Challenges & Crowdsourcing: A Quick Overview and Look Ahead

Dec 8, 2015

This month we’re highlighting articles about challenge competitions and crowdsourcing across the federal government.

Federal agencies can gain a wealth of ideas, services, solutions and products by asking a large, diverse crowd to contribute their talents and skills.

Simply put, crowdsourcing means engaging the crowd. Often referred to as a form of open collaboration or innovation, crowdsourcing takes many forms, including challenges (or prize competitions), hackathons, data jams, code-a-thons, workplace surveys, open ideation, micro-tasks or micro-work, citizen science, and crowdfunding.

Our articles this month will delve into some of these methods through examples, advice, and project updates from those leading such efforts in the federal government.

Appealing to the Citizen Scientist

Citizen science is a hot topic in open crowdsourcing efforts. Imagine how much more agencies can achieve by inviting non-government researchers, scientists, technologists, academics and others into the scientific process to identifying research questions, collect and analyze data, interpret and extrapolate from results.

It’s small wonder, then, that so many agencies are turning to citizen science for many new and exciting initiatives, including:

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) also led an effort to create a toolkit for those wishing to carry out their own citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. The Citizen Science community of practice worked to establish the toolkit and now is ramping-up coordination efforts in this area, including development of a central online database for federal citizen science initiatives.

The partnership between GSA and OSTP also will help establish coordinators at each agency who can help manage contributions to this database.

You’ll read more about these projects in another one of this month’s articles.

It Takes All Kinds

One of the biggest advantages of crowdsourcing is the sheer number and diversity of people that come together to tackle an issue, regardless of education, age and other factors.

Building a community of problem-solvers is a crucial aspect of any successful challenge competition. Those that have run challenges for the government have used a variety of strategies to reach out to potential participants.

This month, you’ll read about some of those tactics and how agencies even have focused on target audiences, such as high schoolers or younger students, to add a key educational component to their competitions.

Examples of this include:

  • The National Science Foundation’s Generation Nano Challenge, which calls on students to think up superheros and equip them with gear inspired by nanotechnology
  • The Congressional Apps Challenge, where students in more than 160 congressional districts are designing original apps for a chance to be recognized by their member of Congress.

Incentives Stimulate Innovation

Let’s face it: There’s nothing like a monetary prize to motivate the public. But dollars aren’t the only drivers of public engagement. In the absence of a cash prize, agencies are crafting other creative incentives to motivate citizen problem-solvers to take action.

Incentivized, open competition has become a standard tool for federal agencies to solve mission-centric problems. Well-designed competitions allow agencies to:

  • Establish “big” goals and pay only for success;
  • Extend beyond the agency’s known network of vendors to a wider range of problem-solvers;
  • Bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear; and
  • Make for more affordable solutions that maximize the return on taxpayer dollars.

The U.S. government’s website is the official hub of competitions open to the public. It is a one-stop shop for the public to discover challenges and engage with federal agencies that are running crowdsourcing competitions.

Federal agencies have run more than 630 challenges since the site launched in 2010, tackling a variety of creative, business, technical and scientific problems, including:

You’ll read more about those last two in one of this month’s articles on how public-private partnerships are pushing challenge competitions to new heights. You’ll also read a first-person account from one of’s mentors on the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s foray into its first app contest.

In the meantime, you can learn more about the program by viewing a comprehensive video playlist of training, tips and additional resources or by reading articles in the Challenges category of this site.

We hope enjoy all the articles this month and that the work in crowdsourcing inspires you to get involved or launch your own initiative.

If you have any questions about this theme or want to contribute a story about your agency crowdsourcing efforts, please contact us via email.