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Government Seeks Change Through Challenges

September 9, 2010
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

Give two cents—get big prizes. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), in partnership with ChallengePost, launched Challenge.gov on September 7 at the Gov 2.0 Summit 2010 in Washington, D.C. The free online challenge platform invites the general public to propose solutions to government challenges, including the U.S. Army’s push for new training and simulation tools utilizing artificial intelligence.

Challenge.gov uses challenges submitted by government agencies and departments to spur innovation and engage participants, says Bev Godwin, director, Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement, GSA. She detailed the new initiative just one day after its launch during a Defense Department Bloggers Roundtable. It’s all about looking for new ways to find solutions, explains Godwin, and the government has to pay only for results.

In its first day live on the Web, the site offered 36 challenges submitted by 16 different departments and agencies. The Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge, proposed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory-Simulation and Training Technology Center, calls for new methods of training and analysis using virtual environments and artificial intelligence.

This challenge is open to all contestants worldwide, and winners receive cash prizes and a trip to the GameTech Conference in Orlando, Florida, where their entries will be showcased. Submissions will be accepted through December 6, 2010.

Tami Griffith, science and technology manager, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Simulation and Training Technology Center, leads the Virtual Worlds challenge and calls herself a big fan of innovation incentive programs. People are naturally inclined to give their two cents when it comes to cutting-edge topics, says Griffith, and Challenge.gov is a way to optimize advancements in virtual technology. The Army hopes to find solutions for training and analysis like intelligent conversational bots and programs with adjusted learning capabilities that modify based on the speed of the learner, she explains.

GSA selected the challenge host platform, ChallengePost, from eight other organizations because the company has experience working on federal initiatives, including New York City’s Big Apps challenge and the Apps for Healthy Kids program with First Lady Michelle Obama. Brandon Kessler, founder and chief executive officer of ChallengePost, says the company aims to create change through competition. He explains that a high percentage of people who engage in one challenge continue to participate in many more, which creates excitement and establishes a knowledgeable peer group of experts in a field.

Challenges have proven to be a cost-effective way to find solutions. Kessler says participants submitted more than $5 million in software solutions for the Apps for Healthy Kids challenge for a government payout of just $60,000 in prizes—an extremely high return on investment. But organizers say it’s not all about the end result. “Status, recognition, intellectual stimulation and the competitive spirit,” drive participants to contribute, offers Kessler.

Griffith agrees, saying “the peer group and visibility may be enough initially because even if they don’t get business from the government, they are getting business in general,” which may be a bigger payoff than the challenge prize. And for younger participants, Godwin says the goal is simply “to participate rather than looking for the best solution,” which was the case with one challenge where high school students created robots in an effort to engage them in science and mathematics regardless of the outcome.

Other challenges on the site range from the Game Day Challenge, which asks colleges to find ways to reduce waste at football games, to the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE challenge from the Department of Energy, which calls for a vehicle that exceeds 100 miles per gallon with $10 million in prizes at stake. Even those who don’t have expertise in a specific field can log on and participate by adding their name as a supporter of a challenge to receive updates.

Each challenge comes with separate rules and criteria. For more information, visit http://challenge.gov.