NASA has always been considered a symbol of scientific progress. Its task, the study of the universe, is without doubt something that requires a lot of work, from all of us. NASA is aware of this and has taken one of its first steps into its own new frontier: Crowdsourcing. Since 2011, NASA has been using crowdsourcing to help them solve some of the problems that arise on the International Space Station (ISS), from coming up with solutions regarding the difficulties of astronauts exercising in space, to searching for new planets. All these crowdsourced initiatives, framed as challenges, draw people from all over the world, and to date, more than a dozen platforms exist to host the challenges.
In the past, NASA’s aversion to crowdsource has primarily been a result of its culture. NASA Senior Policy Advisor Amy Kaminski declared that “The greatest challenge the use of crowdsourcing methods at NASA has endured is in their relative newness and lack of familiarity within most of the agency. Scientists and engineers at NASA are used to particular ways of doing R&D, and this usually entails doing work within the agency or having it done by groups within academia or industry via grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements. Crowdsourcing involves opening up the R&D participant base, which introduces uncertainty even while opening new and exciting possibilities for finding solutions to problems of interest and accelerating research work”. However, NASA’s initial mental closure began to evolve with the arrival of both private space companies and the rapidly growing ambitions of politicians to reach the stars.
The New Crowdsourcing Frontier
In 2014, NASA Deputy Chief Technologist Jim Adams stated “NASA recognizes that crowdsourcing presents an extraordinary opportunity to inspire the development of transformative solutions by offering a means to engage with non-traditional sources of innovative ideas, all in a remarkably cost-effective way”. Adding to this, Steve Rader, Deputy Manager of the Centre of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) at NASA, explained “If you have large crowds of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people in communities, it is likely that you actually have within those communities some very valuable high-skilled folks. The idea is that somebody who can solve your very difficult problem often does not have traditional experience”. In fact, a main reason why crowdsourcing works so well is that a lot of the time, solutions are found by people who do not have the same area of expertise as the problem.
Some of NASA’s biggest crowdsourcing initiatives were related to its desire to know more about the Solar System. For example, their lunar instruments crowdsourcing campaign focused on NASA’s desire to better understand the Moon. Similarly, its Mars campaign, aimed at college students, was designed to find resources on Mars. It started with the Mars Forum, which used IdeaScale’s technology to engage the crowd and develop ideas while answering questions. As it progressed, college students could build and submit their own robots that were able to autonomously perform mining tasks. These are just a few examples of the several crowdsourcing projects undertaken by NASA.
The last and still ongoing initiative, hosted by crowdsourcing program Zooniverse, is the hunt for Planet Nine – the large, mysterious body thought to lurk at the edge of our solar system –. Ordinary people have now joined the search, and they have made some very interesting findings. Through the project, dubbed “Planet 9 Search”, space enthusiasts and astronomers alike are given access to thousands of images taken by ANU’s SkyMapper telescope. Their task is to find anything that appears to move against the mostly motionless background of distant stars. In just three days, about 21,000 volunteers examined more than 100,000 images and classified more than 5 million objects. This is work that would have taken an astronomy PhD student four years, according to ANU astronomer Brad Tucker.
“Planet 9 Search” Project Advertisement
Why NASA Crowdsources
Crowdsourcing can reduce costs, speed up project timelines, tap into crowd intelligence and creativity, and engage citizens at all levels of corporate and government processes. Many large corporations such as Microsoft, GE, AT&T, eBay, IBM, Apple and Sun (West 2003) and government agencies such as NASA (Lakhani, 2013), are increasing investment in crowdsourced solutions to gain the potential value of crowdsourcing as an open innovation platform, to both drive cost efficiencies and overcome resource constraints. Specifically regarding NASA, one of the aspects that makes all of this possible is that, while solving most problems requires significant scientific knowledge, the problem itself requires minimal integration into NASA’s internal operations.
How NASA uses crowdsourcing is enlightening. It allows NASA to try several different ideas at once and sort through those that work and those that do not. If you give it a thought, NASA has the kind of challenge that would make any person cringe: Get humanity beyond the sphere of Earth and explore the universe. And as if this was not enough, it all has to be done on a budget entirely controlled by politicians. This often means they get only one opportunity at constructing something, and adding to the pressure, if that device fails, the lives of astronauts could be at risk. So crowdsourcing lets them look carefully at ideas, both conventional and unique, and lets them narrow it down to the ones that work. With respect to the intellectual property (IP) of such ideas, organizers of challenges will sometimes reserve all rights to the IP of the knowledge/technology generated from the competition and applicants are always encouraged to read the terms and conditions of a challenge.
NASA’s crowdsourcing efforts are not just about finding the best idea, but also getting some of the best talent the country has to offer. It is no secret government agencies can have trouble getting the best and brightest people, and these competitions offer a look at some of the finest minds out there. Moreover, in addition to the value of ideas and talent, announcing winners and prizes is often used as a promotional and marketing tool for the organization, as it provides “good news” stories to share on Social Media. Even participants that do not win may see an increased investment in the company as a result of feeling a part of the process.
Example Tweet (Space Apps is a NASA incubator innovation program)
From a contributor’s perspective, NASA’s crowdsourcing initiatives are appealing not only because of cash prizes, but also because they are designed towards building relationships with its contributors, possibly also offering some of them an employment contract at NASA. As teams compete not just for the cash purse, but also for the associated validation, prestige, and satisfaction that result from solving important problems, challenges can incentivize significant additional investment, leveraging the award’s impact. According to several contributors, the real reward is helping NASA solve a space/engineering problem and gaining critical thinking and skills that are highly sought by employers.
It is therefore clear that there is a lot other firms can learn from NASA’s crowdsourcing. It is much more than just a way to get external ideas: Innovation strategy can truly transform an organizational culture. As a matter of fact, to conclude, it can boldly be stated that crowdsourcing has been “one small step for its innovation strategy, one giant leap for NASA”.
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