NASA's Crowdsourcing Journey

Posted by Ben Miller on Jan 15, 2014 8:11:58 AM

InnoCentive and an online audience were joined yesterday by NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) as they described their “crowdsourcing journey”: their experiences facilitating collaborative innovation amongst NASA staff, as well as connecting with innovators from around the world through open innovation platforms online.

NASA AstronautSteven Rader, Deputy Manager at CoECI introduced the Center and its activities. Having experimented with a range of methodologies to enhance its research and innovation for several years, in 2011 NASA was asked by the U.S. Government to set up a center of excellence to serve as a resource for all federal government agencies in 2011, with the aim of sharing best practices and lessons learned, as well as providing a point resource for anyone wanting to turn a problem into a challenge.

With a small core team of 10 people, CoECI has been able to deliver this mandate, having thus far worked with five different agencies to turn their problems into challenges that can be solved by staff across the government. Alongside the hosting of challenges, CoECI provides advice for implementing the solution and broader educational services: Rader told us how surprised he was at how many people in the innovation space don’t know about this approach to innovation at all.

NASA is not shy about trying different methods of approaching the same problem. To tackle the problem of "intra-cranial" pressure in space, which has been found to affect astronauts’ eyesight, they first ran the challenge on their internal platform (the @Work platform provided by InnoCentive), before running a refined version openly on four other platforms! They found that four best-in-class, implementable solutions came back, including two from InnoCentive’s global community.

In spite of some highly technical examples, as we’d expect from an agency such as NASA, Rader pointed out that NASA uses the platforms for challenges of all kinds; the barrier to entry is set as low as possible, and he encourages all staff to submit challenge ideas, whatever the problem. A number of challenges have been from an organizational perspective, such as how to get better group on-call notifications. Furthermore, since the governmental sequestration of 2013, CoECI has not been able to offer cash prizes to winners; far from seeing this as a problem, NASA turned it into an opportunity to connect with their solvers, asking what kind of incentive would motivate them better to participate.

In CoECI’s experience, it’s best to have 2-4 challenges live at any one time on their @Work platform – to date they have tallied over 60 challenges, with 13 coming from other government agencies.

Perhaps CoECI’s most valuable role is as a dedicated resource for the heavy lifting involved. Not only can CoECI take middle managers through the reasons why they should get involved, from a cost saving point of view, but they are also able to provide substantialsupport to make it as easy as possible for managers to adopt this approach. But Rader says NASA’s crowdsourcing journey is far from over. In such a highly scientific community, one of the major problems is cultural – the idea that the engineers are the ones who solve the problems is ingrained, and people are not familiar with broadcasting a problem to a crowd. There is still a lot of convincing to do, but at least Rader and his team have the weight of evidence on their side: "several studies that show that the most innovative, out of the box solutions have come from outside the technical domain of the problem".

Thanks to Steven Rader and Kathryn Keeton for sharing their crowdsourcing experiences!


Topics: Innovation Insights

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