Pentagon uses challenges to fuel solutions

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

The Pentagon has joined 15 other agencies in using the power of the Internet, combined with the allure of prize money and sometimes peer approval, to generate new solutions to problems.

Earlier this week, the Obama Administration launched, a website designed to use challenges and prizes to entice citizens to come up with innovative solutions to problems faced by agencies.

The Department of Defense currently has four innovation challenges posted on


One of those deals with the military’s use of virtual worlds technology. Created by the Army, the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge hopes to build on the use of applications such as Second Life to improve training and collaboration. That work was showcased earlier this year at the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds Conference.

“We’re using the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge as a way to let the public teach us in the government how to use these tools better,” said Tammi Griffith, the science and technology manager with the Army Research Laboratory’s Simulation and Training Technology Center in Orlando, Fla. during a blogger’s roundtable.

In addition to the monetary prize, those entering their ideas in the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge can also gather supporters on who can post messages of support for their favorite ideas.

Griffith said based on past experience with related challenges, that kind of peer review can be a form of intrinsic reward for those who participate in the challenge.

“A lot of our winners, and even some of the people who were not finalists, actually benefited from the ability to create a peer group,” she said. “So some people who were great scripters were able to connect with people who have large virtual world development companies, and build a peer relationship that way. Also, we were able to build a community of experts from the government side who were the evaluators, and now the whole group is more knowledgeable in the area. And that peer group and that visibility may be enough, because even if they don’t get business from the government directly, they are getting business opportunities in general.”

In addition, other DoD challenges include:

In recent years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has used prize competitions to encourage academics and private citizens to participate in the DARPA Urban Challenge, the three-year effort to develop fully robotic cars and trucks for use by the military.

The General Services Administration’s Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement helped set up Bev Godwin, director of the center, said at a the recent Gov. 2.0 Summit that there’s a long history of prize challenges helping to stimulate the development of new ideas even new industries that are linked to, and shaped by the government.

“In 1919, Raymond Orteig announced a $25,000 prize for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris,” she said. “In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won that prize among a field of nine competitors. And that prize sparked the private airline industry, and many subsequent challenges and prizes.”

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