Tackling government innovation through a new funding model

There's no shortage of ideas for ways to better leverage technology to improve health and education in the developing world and there's no shortage of people interested in putting those ideas into practice, the chief innovation officer for the United States Agency for International Development said Wednesday.

The problem, Maura O'Neill said, is traditional funding models tend to scare off federal officials, who are wary of pumping money into unproven ideas that have to be scaled at a national or multinational level. If the ideas prove successful, there's some personal satisfaction, but if they flop the agency or division is tarred with wasting millions in taxpayer dollars.

The solution O'Neill's office arrived at was Development Innovation Ventures, which uses the Silicon Valley model of staged financing with more funding for better developed and proven projects and less for earlier stage and riskier efforts.

DIV is about two years old and just announced its first "stage three" investment, a project to supply low-cost deworming medication throughout Kenya and several smaller regions to reduce school absenteeism. Stage three investments can run up to $15 million and are "where you'll really start to see an impact," O'Neill said at a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Most of DIV's investments so far have been for stage one project grants of $100,000 or less, she said. USAID sees great promise for such projects, but isn't banking yet on a big change in outcomes.

DIV is something like a "DARPA for development," Thomas Khalil, deputy director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said at the CSIS event.

Khalil's office has been working to mirror the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's successes -- including everything from helping create the Internet to developing robot cheetahs -- elsewhere in government. Its projects range from the crowdsourcing website Challenge.gov -- aimed at solving specific problems outlined by an agency through the work of the masses -- to the HHSinnovates awards, created by then-Health and Human Services Department Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to bring special recognition to innovators within the agency.

President Obama named Park federal CTO on March 9.

One of the projects O'Neill highlighted Wednesday is a low-cost version of a balloon tamponade, an insert similar to a tampon that can plug blood vessels to stop post-childbirth hemorrhaging. The devices are used in the West but can cost up to $300 compared to about $10 for the DIV-funded model developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, O'Neill said.

Another set of grantees from Georgetown University posted stickers on minibuses in Kenya urging passengers to harass drivers if they were driving unsafely. In small-scale pilots, the stickers significantly reduced car accident and death rates, O'Neill said.

James Long, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-San Diego, was another stage one grant winner. Long and a colleague recruited Afghan volunteers to take photos of vote tallies at polling sites during the 2010 election, a low-cost method of detecting and reducing ballot tampering.

Long's project hasn't fundamentally changed the field of election monitoring, O'Neill said, but data from his trials has shaken up the field and could influence its long-term course. Most notably, the project managed to gather data from a larger share of polling places, 8 percent nationally, than the largest election monitoring group in the country -- a reasonable return on a relatively small investment.

One criterion for stage one DIV funding is that projects show some route to sustainability, O'Neill said. In some cases that means an official within government who's shown a willingness to pursue a larger scale project if the pilot meets certain benchmarks. In other cases, it could mean commercial funding that's likely to arrive once the idea has proved itself.

The grants also are open to private sector companies, which retain intellectual property rights over any new technology, O'Neill said, so they can hedge riskier investments that might benefit poorer populations.