Connecting Grassroots and Government through the 2013 Open Government National Action Plan

Have you ever wondered what the weather is like on Mars? Now you can find out — Sol, the galaxy’s first interplanetary weather application, integrates weather data collected by the Curiosity Rover on Mars with earth data, displaying weather on both planets in real time.

This app, used by astronauts and space enthusiasts alike, was developed for a challenge hosted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Founded in 2012, the annual Space Apps Challenge asks volunteers to solve real-world problems using open data. NASA’s Space Apps challenge was founded in response to the President’s 2011 Open Government National Action Plan, designed to engage the public in government activities.

The White House renewed the plan earlier this month, issuing The Open Government Partnership: Second Open Government National Action Plan for the United States of America. This report outlines 23 action points for supporting open government to increase public integrity, effectively manage resources, and improve public services. This final category includes a commitment to “Promote Innovation through Collaboration,” by creating an open innovation toolkit, offering new incentive prizes and challenges, and generally increasing crowdsourcing within the federal government.

Similar themes were discussed at a Nov. 20, 2103 event hosted by the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This workshop, New Visions for Citizen Science, was attended by 120 in-person guests, including representatives from 19 federal agencies, and was webcast to an audience of 225 unique viewers in 15 countries (to view the archived video, click here).

Following remarks from Kumar Garg, Assistant Director for Learning and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a keynote speech from Bob Perciasepe, Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), attendees broke into roundtable discussions. Participants discussed opportunities, challenges, and future directions for open innovation approaches like citizen science, with some focus on how the federal government might support these efforts. Many of the points collected correspond to initiatives from the new action plan.

The plan commits to creating an “open innovation toolkit” including “best practices, training, policies, and guidance on authorities related to open innovation, including approaches such as incentive prizes, crowdsourcing, and citizen science.” Participants at the workshop expressed a number of needs that a toolkit could address.

Federal agencies and private partners asked for best practices for recruiting and retaining volunteers, ensuring data quality and validation, and designing training programs. Participants from federal agencies also asked for guidance regarding the institutional, legal, and regulatory constraints to using citizen science in agencies. Here they addressed specific concerns including intellectual property, liability, cybersecurity, and privacy.

Many participants wondered which types of open innovation are appropriate in different contexts. Participants also hoped for clarification on how citizen science unfolds in government agencies, as compared to private organizations. Some noted that agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and EPA use volunteer monitoring to help agencies set priorities for official investigations rather than using volunteer data directly for regulation. To this end, a number of participants hoped for an analysis of barriers that prevent citizen science data from being used in federal decisionmaking. Finally, participants described the need for research into low cost, open-source hardware and software, and the need to foster private sector innovation.

The administration’s plan says the new incentive prizes and challenges will be hosted on Challenge.gov, a platform for federal prize competitions. While many participants mentioned the Space Apps Challenge, the government’s work in this area benefits citizen science by demonstrating support for open innovation in government and by highlighting the importance of a technological infrastructure to support numerous projects.

The final commitment outlined in the new action plan is to “increased Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Programs.” This section defines citizen science as a type of open innovation that “allows the public to make critical contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math by collecting, analyzing, and sharing a wide range of data” and highlights projects from different agencies.

The goal of expanding crowdsourcing and citizen science programs is heartening, but should be approached strategically. Many roundtable participants noted that the lack of a formal assessment of current practices, opportunities, and gaps. For example, where might citizen science data best augment and enhance traditional data sources? What opportunities for exploring open innovation to solve key national challenges—such as crowdsourcing energy data, or monitoring environmental indicators—are underexplored?

The action plan is a good start, but more can be done. As mentioned, formal assessment would help agencies with existing projects allocate resources more effectively, and identify areas where new initiatives might be formed. And this sort of strategic approach would result in projects that go far beyond forecasting the weather on distant planets – unlocking the true potential of citizen science.

For more information, check out New Visions in Citizen Science, a collection of 17 cases studies showcasing citizen science and open innovation projects. A deeper analysis of key workshop themes and findings is forthcoming; a Twitter discussion of the event is archived here.

About the Authors

Anne Bowser is a graduate Research Assistant in the Commons Lab, and a PhD student at the University of Maryland’s College of Library and Information Science.

Lea Shanley directs the Commons Lab in the Science and Technology Innovation Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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