The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partner Humanity United recently announced the first-round winners of the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention – a technology competition enlisting Solvers from around the world in support of the White House’s effort to design new tools to help prevent and respond to mass atrocities. Seven innovations won first, second, and third place prizes ranging from $1,000 to $5,000; information about the winners and their solutions can be found here. USAID and Humanity United have just launched three new Challenges, one of which is being run on the InnoCentive platform and is offering a $20,000 prize purse for a Mechanism for Secure 2-way Communications During a Crisis. We recently spoke with Mark Goldenbaum, a Democracy Specialist at USAID, about the Tech Challenge series, the successful completion of the first two Challenges, and the newly launched Secure Communications Challenge.
Hello Mr. Goldenbaum – thanks for joining us today. Could you take us back a bit in time and help us to understand the genesis of the Tech Challenge series and your primary objectives for the program?
In April 2012, President Obama unveiled his comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to atrocities at a moving speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the crowd that day for the President’s speech, and it was an unforgettable thrill when he mentioned that USAID would seek new applications of technology to help with this issue. Of course, we had been working for several weeks behind the scenes to design an approach for doing just that. And whether I knew it at the time or not, the best thing that happened to USAID in that process was linking up with Humanity United (HU), a private foundation dedicated to this issue, bringing creative thinking and energy as well as contacts and deep knowledge of this field. Together, we committed to a “Challenge” approach that would help us identify innovative applications of new and existing technologies to the issue of atrocity prevention. As for the five problem areas that we chose to focus on, these were initially identified by USAID and HU after a series of internal consultations, but then greatly strengthened and refined by reaching out to broad range of groups and experts working on these issues to make sure these reflected real world needs and opportunities.
What was your primary motivation for crowdsourcing your Challenges (as opposed to using more “traditional” means such as academic research or grants to solicit ideas and solutions)?
Broadly speaking, both USAID and HU are interested in “open source development” processes such as these to engage a broader and more diverse community than we might otherwise reach. While the professional development community and human rights groups are doing inspiring work in their own right, the idea that other fields of research or industry might have technologies, approaches, or tools that could be easily adapted to advance development or achieve conflict prevention goals is incredibly exciting. Engaging universities, students, non-profits focused on other fields, the private sector, engineers, developers, and others has been a long-standing goal, and the emergence of platforms such as InnoCentive now give us the tools to more easily do that.
What’s your sense of the role that the NASA Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) is playing in helping to guide other federal agencies in their use of open Challenges and prizes?
Clearly, there is a lot happening inside and outside of government related to the use of prizes and Challenges. Too often, we find ourselves having to recreate the wheel or repeat others’ mistakes that could have been avoided. As both a taxpayer and a federal employee, I was thrilled to find out that there was a dedicated resource created with the intention of helping other federal agencies and departments tap into a source of best practices and collective learning, and help them to better understand the state of the art. My grandfather was actually a Mission Control engineer with NASA, so I was predisposed to liking CoECI. But they have certainly surpassed my highest expectations, helping neophytes like myself better understand the industry, find the right partners, ask the right questions, and design our Challenges in a way that puts us in a position to find the best solutions. CoECI has been a great partner, and any success that we have is certainly in large part due to their assistance.
For your first two Challenges, you recognized seven innovations and awarded first, second, and third place prizes ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. What stood out among the seven innovations and differentiated them from the other solution submissions?
We are very pleased with the results of the first round, and I believe the ideas that received awards represent real opportunities to assist with the safe documentation of evidence or the spotlighting of third-party enablers. In terms of what differentiated winners from the rest of the pool, the seven that received awards rated well against all four evaluation criteria (feasibility, scalability, impact, and innovation). That’s clearly not an easy list and there were certainly some concepts strong on some, but not all. In terms of what stood out among winners, one thing that struck me personally was how many of the winners focused on the innovative application of existing tools. There is so much emphasis placed on “new” ideas or tools for solving problems, but often, what’s needed is just a different way of using or applying the resources that we already have. For example, Physicians for Human Rights’ first-place idea suggested an approach to utilize the Magpi mobile platform and InformaCam to support medical practitioners in a specific context. Additionally, the Enough Project’s proposal to work with Palantir to analyze specific types of transactions, among other data, represented another innovative use of existing resources.
Another thing that stood out and excites me is the emergence of tools that can really strengthen the good work already going on among non-governmental organizations. For example, given how many private groups are using publicly available satellite imagery to identify and document mass violence (e.g., Eyes on Darfur, Satellite Sentinel Project), the AMALGAM proposal might greatly help these groups automate their analytical capabilities and really push the state of the art forward. While I imagine those types of technologies exist within governments, the idea of putting those tools in the hands of advocacy groups and private citizens is very exciting.
Your current Secure Communications Challenge is an Ideation Challenge with a guaranteed award for at least one submitted solution. What are some of the key attributes you’d like to see (or not see) in a winning solution?
We recognize that we’re really asking for the moon with this particular problem set, but then again, I guess that’s why we call this a Challenge! As we detailed in the Challenge Statement, the role of information in crises is absolutely critical, and the reality that most vulnerable or affected communities lose their ability to communicate in the midst of a crisis is one of the most daunting issues we face. Generally speaking, Solvers should keep in mind that solutions don’t have to work everywhere to be valuable, and they don’t have to meet all our criteria to be useful. For example, as we saw in the first round, some of our best ideas were tailored towards specific contexts. And what works in a context like Syria, where there is a high level of infrastructure and a government that tries to monitor internet traffic and communications, might be very different from a context like Eastern DRC, where there is almost no infrastructure and a government that plays a very different role. Additionally, while we’d love to see ideas that help convey information to groups where literacy may not be high, we don’t want to rule out innovative approaches that use SMS or other means to securely convey text-based information.
I should also point out that one of the real difficulties evaluating submissions for an Ideation Challenge is that while all of the concepts tell you what they want to achieve, too few explained how they would function or overcome some of the more significant constraints. The more details on how a concept could be implemented the better, and certainly an awareness of what hurdles would have to be overcome would increase the judges’ confidence in the feasibility of a submission.
Thanks for your time Mr. Goldenbaum. Do you have any final advice to our Solvers as they tackle your new Challenge?
Thanks so much for the opportunity to be here, and to all who are interested in this competition. Also, don’t forget to visit our Tech Challenge website (www.thetechchallenge.org) that details and links to additional Challenges that we’re sponsoring. Good luck!