Direct messaging: Jarah Meador

Director of Challenge.Gov + CitizenScience.Gov

Headshot of Jarah Meador
  • Jarah Meador
  • Director, Challenge.Gov + CitizenScience.Gov

February 1, 2023

As Director of Open Innovation, Technology Transformation Services for Challenge.Gov and CitizenScience.Gov, how would you describe the mission of your work?

The mission of TTS is to design and deliver a digital government with and for the American public.

The Open Innovation program at TTS supports federal agencies in their efforts to use crowdsourcing and prize competitions (Challenge.Gov) to engage the public to develop innovative solutions to critical issues.

Similarly, CitizenScience.Gov supports federal agencies who seek to engage the public in scientific research and discovery via citizen science activities.

TTS provides infrastructure via the Challenge.Gov and CitizenScience.Gov websites that allow federal agencies to connect directly with the American public.

Additionally, our programs provide guidance and support to the growing community of federal open innovation practitioners. This support includes policy guidance, consultation, and development of toolkits and templates. We offer our platforms and support at no cost to federal agencies.

Our mission to the American public is to reduce barriers to participate in innovation, problem solving, and discovery.

On the technology side, specifically via Challenge.Gov, we approach this by providing an accessible and secure platform where the public can easily create an account and participate directly in a variety of different prize competitions.

Aside from the website we also host monthly Innovator’s Hour sessions where the public can learn more about challenges that are active and open for participation.

You can find out more by following Challenge.Gov on LinkedIn.

Why is it important that government foster a culture of open innovation?

It’s a fool’s errand to focus on building a culture of open innovation if you haven’t first built a culture of innovation.

Many agencies are still working to define and decode what innovation means and how it aligns with their mission. Setting that expectation and understanding of what innovation is (and is not) instills confidence in federal innovators to try new approaches, new mechanisms for solving problems and with new partners.

Agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, USDA, Commerce, and NASA (to name a few) have thriving innovation ecosystems and these agencies are leaders in opening their innovation activities to outside partners and innovators.

Transformational innovation essentially solves a problem - it gets it right. To do this we have to understand the problem and we have to bring innovators and their talents to bear to solve the problem.

The government serves the public, they are our customers. Traditionally the government has used mechanisms like contracts and grants to develop new technologies and innovation. These mechanisms are proven and effective, and largely de-risked. Past-performance and a history of success are often used as selection criteria.

Open innovation allows ideas and solutions to come from unlikely places - largely because selection is not based on past-performance. This gives leading edge start-ups and innovators from under-represented groups a chance to compete head-to-head with industry leaders.

Using open innovation the government can reduce bias in participation and promote inclusion and diversity. We can level the innovation playing field and increase the likelihood that the innovations we are developing are for the people, by the people.

What’s the evolution of Challenge.Gov?

The Challenge.Gov program came into existence with the passage of The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, 15 USC 3719 (COMPETES).

COMPETES provided the head of every federal agency with the authority to run prize competitions. It also established a role for GSA to provide federal agencies with prize competition support and guidance.

The March 8, 2010 memo (M-10-11, Subject: Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government) specified that GSA would make available a web-based platform for prizes and challenges.

Challenge.Gov officially launched in September 2010. Since 2010, Challenge.Gov has hosted approximately 1,650 prize competitions from over 100 agencies. These competitions have awarded more than $500 million in total prize awards and have engaged thousands of solvers.

The Challenge.Gov platform has had several iterations since 2010 and, in 2021, we launched a custom portal. Over the years, we have gained a concrete understanding of federal challenge manager needs and features for this platform.

The needs center on accessibility, security, and simplicity of workflows. For our public innovators we have focused on user experience and creating a page where they can engage with all active federal prize competitions, in one place.

In the early days of COMPETES, Challenge.Gov served as the central source for prize competition support. In the last decade a broader prize ecosystem has developed.

This ecosystem includes agency prize leads/offices, the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy, the federal-wide Challenge and Prize Community of Practice, and private sector prize vendors. Many agencies have invested in developing in-house prize competition competency and processes while others are working with vendors who provide prize competition services.

Challenge.Gov has evolved to primarily support those who are new to prize competitions and are running competitions for the first time. In many ways we serve as the gateway and bridge to agencies who choose to explore the prize competition mechanism.

Challenge.Gov has also evolved to lead the federal-wide Challenge and Prize Community of Practice. Our role is as a convener and connector with the community. We serve the community by developing resources (blogs, case studies, toolkits) to promote the use and scale of prize competitions.

With the launch of the new Challenge.Gov platform, we are evolving and growing our role in public engagement. With this tool we are able to understand user behaviors and to tailor and refine content and the user experience.

We are gaining important insight into public participation and topics that most resonate and inspire the public.

Challenge.Gov is open sourced. Can you share how and why this is important?

TTS values open source and you’ll see that many of our products and shared services are open. We do this so that anyone can study, change, or distribute the code for any purpose.

Being open provides an avenue for the public to understand and contribute to the code base of our platform. This is important because the technology was funded by the public and it serves the public.

Having the code be open aligns with that ethos.

How are other governments re-purposing the Challenge.Gov code for their own use?

Although we aren’t aware of a government re-purposing our code as of yet, other governments contact us regularly with a desire to create their own version of Challenge.Gov.

The real value we seem to provide in those conversations is our insight into user needs and public behavior and what motivates the public to participate in government sponsored prize competitions using this digital tool.

It’s important to mention that several TTS products are integrated into Challenge.Gov such as Login.Gov, Search.Gov, U.S. Web Design System - all of which embrace and leverage open source software.

What is citizen science, and what are examples of how people are embracing it, particularly ones empowered by government open innovation?

The COMPETES Act was amended in 2017 to include the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act. This Act granted Federal agencies the direct, explicit authority to use crowdsourcing and citizen science to advance agency missions and stimulate broader participation in the innovation process.

In this Act citizen science was defined as “a form of open collaboration in which individuals or organizations participate in the scientific process in various ways.”

The Act provided a lengthy list of the various approaches including creation and design of projects, conducting experiments, collecting, and analyzing data, to name a few.

Government support and interest in citizen science preceded the passage of the Act in 2017 with several agencies having direct authorities to sponsor citizen science activities. The Act specified a role for GSA in supporting citizen science and directly led to the creation of CitizenScience.Gov.

Agencies are embracing different approaches to citizen science. These can take the forms of community driven citizen science, community based participation, investigator initiated participatory research, and collaborative partnerships.

More and more we are seeing agencies take the approach of working directly with communities to design and implement citizen science projects.

An exciting example that exemplifies this approach is the NOAA Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign. In this important work NOAA and community scientists are partnering to map temperatures in 14 U.S. cities and counties. Using this approach they will map and raise awareness about urban heat islands.

How is citizen science changing science?

If we look back hundreds of years to the early days of scientific publication we see that science was an activity reserved mainly for aristocracy. It was a closed and exclusive process.

As a scientist myself, I can attest to how difficult it is even today to be deemed “qualified” to practice science and to represent scientific findings.

Discovery has been stifled by closed and exclusive participation models in science.

The digital tools we have today allow for data collection and sharing, collaboration, and inclusive participation. Citizen science is breaking down barriers and creating frameworks for participation. This is leading to transparency and trust between scientists and the general public.

These projects also provide avenues for public participation in ways that are meaningful to all parties involved.

What other government innovation programs should we be paying attention to?

There are many, but here are a few that I follow closely:

What’s happening at the intersection of government and open innovation that you’re really excited about?

I’m inspired by agencies like NASA and their commitment to make their research data wholly available to the public.

In fact, the Biden Administration just released a fact sheet to launch the Year of Open Science (on January 11, 2023).

The door has been opened for agencies to advance the principles of open government. In the announcement several agencies listed commitments to advance open and equitable research.

I’m excited about the progress we will make through these commitments to broaden research participation and expand opportunities for public engagement.

I’m excited by the innovative prize models that agencies are using to source concepts, prototypes, and small-scale testing. Agencies are experimenting with stage frameworks that allow start-ups to compete in the same playing field alongside more established companies.

These competitions are reducing the toil that so many innovators experience when trying to engage with the federal government.

Agencies are beginning to understand the value of prize competitions to serve as a proxy for “phase 0” to ready the innovation pipeline for more traditional funding vehicles, for example Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards.

Much work needs to be done to fully explore the possibilities of how we can use prize authority in combination with procurement and assistance to provide the appropriate type of award at the appropriate time and readiness level.

I believe we’re just getting started.

What’s your open innovation advice to government leaders?

  1. Open innovation is a practice. Build capacity to develop and support open innovation practitioners. Define what innovation means in your organization, foster a culture of innovation, and then develop the processes for being open.
  2. Open innovation should be equitable. When thinking about open innovation activities you should align incentives and benefits to participation for not only the government but also the public.
  3. Be purposeful in building a community with the public around your open innovation activities. Invest in strategic public engagement and allow for dialog with members of the public who are living and working to address the problems you hope to impact.
  4. Similarly to #3, join one of the many federal communities of practice of over 25,000 federal employees to share knowledge and best practices. You will find support, knowledge sharing, and potential collaborations in these communities.

Challenge.Gov:

CitizenScience.Gov:

TTS:

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