Crowdsourcing, ideas and innovation in government

Join Gov 2.0 Radio producer Adriel Hampton for a conversation with IdeaScale co-founder Rob Hoehn. In the fourth of our series on crowdsourcing, innovation and ideation in the government and enterprise, Rob talks about how business clients are learning from the government, being SaaS before the cloud was cool, and what his company learned about Section 508 while working to help implement the U.S. Open Government Directive.


Meet the hackers behind OpenGov Tracker

The federal government may have closed during #snowmageddon 2010, but Jessy Cowan-Sharp and Robbie Schingler didn’t. They created OpenGov Tracker, a Website that tracks citizen ideas for federal agencies related to the Open Government Directive.

Cowan-Sharp shares what inspired them and how they did it.

Why did you create OpenGov Tracker?

In its own way, the public consultation process happening on IdeaScale right now is a historic activity, but so few people know about it. We thought that a single access point would give a sense of the participation on all the different sites, a window into the discussions happening, build some excitement, and inspire people to participate. We also thought maybe a bit of healthy competition would emerge between the different agencies, spurring additional participation. Finally, we wanted to call out and celebrate the ideas of those people who have made valuable contributions, so we promoted the most popular ideas across all agencies.

What’s the development story behind it?

When we realized the IdeaScale site had an API, we grabbed the ideas for the NASA site and started playing around. Seeing that each idea object included counts of comments, votes and lots of other information, we realized it would be easy to pull out those basic stats, calculate a few additional ones and aggregate them for all the agencies. So, we started building. The way the sites are set up, you have to register separately for an API key for each of the agencies, which wasn’t so bad– but of course then it turned out that although each agency has the same set of nominal categories, each is represented by a different category ID in the backend. This makes sense when you realize that IdeaScale is used to supporting multiple, completely stove-piped clients. But that was a fun hour or so of tediously building an index to match up the category names with each agency’s numeric category IDs.

As the number of ideas started going up, we realized that our numbers looked wrong. Upon closer inspection it turned out that the API was truncating result sets at 50. We were worried that as soon as any agency had a category that went above 50 ideas, the site would basically be useless. But IdeaScale was really helpful, and lifted the limit for us. We really appreciate that.

Of course a few agencies chose their own route instead of IdeaScale, so we haven’t included them. I’m of two minds on this. I think it’s great if agencies have their own vision for things and do something different and unique to them, since it shows they’re interested. At the same time, as a developer, it really helps us promote your stuff when there’s a common interface for accessing it. It would be neat to see us collectively put some thought into common interfaces, where feasible, for data objects on government sites and projects.

I always fail to appreciate how time consuming presentation is. Pulling out the data was much easier and faster than tweaking the layout and style. But it’s important you do that well, or obviously no one will stay on the site long enough to look at those numbers. Thankfully, Robbie’s pretty good at that part!

The site is built in using Python with Tornado as the web framework. We’re in the process of adding in MongoDB as a backend data store. It took about two evenings and two full days before we deployed it.

What features do you plan on adding in the future?

Right now the site focuses a lot on numbers. We’re working on a few additions that will bring out more of the actual content to highlight the diversity of contributions. I love looking over the tags and the titles, and appreciating how different the ideas are, how different the focus of each agency is, and how each one has its own microcosm of terminology, challenges and touchy issues. It’s actually really educational to scan the lists of ideas and learn what’s happening in the different agencies.

When we first released the site, it was just what we call a “tinyhack,” a quick and dirty project to get something useful up and running. We weren’t even saving the data. But a lot of people have asked for the ability to look at contributions over time, so now we’re growing up the code a little bit, adding a proper data store on the backend. That will also enable us to easily display trend lines, pull out more content, etc.

But there’s only another 25 days to go, so we need to optimize value provided and time to deployment. That said, we’ll make sure the data continues to be available after the consultation process is over so more fun stuff can be done by those who want to.

How to pick a citizen idea platform

By Dustin Haisler, Manor, and Margarita Quihuis, Researcher at Stanford University Persuasive Technology Lab

Today, more than ever, there has been lots of talk about open innovation, idea collection, ideation and many other terms used to describe the collection of citizen feedback. Most idea collection platforms have been lumped together and only compared on the basis of price alone. Based upon our research at Manor Labs, in collaboration with the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, we have come to the conclusion that there are two distinctly different platforms for idea collection.

Specific-Task Motivated Idea Platforms

These platforms (like Ideascale, Uservoice, etc.) are great a gathering ideas for a specific purpose. For instance, many online voting challenges have adopted these platforms to gather votes for a set period of time. After a user expends their vote or votes they are no longer motivated to return to the platform aside from seeing what ideas are on top.

  • Pros: Less Expensive Upfront Cost/ Great For Small Scale Challenges & Polls
  • Cons: Poor Idea Management / Poor Analytics

How Manor Uses: We currently employee a specific-task motivated platform for our website error pages. The voting mechanism is built into our standard error page (e404) so that if someone receives an error trying to access content on our website, they have the ability to make a suggestion at the point of failure, thus embracing specific-task motivated idea collection.

How Uses: Manor and Stanford’s Persuasive Technology team have teamed up to create, a public-facing idea generation platform. We chose IdeaScale to run the back-end because of its Web 2.0 characteristics such as single sign-ons via Facebook Connect and Open ID logins and extreme ease of use. In this particular implementation, the ideas are broken out into different categories but the focus is on Haiti disaster relief and recovery. In this kind of idea crowdsourcing where people are primed and motivated to help for altruistic reasons, elaborate game mechanics and reward systems such as found on platforms like Spigit aren’t necessary. One area where IdeaScale could improve is to allow idea contributors to auto-post to their Facebook Wall and Twitter accounts to provide social proof of their activities and thus persuade friends in their social networks to participate as well.

Structured-Idea Collection Platforms

This type of platform (like Spigit) collects and manages ideas on a board scale within multiple departments of an agency. Unlike the Specific-Task Motivated Platforms, users are free to submit ideas at any time within multiple departments. Since users are not motivated by specific-tasks, they must be motivated by a game-mechanics (ranking & rewarding of actions). In this type of platform, ideas are driven by the participants through an idea funnel.

  • Pros: Broad Idea Collection / Great Idea Management & Analytics / Less Expensive Over
  • Cons: More Expensive Upfront Costs

How Manor Uses: We currently use this platform to manage internal and external idea collection for our agency. Participants are ranked and rewarded for their participation in the platform, which provides the needed motivation to make the platform sustainable (leaderboard below). Users receive “Innobucks” for different elements of participation, such as idea submission, voting, commenting, etc. These “Innobucks” can be traded in for products or honors that offer participant a tangible benefit to participating. This mechanism of reward is vital to the sustainability of idea collection over extended periods of time.


Both platforms are great; however, focused toward corporate and internal audiences. The user interface and engagement mechanisms are sorely lacking for public-facing innovation. In the future we hope that these platforms will incorporate elements that are as engaging and persuasive as Facebook or many of the social games produced by Zynga. In the future, ideation platforms will need to have a much more social and game feel to them in order to get wide public participation. Indeed, future platforms may be built on top of Facebook because that’s where the public is. Likewise we can imagine Zynga created a new game called Cityville (ala Farmville, etc) where part of the play is ideation.

We’re at the very beginning of open innovation – comparable to where social networks were 10 years ago. There were many attempts – 6 Degrees of Separation, Ryze, Multiply, and Friendster before we began to see breakthrough applications like MySpace and then the dominant player Facebook.

Although there is significant progress to be made with open innovation in government, there are great tools currently out there for agencies to experiment and incorporation within their internal and external innovation processes. The benefits and insights gained from using these tools can only accelerate everyone’s learning curve on what works.