Obama’s Legacy in Science, Technology, and Innovation

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

On Monday of this week, the White House Office of the Press Secretary released an Impact Report titled “100 Examples of President Obama’s Leadership in Science, Technology, and Innovation.”  Upon entering office, Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place,” and with less than 6 months left in his second term, the time has come to assess his commitment to that goal.  This list, catalogued by the affected field, serves as tangible evidence of his reinvestment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  The role of science, technology, and innovation in society cannot be overstated; with a breadth of applications – from promoting economic expansion to combatting climate change – maintaining public interest in these three domains is essential.  A cornucopia of applications is on display in the report, with noted advancements and initiatives towards everything from breaking down gender stereotypes in toys and the media (#23) to safely integrating commercial drones into the national airspace (#35).

Barack Obama
Obama introduces the BRAIN Initiative (#45) to discover new methods of treating neurological disorders (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Roughly the first quarter of the list is devoted to detailing the broad brush strokes of the Administration, its goals for promoting STEM within the government, the education system, and the public.  And of particular note for us at the Commons Lab are the entries under the subheading “Promoting Innovation Nationwide”.  It’s there that items 14 and 15 laud the establishment of the prizes and challenges platforms Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov.  The former relies on, and monetarily rewards, the input of citizens in an effort to solve issues facing an array of government agencies.  The latter comprises a catalogue, toolkit, and community page for anyone interested in joining the citizen science movement.  By highlighting these platforms, especially CitizenScience.gov, which debuted in April of this year, the Administration is further fomenting its legacy of Open Innovation.

The legacy is also apparent in a host of other initiatives.  Obama and his team, namely staff within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and scholars on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), have worked tirelessly to foster participatory endeavors.  They’ve removed certain barriers-to-entry facing the prospective innovator: they’ve made the Research & Experimentation tax credit permanent (#10), increased research and development funding (#7), and opened up nearly 200,000 Federal datasets to the public (#12).  These strides, combined with those taken to cultivate future generations of STEM-savvy citizens (#16-25), have provided an optimistic trajectory for the years to come.  And by recognizing and appreciating the inextricable link between innovation and entrepreneurship, this Administration has aimed to pave the way for steady economic growth; it was in this vein that a network of nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes were established in 2012 (#30).  It’s also important to note efforts to catalyze advancements in fields as diverse as healthcare (#43-46) and space exploration (#84-87).  Of course, only the passage of time will allow for anyone to definitively measure the impact of the Obama White House on science, technology, and innovation, and their impacts on our nation in turn, but, according to the Office of the Press Secretary, we have at least 100 things to be thankful for.

4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science

Video: Google Hangout recording at the USA Science & Engineering Festival of citizen scientist experts from across the country discussing how mobile technology can assist the growth of citizen science

At the 4th USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education exposition in the United States, more than 1,000 STEM organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Department of State, presented interactive activities to encourage the next generation to pursue a career in the STEM field. Over the course of two days, tens of thousands of visitors of all ages came to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center located in Washington, D.C. to engage with STEM activities.

While the organizations covered a broad range of science and engineering areas, a common focal point was citizen science. Specifically, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Park Service, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Homeland Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and SciStarter aimed to further the general public’s participation in and understanding of citizen science, its success and significance today, and its potential applications for the future.

NOAA, for example, discussed the critical role citizen science plays with emerging technology and the numerous NOAA projects that could not have succeeded without the support of citizen science and crowdsourcing.

Continue reading “4th USA Science & Engineering Festival Highlights Citizen Science”

Event Recap: Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science, and the Law

With the inherent role that open data and open science plays in crowdsourcing and citizen science, understanding how intellectual property rights (IP) and legal issues could impact federal citizen science project designs becomes critical. In December, the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center hosted an expert panel addressing these IP and legal issues. Additionally, the Commons Lab created a web-enabled policy tool that allows federal agencies to better navigate the different legal barriers surrounding citizen science.

Experts on the panel include Teresa Scassa (Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa); Haewon Chung (Doctoral candidate in law at the University of Ottawa); Jay Benforado (Office of Research and Development at US EPA); and Robert Gellman (Privacy and Information Policy Consultant).

Citizen Science & The Law: A New Web-Enabled Policy Tool

court-house-25061_640Navigating legal and administrative barriers while implementing citizen science and crowdsourcing projects at the federal level can be complex and confusing. The Commons Lab published a report earlier this year, Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science and the Law: Legal Issues Affecting Federal Agencies, which examined in depth the legal issues, such as the Paperwork Reduction Act and Antideficiency Act, that federal citizen science initiatives will have to comply with. This excellent research produced a wealth of knowledge on the topic.

In order to make it more accessible we condensed the 116 page report into a web-enabled policy tool which allows federal project managers navigate and understand these issues before they embark on citizen science initiatives. The tool is hosted on the Wilson Center website and may be accessed here.

An Exploratory Study on Barriers

Barriers and Accelerators to Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science in Federal Agencies: An Exploratory Study

Draft Summary for Discussion — September 5, 2014

The Commons Lab within the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program conducted an exploratory study to identify key accelerators and barriers to the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science in four federal agencies. The goals of this study were twofold:

  1. Identify and understand key factors in designing, launching and sustaining successful federal agency crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives;
  2. Identify and understand internal and external roadblocks to federal agency crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives, both experienced and perceived; and,

The results of this study will be used to inform a subsequent legal and policy analysis of the key barriers, which in turn will be used to suggest alternatives for addressing these barriers.


From July to August 2014, the Commons Lab conducted 27 interviews with personnel in four federal agencies – two regulatory agencies and two science agencies. These conversations took place on the phone and in person with four different levels of personnel: agency executive, program office, field office, and stakeholder. Interviewees were given the option to remain anonymous,to take comments off the record if needed, and to withdraw at any time. Interviewees were sent a copy of the questions in advance, as well as a copy of their transcript for vetting and approval.

Continue reading “An Exploratory Study on Barriers”

Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values

Each day, humans upload more than 500 million photographs documenting every aspect of their lives. But while striking, this statistic pales in comparison to the vast quantity of information created not by humans, but about them. These data come from technologies as diverse as GPS-enabled Smartphones, wearable pedometers, and information captured in web logs and cookies.


Figure 1: Personal health devices such as Fitbit track metrics including distance walked, steps climbed, calories burned, and hours slept each night. Image credit: http://isource.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/FitBitDash.jpg

This generated information is big data, defined as “large, diverse, complex, longitudinal and/or distributed datasets generated form instruments, sensors, Internet transactions, email, video, click streams, and/or all other digital sources available today and in the future.” Big data brings tremendous potential for advancing scientific research. One researcher studying 35,000 schizophrenia patients demonstrated a genetic variant that eluded previous researchers working with smaller sample sizes. But big data also sharpens the potential for subtle, or even invisible, forms of discrimination. For example, algorithms determining which audiences receive offers for student loans could be so finely tuned that they target only people of a certain, gender, race, or income bracket. Continue reading “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values”

Appiro Testifies Before Congress on Crowdsourcing, Innovation and Prizes While Wearing Google Glass

Mr. Singh wearing google glass while testifying.

As Congress moves forward with integrating more prizes and challenges for crowdsourcing scientific research, one expert from Silicon Valley raises important issues in the government’s approach.

Narinder Singh, the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Appiro, a cloud based Technology Company that uses crowdsourcing to solve problems, was invited to speak before the House Science Committee’s research subcommittee earlier this month. Singh addresses the lawmakers in a hearing on “Prizes to Spur Innovation and Technology Breakthroughs.” Singh, addressed the committee while wearing Glass, a new wearable lens from Google that allows the user to take images, record and retrieve information using voice commands.

After an introduction to Appiro, Singh described the company’s [topcoder] program, which is a community of 600,000 designers, developers and data scientists who serve as an exclusive “crowd”  for crowdsourcing client problems. Using this group, Appiro breaks down complex problems into smaller projects, presenting them to the crowd to solve and awarding cash prizes for the best solutions. To date Appiro has partnered with NASA, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the National Institutes of Health to design and implement a variety of challenges and prizes using the topcoder crowd.

Continue reading “Appiro Testifies Before Congress on Crowdsourcing, Innovation and Prizes While Wearing Google Glass”

The Power of Hackathons


The Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program is proud to announce the release of The Power of Hackathons: A Roadmap for Sustainable Open Innovation. Hackathons are collaborative events that have long been part of programmer culture, where people gather in person, online or both to work together on a problem. This could involve creating an application, improving an existing one or testing a platform.

In recent years, government agencies at multiple levels have started holding hackathon events of their own. For this brief, author Zachary Bastian interviewed agency staff, hackathon planners and hackathon participants to better understand how these events can be structured. The fundamental lesson was that a hackathon is not a panacea, but instead should be part of a broader open data and innovation centric strategy.
Continue reading “The Power of Hackathons”

Citizen Science Profile: SeaSketch

A demo of the SeaSketch platform being used to combat whale strikes in the Santa Barbara Channel.

As part of the Commons Lab’s ongoing initiative to highlight the intersection of emerging technologies and citizen science, we present a profile of SeaSketch, a marine management software that makes complex spatial planning tools accessible to everyone. This was prepared with the gracious assistance of Will McClintock, director of the McClintock Lab.

The SeaSketch initiative highlights key components of successful citizen science projects. The end product is a result of an iterative process where the developers applied previous successes and learned from mistakes. The tool was designed to allow people without technical training to participate, expanding access to stakeholders. MarineMap had a quantifiable impact on California marine protected areas, increasing their size from 1 percent to 16 percent of the coastline. The subsequent version, SeaSketch, is uniquely suited to scale out worldwide, addressing coastal and land management challenges. By emphasizing iterative development, non-expert accessibility and scalability, SeaSketch offers a model of successful citizen science. Continue reading “Citizen Science Profile: SeaSketch”

Project Open Data: Interview with Ben Balter

In our recent post on the Open Data Policy, we mentioned Project Open Data as an exciting manifestation of collaborative government concepts put into practice. To learn more, we reached out to GitHubber Ben Balter, former Presidential Innovation Fellow and previous contributor to the Commons Lab. Ben also provided input on agile development for our paper on the National Broadband Map.

Ben Balter

How did GitHub become a part of this project?

I was working as a Presidential Innovation Fellow when the process to create the Open Data Policy began. Anyone within government is used to seeing documents circulate with no real idea of when it was edited, by whom, whether it was the most current version, and so on. This is very opaque. So while we’re working on open data policy, the process itself was very not open. Open source developers within the Innovation Fellows started talking about using GitHub to create the actual document. Lowering the barrier to entry was always the idea—we want people editing this and sharing their perspectives. Continue reading “Project Open Data: Interview with Ben Balter”