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Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again

The recent challenge issued by DARPA to reassemble shredded documents seems like trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Why would government need to reassemble shredded records? Because troops in war zones confiscate the remains of destroyed or shredded documents that contain valuable information. DARPA is seeking the best technologies for document reconstruction, and has issued a Shredder Challenge to computer scientists, puzzle enthusiasts and anyone else who likes solving complex problems." Although reconstruction techniques ranging from manual assembly to computerized algorithms already exist, by issuing this challenge, DARPA is looking to gain insights into the most efficient solutions.

By issuing this request for innovative solutions as a challenge, responses should be as varied as the individuals who engage in this crowd-sourcing initiative, and government can access the creativity and external expertise beyond the agency personnel involved. Challenges are also considered cost effective, as government pays for performance by identifying the goal, and only paying the prize money for results, i.e. a winning solution that meets the challenge criteria. The prize for DARPA's Shredder Challenge is $50,000, a reasonable government expense for a solution that can quickly and efficiently reconstruct documents that may provide intelligence on enemy tactics and plans, and ultimately save the lives of our troops.

Government's use of challenges was officially initiated with the Open Government Directive issued in December, 2009 that provides guidance for developing new tools and approaches to increase the use of challenges and improve open government. Since then, GSA has developed and manages Challenge.gov, a central platform for government challenges where agencies can quickly and easily launch contests on a platform that is policy compliant, secure, accessible, and allows agencies to reach a diverse group of people. As of September 2011, Challenge.gov celebrated one year of hosting crowd-sourcing competitions for federal agencies with 129 challenge competitions from among 36 agencies, with over $38 million in prizes.

And recently, the American Council for Technology - Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) published a guide, the ACT-IAC Challenges Snippet providing successful insights from government employees who have engaged in challenges. Advice includes engaging partners from peer agencies, non-profit organizations, and industry, as well as using bloggers, events, newsletters, press announcements, public service advertising, and all relevant channels to target and inform audiences of the challenge. Providing broad visibility enhances the possibility of creative approaches, and successful solutions often come from unexpected sources. As example, the U.S. Air Force launched Vehicle Stopper challenge to find a viable means of stopping an uncooperative vehicle such as a small car or truck from fleeing from a checkpoint without permanent damage to the vehicle or harming any passengers. Over 1000 problem solvers responded to this challenge, providing 118 submissions from 30 countries. The winning solution, a remote controlled vehicle with an inflatable system that drives under the fleeing vehicle and lifts it off the ground was developed by a retired engineer from Lima Peru. This winning solution does not require the device to be prepositioned, is portable, inexpensive, and is simple to operate. The Air Force is now actively working on building a prototype for testing the solution. Who knows, if Humpty Dumpty had engaged expertise beyond just the King's horses and just the King's men, he may have been put together again!

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