions, NASA released the Mars Balance Mass Challenge. In only two months, over 200 concepts were submitted by over 2,100 individuals from 43 different countries for NASA to review. Proposed concepts ranged from small drones and 3D printers to radiation detectors and pre-positioning supplies for future human missions to the planet’s surface. NASA awarded the $20,000 prize to Ted Ground of Rising Star, Texas for his idea to use the jettisoned payload to investigate the Mars atmosphere in a way similar to how NASA uses sounding rockets to study Earth’s atmosphere. This was the first time Ted worked with NASA, and NASA was impressed by the novelty and elegance of his proposal: a proposal that NASA likely would not have received through a traditional contract or grant because individuals, as opposed to organizations, are generally not eligible to participate in those types of competitions.
    • National Institutes of Health (NIH) Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC): The primary goals of the BCSC were to accelerate the process of bringing emerging breast cancer technologies to market, and to stimulate the creation of start-up businesses around nine federally conceived and owned inventions, and one invention from an Avon Foundation for Women portfolio grantee.  While NIH has the capacity to enable collaborative research or to license technology to existing businesses, many technologies are at an early stage and are ideally suited for licensing by startup companies to further develop them into commercial products. This challenge established 11 new startups that have the potential to create new jobs and help promising NIH cancer inventions support the fight against breast cancer. The BCSC turned the traditional business plan competition model on its head to create a new channel to license inventions by crowdsourcing talent to create new startups.

    These two examples of challenges are very different, in terms of their purpose and the process used to design and implement them. The success they have demonstrated shouldn’t be taken for granted. It takes access to resources (both information and people), mentoring, and practical experience to both understand how to identify opportunities for innovation tools, like prizes and challenges, to use them to achieve a desired outcome.

    The Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes and challenges standard tools in every agency’s innovation toolbox. To make these tools easier to use by more Federal employees, the Administration committed in the 2013 Second Open Government National Action Plan to “convene an interagency group to develop an Open Innovation Toolkit for Federal agencies that will include best practices, training, policies, and guidance on authorities related to open innovation, including approaches such as incentive prizes, crowdsourcing, and citizen science.” Work on developing one half of this open innovation toolkit, the citizen science and crowdsourcing toolkit, began in fall 2014.

    Last month, the program at the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and a core team of Federal leaders in the prize-practitioner community began collaborating with the Federal Community of Practice for Challenges and Prizes to develop the other half of the open innovation toolkit, the prizes and challenges toolkit. In developing this toolkit, OSTP and GSA are thinking not only about the information and process resources that would be helpful to empower 21st-century public servants using these tools, but also how we help connect these people to one another to add another meaningful layer to the learning environment.


    On March 6, 2015, the White House OSTP, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab, and the GSA program convened an all-day, user-centered design workshop to develop user needs for a Federal prizes and challenges toolkit. Thirty members of the Federal Community of Practice for Prizes and Challenges participated. (Photo credit: Arianne Miller)

    Creating an inventory of skills and knowledge across the 600-person (and growing!) Federal community of practice in prizes and challenges will likely be an important resource in support of a useful toolkit. Prize design and implementation can involve tricky questions, such as:

    • Do I have the authority to conduct a prize or challenge?
    • How should I approach problem definition and prize design?
    • Can agencies own solutions that come out of challenges?
    • How should I engage the public in developing a prize concept or rules?
    • What types of incentives work best to motivate participation in challenges?
    • What legal requirements apply to my prize competition?
    • Can non-Federal employees be included as judges for my prizes?
    • How objective do the judging criteria need to be? 
    • Can I partner to conduct a challenge? What’s the right agreement to use in a partnership?
    • Who can win prize money and who is eligible to compete?

    Often there are not “one-size-fits-all” answers to these questions, which is what makes peer-to-peer consultation so valuable. Making it easier for public servants to find each other and know who to reach out to for consultation will help expand prize design and implementation capacity in the Federal workforce, and will enable organic scaling the use of these tools.

    As more and more Federal employees are equipped with modern tools and techniques such as prizes and challenges, 21st-century public servants will have more options for making meaningful progress towards solving tough problems and delivering services more efficiently and effectively in areas of national priority such as energy, health care, precision medicine, education, and the economy.

    Jenn Gustetic is Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

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  • Improving Accessibility of Government Websites

    As government digital efforts continue to grow, improving accessibility of government websites for individuals with disabilities remains a government-wide priority. On March 31, the Office of Science and Technology Policy joined with the General Services Administration’s 18F team, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and DC Legal Hackers to host a11yhack, a website accessibility hackathon.

    Federal websites are, by law, designed to be accessible to everyone — including individuals who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, or have mobility issues. The hackathon was aimed at accessibility — or “a11y” — users, developers, policy makers, and technologists. It featured experts from inside and outside of government discussing their work and an opportunity to collaborate on new and existing projects. The event’s goal was to develop shareable solutions to some of the digital accessibility problems facing government and users today.

    For example, one team began working on a 508 Procurement Playbook — a tool intended to assist agency teams as they obtain new systems and technologies to be sure they comply with Section 508, an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology.

    Unlike most hackathons, which are focused primarily on tech tools and solutions, this event also included a policy hackathon breakout which gave many of the government and civil society policy experts an opportunity to discuss existing policies and potential areas for improvement. The policy breakout group developed next steps including a proposed summit to dive deeper into these issues. Additional breakouts offered hands-on demos of tools and systems that government and non-government teams had created.

  • EPA Launches New Website to Track Safe Drinking Water Compliance

    Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Safe Drinking Water Act dashboard, a website that tracks whether public water systems are complying with the laws that keep our water safe and clean.

    Clean water is a precious resource. That’s why the EPA sets standards for drinking water quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and works with state, tribal, and territorial agencies to oversee implementation of those standards.  At the same time, the Obama Administration continues to advance its open data initiatives – focused on unleashing data across range of topics to empower citizens, communities, entrepreneurs and businesses with the information they need to innovate and make informed decisions.

    The SDWA Dashboard released last week sits at the nexus of these two important policy efforts. The Dashboard openly tracks data about water-facility inspection visits, enforcement actions, and more. Interactive charts show detailed data about facility reports for individual public water systems. Everything on the dashboard can be exported, downloaded and printed.

    The SDWA Dashboard is connected to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, which hosts thousands of visitors each month who are seeking information about the compliance status of facilities in their communities. Users can also investigate pollution sources, examine and create enforcement-related maps, or explore any state's performance with respect to several environmental laws. ECHO is a great example of government transparency, and of EPA’s commitment to engage the public in environmental protection.

    With expanded access to data, anyone can get informed and help play a role in keeping communities safe and healthy.

    Corinna Zarek is the Senior Advisor for Open Government to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer

    Lisa Lund is the Director of the Office of Compliance at the Environmental Protection Agency


  • Celebrating Sunshine Week 2015

    We conclude the 10th Sunshine Week celebrations with an update on the Open Government Initiative started six years ago by President Obama. As part of the Initiative, U.S. agencies are increasingly adopting a “default to open” approach, making more information, data, and records available online than ever before. This week, the Federal government also launched the first government-wide public analytics web dashboard, which is hosted by the General Services Administration (GSA) at

  • Announcing the U.S. Public Participation Playbook

    Today, the Administration is proud to launch the first U.S. Public Participation Playbook—a resource built through open collaboration among government, civic partners, small businesses, and the public to help give people a stronger voice in government decision making.

    Identifying best practices in public participation has been an open government priority, and was included in both the first and second U.S. Open Government National Action Plans as part of the United States effort to increase public integrity in government programs. The playbook is meant to help government better build more responsive and efficient public participation programs and measure their effectiveness.

    Over the last several months, a team of 70 leaders across the government have worked side-by-side with civil society organizations and citizens in a collaborative effort to deliver this tool. One of the most unique aspects of the engagement is that the playbook was built using the same inclusive principles that it champions.

    In developing this new resource, the team opened three comment periods for anyone to participate. Using the Madison platform, hosted by the OpenGov Foundation, more than 100 contributions were reviewed in the first week alone.

    This resource is a living document in Open Beta stage, and stakeholders from inside or outside of government are encouraged to continually offer new insights—including new plays, the latest case studies, or the most current performance metrics—to the playbook. The team will continue to evaluate, incorporate, and publicly report on new contributions.

    We look forward to continue working in partnership with agencies across the government, civil society organizations, and citizens to further develop and enhance this new resource and empower the public participation programs that give a strong voice to the people our programs serve. 

    Corinna Zarek is the Senior Advisor for Open Government to the U.S. CTO.

    Justin Herman is the SocialGov lead for the General Services Administration and is managing the U.S. Public Participation Playbook project.