Agencies ramp up use of challenge competitions

White House and General Services Administration are tracking crowdsourcing along with technology challenges as paths to innovation.

smart public services (magic pictures/

Crowdsourcing and citizen-driven science that tap government data, are key in advancing research and development of innovative technologies, said Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the General Services Administration's Open Innovation Summit on June 14.

Droegemeier, a former top meteorological professor at the University of Oklahoma and sworn in as OSTP director in January, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's work to free weather data for private-sector innovation is a prime example of how government can fuel public-sector innovation to solve hard problems or create new solutions.

"That liberation of data is foundational" to the federal prize challenges and citizen science that and present.

The GSA and OSTP jointly released their sixth report on how agencies are implementing federal prize competitions and challenges authorized in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.

Private industry and academic partnerships remain drivers in advancing innovation and helping government solve hard problems, according to Droegemeier.

Overall, federal agencies have been ramping up their use of prize competitions and challenges, according to the report.'s federally sponsored prize competitions rose from 744 to 875 in the two years since the last report, according to the latest issue.

The new report also said those competitions have spurred successful start-up companies, as well as provided a foundation of examples for other agencies to begin their own efforts.

"One thing I learned as an academic for 34 years, and coming into the administration it's not about the government doing it. It's about empowering others. It's leadership 101. The leader doesn't do that much of the work. They enable the empowerment and resources for the people."

Jennifer Shieh, assistant director of entrepreneurship at OSTP, said that agencies using competitions and challenges to advance scientific research was the largest growth category since the last report. "About 16% in 2014 to over 50% of prize competitions will be to advance scientific research in 2018," she said.

However, she said "almost all of the prize competitions in 2018 report [have] multiple goals," with the most commonly reported pairing being solving a specific problem/technology development.

The new report, said Shieh, also provides a baseline for a relatively new avenue of government's efforts to spur innovation through competition and citizen-driven research -- crowdsourcing.

Although the study is the sixth to report on agencies' use of prize competitions and challenges, it is the first to measure crowdsourcing activities, said Shieh.

Crowdsourcing by agencies was authorized in 2017 by the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.

"This is the first time" OSTP collected data on crowdsourcing and citizen science data under the law, said Shieh. "We learned a lot," she said, for instance that "it's really hard to make generalizations about this activity as a whole."

The report includes information on 86 different crowdsourcing and citizen science activities by 14 agencies, she said. However, federal agencies are increasingly using crowdsourcing, just as they have with challenges and competitions, according to Shieh. Many of the crowdsourcing activities were specific to federal agency facilities' locations, such as National Parks, for instance, she said, so the number of participants varied with the location. More than half of the applications were at specific geographic locations, she said, instead of being primarily online.

"This is a baseline to track crowdsourcing and citizen science data trends in future reports. We're learning more about how we want to look at this information and track trends" that might influence future policies, she said.