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Using Prizes to Engage Citizen Solvers: A Progress Report

Today OSTP released its third annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation, engage citizen solvers, address tough problems, and advance their core missions.

Today OSTP released its third annual comprehensive report detailing the use of prizes and competitions by Federal agencies to spur innovation, engage citizen solvers, address tough problems, and advance their core missions. This year’s report details the remarkable results from 87 prize competitions implemented by 25 Federal agencies in fiscal year 2013, representing an over 85 percent increase over the prior year.

This progress is due to important steps that the Obama Administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox. In his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, President Obama called on all Federal agencies to increase their use of prizes to address some of our Nation’s most pressing challenges. Those efforts have expanded since the signing of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provided all agencies with expanded authority to pursue ambitious prizes with robust incentives.

To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice. And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.

The report released today reviews several trends in public-sector prize competitions:

  • Growth in the number of competitions and the size of prize purses. In addition to the 85 percent annual increase in prizes run under all legal authorities, the number of prizes conducted under the authority provided by COMPETES increased by over 50 percent compared to 2012 and by nearly six-fold compared to 2011. And the size of prize purses has grown as well – 11 prizes had prize purses of $100,000 or greater in 2013. HHS continued to be a leader in open innovation, offering 28 prizes in FY 2013, a 50% increase over the prior year. The HHS challenges offered a total of over $1.2 million prize purses, with an average purse size of $46,000, a 150% increase over the prior year.
  • Increased focus on using prizes to identify novel solutions. Federal agencies increasingly used prizes to identify novel solutions from innovators and decreasingly used prizes for public education and outreach. For example, EPA and HHS’s My Air, My Health Challenge was a call to innovators to develop a personal and portable integrated system to monitor, report, and assess air pollutants and potentially-related physiological and health metrics. The $100,000 prize went to a team that built the Conscious Clothing prototype that could cost as little as $20 when built to scale. Its low price, comfort, and near-invisibility make it attractive not only to researchers and communities, but to individuals looking to take charge of their own health.
  • Emphasis on creating a post-competition path to success for new solutions. Prize managers experimented with ways to increase the likelihood that solutions generated during a challenge would be implemented post-competition, by targeting the solutions for further development through targeted grants, SBIR funding, or direct development by a Federal lab; forming partnerships to promote or deploy winning solutions; and tying future plans and investments to the lessons learned during the competition. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design is a multi-stage regional design competition to promote resilience for the region affected by Hurricane Sandy and develop resilience projects that will actually be built. The ten finalist teams were given opportunities to interface with community leaders and stakeholder groups to provide their unique insights and understanding of the region to the teams. Beyond the $2,000,000 prize purse was funded entirely by HUD’s philanthropic partners, another major incentive for the design teams is the potential for future involvement with the implementation of their ideas through state or local jurisdictions. HUD will incentivize the implementation of winning designs by using funds made available through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG–DR) program to leverage other public and private funds.
  • More prizes for effective and low-cost software and information technology solutions. Nearly half of the prizes conducted in FY 2013 sought software solutions such as applications (apps), data visualization tools, and predictive models and algorithms. Many of these coding, software, and IT challenges sought to build value from open government data for both citizens and the Federal government and to increase citizens’ access to private-sector applications and services that can be used to analyze their own personal data securely. The $50,000 Apps for Vehicles Challenge, offered by the Department of Energy (DOE), asked application developers to demonstrate how the open data available on most vehicles can be used to improve vehicle safety, fuel efficiency, and comfort. DOE awarded New York-based Dash the Judges’ Prize and Michigan-based MyCarma the Popular Choice prize. Since the competition, Dash started a company with their winning app and MyCarma has since been acquired by another company; both are now available to consumers.
  • New models for engaging the public and building communities during competitions. Challenge managers experimented with new ways to engage the public and develop new communities through approaches such as: new methods for public voting; use of “co-design” online platforms to integrate user needs into the design of solutions; publication of winning solutions as open source resources; use of crowdfunding to support entrants; and physical and virtual forums that allowed entrants and stakeholders to discuss, develop, and improve solutions. For example, in the $40,000 Crowds Care 4 Cancer: Supporting Survivors Challenge offered by the HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), developers built tools and apps to coordinate follow-up care for cancer survivors. The three semi-finalists teams raised over $16,000 in additional seed-funding through an online crowdfunding platform.

You can learn more about the prize competitions being run across the Federal Government at, a one-stop shop where tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and citizen solvers have participated in more than 300 of these public-sector prize competitions to date. Earlier this year, the program won the prestigious “Innovations in American Government Award” from Harvard University’s Ash Center.

Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy