Uncle Sam Wants YOU To Help Solve National Problems

The use of prizes and challenges to engage the public in solving societal issues has grown by leaps and bounds.

You might know that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) uses challenges to stimulate innovation, including competitions around robotics, self-driving cars and automated computer security. Falling robots draw attention, after all. Or perhaps you know about the Orteig Prize, which inspired Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic from New York to Paris, or the X Prize, which offers millions of dollars to people who successfully build spaceships, create super-efficient cars, clean up oil, or even make a functioning Star Trek tricorder.

What you may not know is that when Congress passed the America Competes Act in 2010, all federal agencies in the United States could start using prizes and challenges as a tool to accomplish their missions.

Over the years, they have. In fact, the use of crowdsourcing by the U.S. government has grown by six-fold since January 2011, when President Barack Obama signed a revised version of Competes into law. As of October 2015, over 80 federal agencies have collaborated with over 200,000 people on 440 challenges, with a total expenditure of more than $150 million in taxpayer dollars.

On Wednesday, the Obama Administration, the Case Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and Georgetown University are hosting an event to announce 23 new national challenges, including nine from non-governmental organizations. The government has turned more and more to these prize-based, crowdsourcing efforts to solve national problems, proving that the some of the best ideas will come from the next generation of tinkerers and dreamers.

Here's a quick rundown of a few of the prizes and challenges that are opening up on Wednesday:

  • The Department of Education is launching a Reach Higher Career App Challenge to help students navigate education and career opportunities, with $225,000 in cash prizes and $240,000 in non-cash prizes. First Lady Michelle Obama introduces the challenge in the video embedded below:

  • The Health Resources and Services Administration is launching a $300,000 competition to try to close the “word gap” low-income children face due to limited early exposure to language.

  • The Bureau of Reclamation is looking for better ways to measure the food available to threatened and endangered fish.

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will launch a series of data science contests this winter to understand how different trends limit the mental and physical development of children

  • Conquer Paralysis Now will launch a second round of its efforts to develop novel approaches to helping people who have suffered spinal cord injuries

The event in D.C. will also celebrate the five-year anniversary of Challenge.gov, the award-winning crowdsourcing platform that the U.S. General Services Agency launched to organize and host challenges for the public. The website, which was relaunched in 2014, offers tools for the feds to manage submissions and proposals, run reports and create communities around competitions.

The challenges aren't always about technology or the environment. Some of them are about how to rebuild after a disaster and prepare for when those oceans rise.

In 2013, a Rebuild by Design challenge run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and several partners sought new designs for public spaces affected by Hurricane Sandy that would be more resilient to coastal flooding.

"They used a prize approach to bring in world-class design firms that were engaged in close community collaboration to define with the community what it was that they wanted their public space to do for them," Jenn Gustetic, the assistant director for open innovation at the White House, told The Huffington Post.

"Seven of those projects were awarded nearly a billion dollars of HUD funding to start to make some of those projects a reality," Gustetic said. "When you talk about getting better design into a traditional government funding pipelines that are developed in collaboration with people at the local level, it's a very powerful example of how prizes can affect private sector collaboration and impacts that can affect people where they live."

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