Expect more prize competitions to address tough IT, high-tech challenges

In 2014 there were 97 competitions to solve IT, software and other high-tech issues

Many people criticize the federal government for myriad problems, but there is at least one program in recent years that has been a success – the use of competitions or crowdsourcing to address sometimes complex problems. And because of those accomplishments you can expect many more such contests in the future.

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The White House Office of Science and Technology notes that in January 2015 the government will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the America Competes Act which in combination with Challenge.gov has prompted more than 400 public-sector prize competitions which have doled out some $72 million in prizes.  Some agencies like NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as well as private entities like the X Prize Foundation have used competitions to address high-tech challenges for years with great success.

cgc qualifying 619 316 1 DARPA

Seven teams from around the country have earned the right to play in the final competition of DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge (CGC), a first-of-its-kind tournament designed to speed the development of automated security systems

The Office of Science and Technology recently issued a report on the use of such 97 competitions for fiscal year 2014 and found some interesting trends. For example:

  • Increased ambition and sophistication of prize competition and challenge designs enabled by partnerships: In FY 2014, the majority of challenges (79%) were designed to achieve multiple goals, and more than one third were designed to produce multiple types of solutions.
  • In FY14, 56% of all prizes and challenges leveraged partnerships to expand their reach, impact, and scope. As agencies learn how to use and design prizes most effectively, they are progressively becoming more ambitious in prize design through partnerships and complex goal setting.
  • An example of an ambitious challenge conceptualized, designed, and implemented during FY14 is NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter Challenge, a partnership with Planetary Resources, Inc. to conduct a series of challenges leveraging Catalina Sky Survey data hosted on the Amazon Cloud. The Asteroid Data Hunter Challenge, a series of contests with a $55,000 total prize purse, sought to improve the ability to detect potentially hazardous asteroids using imagery captured by ground-based telescopes. The algorithm created through this challenge series resulted in a 15 percent improvement over the current method of identifying asteroids in the main belt of Asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter. These results were obtained for a total project cost of less than $200,000, which is less than the salary for one full-time engineer for the same time period.
  • More than half of the 34 prizes conducted in FY 2014 under the authority provided by America Competes and 38% of all prizes and challenges conducted in FY 2014 sought software and/or analytical solutions such as applications, data visualization tools, and predictive models and algorithms. Many of these challenges sought to develop complex software through crowdsourcing.
  • Going beyond app contests, challenges can be structured to build software that addresses a variety of government needs in a more cost-effective, agile and creative way than through traditional government contracts. For example, the CMS Healthcare Fraud Partnership Data Exchange Network Challenge sought to build a data exchange network that enables healthcare insurance-paying entities in both the public and private sector to safely and securely share information for purposes of prevention and detection of fraud, waste, and abuse across partners. Over 1,400 people competed for $100,000 in prizes over the course of this challenge series.
  • Incentive prizes can be powerful tools for supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses by leveling the playing field and giving license to pursue an endorsed stretch goal that otherwise may have been considered overly audacious.
  • Challenge managers experimented with new ways to engage the public and develop new communities through approaches such as: soliciting public comment on draft rules; operating a pilot challenge to determine interest and gather feedback from within the target participant population; using scouting services to identify potential participants in challenges; inviting winners to present webinars on their solutions to the target participation population; using “co-design” platforms to integrate user needs and opinions into the design of solutions; and announcing challenges at events where target participants already attend (e.g. datapaloozas, DEFCON, SXSW); publication of winning offerings as open-source resources.

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To build on this momentum, the Obama administration will hold an event this fall to highlight the role that prizes play in solving critical national and global issues, the Office of Science and Technology stated. The office said in the future a number of new competition techniques could emerge. For example:

  • Federal, state, and local government agencies could increase their capacity to design and implement ambitious prizes by recruiting full-time prize experts, establishing agency-wide policies for incentive prizes, and providing prize-related mentoring and training to their employees.
  • Agencies could also identify and make available assets that they have – such as datasets, user facilities, and expertise in testing and evaluation – that could be used to support incentive prizes.
  • Companies and foundations could partner with the public sector to sponsor incentive prizes using the partnership authority provided by the America Competes Act. For example, GE, the NFL, Under Armor and NIST are using a challenge to advance the development of technologies that can detect early stage mild traumatic brain injuries and improve brain protection.
  • Foundations could sponsor fellowships for prize designers in the public sector to encourage the development and implementation of ambitious prizes in areas of national importance.
  • Universities could establish courses and online material to help students and mid-career professionals learn to design effective prizes and challenges.
  • Researchers could conduct empirical research on incentive prizes and other market-shaping techniques to increase our understanding of how and under what circumstances these approaches can best be used to accelerate progress on important problems.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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