Open Innovation For Government

Jan 23, 2012

A Connecticut company is partnering with NASA and Harvard University in an initiative that it hopes will bring a whole new level of efficiency to the federal government. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.

Topcoder, based in Glastonbury, was founded just ten years ago, but in that decade it’s become something of  a touchstone in the tech community.

“The idea that nobody is as smart as everybody is catching on now.”

That’s Rob Hughes, the CEO of Topcoder, describing the company’s driving philosophy. Topcoder employs just 50 people fulltime, but it can call on the expertise of almost 400,000 of the best technical experts in the world.

“Topcoder is an online community of digital creators and technologists that come together to try and solve problems in a competitive environment.”

The company takes real-world problems from companies like Facebook, PayPal and Lending Tree, and increasingly from government agencies such as NASA, and offers a prize to the technologist who comes up with the best solution. Clients pay a fee and either work with the company to formulate their competition, or create the competition right on Topcoder’s website.

“Hi, I’m going to show you how to launch a contest with Topcoder direct….”

And while software creation is Topcoder’s bread and butter – say, the writing of new mobile app to help a company better serve its customers, Rob Hughes says the problems might also be logistical or mathematical, say, how to best pack cargo on a mission into space.

“While there’s almost always a technology component to the ultimate solution, very often the ideas that are generated from the community are business concepts or they’re mathematical or engineering approach to a particular problem, and not at first software.”

Hughes believes this is a model who’s time has come.

“If this is truly going to be our Sputnik moment, we’re need a commitment to innovation that we haven’t seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon….”

In late 2010, President Obama signed into law the America Competes Act. Among other things, that legislation allowed all government agencies to use these types of open competitions as a way of spurring innovation. Now Topcoder has partnered with Harvard University and NASA to create a new Center of Excellence to help federal agencies follow best practices in implementing that idea.

“This gives them instant access both to those best practices, and knowledge base about how to form your challenge, how to ask the right questions. And then Topcoder provides a platform by which those agencies can disseminate those challenges and make them open to a broader public.”

One of the first competitions that Topcoder has launched through the Center of Excellence is for the US Patent and Trademark Office. Its database contains 100 years of patent applications, which together contain millions of figures, images and schematics.

“Those figures are not indexed or searchable currently. So somebody has to go back through all of what’s been there before and identify where the images are, tag them, and put them into a database to make it searchable. Now to do that manually would take years and years and it’s an extremely inefficient way to do it.”

Now Topcoder’s community is working competitively on the best algorithm to create that searchable database for the Patent Office. Hughes says next up is the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services which wants to formulate a way of driving down the cost of distributing funding to the 50 states.

“Obviously there’s very large budget issues the government continues to face every day. Without more openness, without more transparency in terms of how to get solutions developed, that simply will not go away.”

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.