Crowdsourcing has permeated almost every industry, including the government. Notable examples of success in government include the community development of a 17-acre plot of land in Bristol Connecticut, a contest for community improvement in Birmingham Alabama, and user generated iPhone applications for San Jose city.
Even the secretive and highly bureaucratic Department of Defense has used crowdsourcing to their advantage. In 2010 the U.S. Army called upon military service members and civilian staff to enter the “Apps for the Army” competition. The purpose of the competition was to improve the Army’s ability to reach young and technologically savvy Soldiers using modern distribution channels – apps.
The initiative was a success. In two years, they generated 53 applications, five of which received prizes and seven of which received notable mentions. Without crowdsourcing, the Army would have taken close to two years to develop each application – and most likely at an exorbitant price. I’ve used several of the apps developed and directly benefited from the competition.
The majority of submitted apps can be placed into two buckets: 1) utilizing open source technology and 2) simplifying complicated information.
Bucket 1: Open Source Technology
Many of the 53 applications submitted to the competition attempt to supersede the outdated US Army mapping systems, and instead, utilize the Google maps and Google earth API. Government systems are typically outdated because they are closed-source, and any improvements are expensive and require a huge bureaucratic struggle.
Government organizations are remiss to allow employees access to outside technology for security reasons. Proprietary systems are considered safer – and limit manager liability in the even of complications. Unfortunately, using government technology created in the 1980s limits user functionality and destroys any chance of innovation.
By encouraging the use of open source technology and promoting the crowdsourcing of ideas, the US Army was able to rapidly innovate and customize.
However, I surmise that the need for enhanced security in an age of cyber warfare will eventually nullify any effort to continue crowdsourcing. In addition, highly connected defense contractors will fight crowdsourcing because their revenues rely on long and complicated production cycles.
Bucket 2: Simplify Important Information
All government organizations release standard operating procedures (SOPs), which are extremely complex, lack a comprehensible structure, and are unimaginably long and boring. Typical U.S. Army SOPs include “How To Conduct Physical Exercise,” “How To Respond To Natural Disasters,” and “How To Respond To Enemy Activity.” Typically, these several hundred page SOPs can be summarized in 20-30 pages. However, for liability and bureaucratic reasons, governments need to cover their bases.
The apps submitted to the competition simplified the information and synthesized It in a way that ground level employees could understand. People on the ground know which information is actually useful, and which information is less relevant. By crowdsourcing, we’re able to avoid the bureaucratic mess of government employees and empower those who actually need the information.