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First Lady Announces Winner in Reach Higher Career App Challenge

Today the First Lady Michelle Obama announced ThinkZone Games as the grand prize winner in the Reach Higher Career App Challenge! ThinkZone Games will receive $100,000 and additional sponsor prizes valued at $300,000 for their career exploration mobile app Hats & Ladders.

Hats & Ladders engages students from middle to high school with swipe-to-choose self-assessments, connected activities, and mini-challenges. By providing repeat exposure to a broad spectrum of careers, it enables students to draw connections between their personal attributes and multiple pathways to career success.

After their selection as a Challenge finalist, ThinkZone Games and the other 4 finalists participated in an intensive 6-week Virtual Accelerator phase to refine their business model and develop a working prototype. During this phase, they were supported by mentors with expertise in mobile design, business modeling, civic tech, and career counseling.

The accelerator phase culminated with Demo Day on July 7 in Washington D.C., where ThinkZone Games presented Hats & Ladders to the challenge judges and leaders from the private and public sector, including Megan Smith, CTO of the United States, and Eric Waldo, Executive Director of the First Lady’s Reach Higher Initiative. With their prize money, ThinkZone Games will complete development in preparation for a pilot with 50 middle schools in early 2017.

“The challenge inspired us to create a new app that helps students begin figuring out who they are and what they want to be, in a way that’s connected to their everyday lives and takes advantage of opportunities and information already out there,” said Leah Potter, Director for Instructional Design for ThinkZone Games. “It provided us with just the assistance we needed to strengthen virtually every aspect of Hats & Ladders.”

The tools that emerged from this challenge demonstrate the exciting potential for new technologies to help students map pathways to promising careers. All finalists will be invited to the Code for America Summit this November where they will join government innovators, civic-minded technologists, and entrepreneurs with a passion for building 21st century government.

We look forward to following ThinkZone Games and the other challenge finalists over the next year as they finish developing their technologies.

Congratulations to all!

This article was originally posted on the Reach Higher Career Apps Challenge website.

Posted in Apps,, Uncategorized, White House, Winner Stories | Leave a comment

​Iowa innovator wins agency’s $10K competition

The winner of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s first competition never thought he “would in any way be involved with an intelligence agency.”

Nicholas Starke, a penetration tester and computer software evaluator in Iowa, spotted an advertisement for the agency’s living stories challenge on Twitter and “decided to take a swing at it.”

His idea took the challenge in a different direction than originally anticipated, said Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s GEOINT Pathfinder project program manager and one of the judges.

“Mr. Starke’s idea helps reduce complexity tracking changes to a living story by navigating revisions with simple color-coded and clickable boxes of inserted and removed text,” said Rasmussen. “Our team then turned this concept into a very simple ‘VCR button’-like navigation system to track changes.”

GEOINT Pathfinder developers implemented the code developed by Starke into an unclassified and mobile geospatial intelligence product line prototype.

“Our goal is to deliver high-quality, unclassified GEOINT to a customer’s mobile device or desktop hours before they come into a secret environment, while drinking their morning coffee,” said Rasmussen.

Ultimately, Rasmussen hopes this “coffee strategy” will spur institutionalizing unclassified GEOINT production within NGA and the intelligence community.

“As GEOINT becomes commercialized and pushes further into the unclassified space, we need to write more content within secured, unclassified channels,” he said.

According to Rasmussen, hosting NGA’s first challenge on yields several exciting benefits, such as demonstrating that the agency is serious about paid crowdsourcing and embracing outside perspectives.

“One of our goals is to help IC employees and the public understand when we need to be open and when we need to be closed,” said Rasmussen.

That message has at least reached one person in Iowa.

“I think intelligence agencies in this country sometimes get a bad rap for not being transparent,” said Starke. “I think this was an excellent step in the right direction.”


This article originally appeared on It has been posted here with permission from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Posted in, Creative, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Success Stories, Uncategorized, Winner Stories | Leave a comment

Challenge Win Advances Quest for Clean Water in Rural India

Challenges are just not competitions for cash.

They often act as catalysts to new businesses, research findings and technologies that make an impact in everyday lives.

Prize money can provide crucial funding on the way to more ambitious goals.

MIT researchers Amos Winter and Natasha Wright found that out when they won the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Desal Prize in 2014.

They won the competition by developing a solar-powered system that uses electricity to remove salt from water and relies on ultraviolet rays to disinfect the water.

Winning the challenge led to a partnership with a company in India, where Winter and Wright are working to provide clean, affordable water in communities where residents have been drinking contaminated water.

MIT News has a detailed article about how these challenge winners are making a difference in the developing world.

It’s a great example of how ideas generated through a challenge have a lasting influence that goes beyond the prize.

In this case, it’s a matter of life and death.

Posted in U.S. Agency for International Development, Winner Stories | Leave a comment

Where Are They Now?

James McBride has written numerous rap songs, but it was his lyrics on hitting the fruit and vegetable stand that won him a cash prize from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

McBride, also known as Mr. Deep Positivity, won first place in USDA’s MyPlate Fruits & Veggies Video Challenge in 2011 with his “Wrap Rap,” which lent rhyme to healthy food prep practices.

By eating healthy wraps like the one described in his winning song, McBride had lost 18 pounds heading into the competition.

“I wrote the song in about a half hour because I just told the truth of what I actually did,” says McBride, whose winning video received more than 20,000 views on YouTube.

He used the cash prize from the My Plate challenge to record an album’s worth of material devoted to healthy life lessons modeled after FIrst Lady Michelle Obama’s campaigns to encourage healthy eating and physical activity.

McBride began writing and performing positive songs in 2002 when he became a Big Brother volunteer. Since then, he has written more than 700 songs and recorded a string of CDs with songs that tackle everything from nonviolence to safety lessons.

Winning the USDA challenge brought tremendous exposure to McBride, and his Mr. Deep Positivity alter ego began to catch on at schools and in community performances throughout New England. Former Miss Rhode Island, Deborah Saint-Vil, began traveling to McBride’s events and even performed on some of his tracks.

The mayor of Providence, R.I., where McBride was born, soon heard about him and named him the city’s first Healthy Ambassador, a title he retains to this day. The designation meant a lot to McBride, who grew up in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods where he faced guns, drugs and the violent deaths of two cousins.

He even knows the exact number of days he spent in a notorious housing project — 7,665.

“It was in that horrible environment where I birthed the faith in myself that I could make a better world using my gifts and talents,” McBride says. “Becoming the Healthy Ambassador of Providence and working with the mayor’s Healthy Communities Office was a dream come true.”

But McBride still has higher goals.

Two years ago, more than 1,000 students sent letters to President Obama asking him to make McBride AKA Mr. Deep Positivity, the first Healthy Ambassador of the United States.

“I’m in the process of trying to raise $1.1 million so I can reach and inspire over 1 million youth in the country to be healthy and positive,” he says.

McBride envisions a national contest where kids create poems, songs, stories and skits. Hundreds of winners would receive free downloads of his healthy songs, as well as in-person performances by Mr. Deep Positivity at their schools.

He hopes the money he raises will help him tour the country in an RV-turned music mobile with a soundstage, studio and movie screen.

“My goal will be to create 1 million youth leaders who will become an army of Healthy Ambassadors promoting health and positive choices to their peers and families all across the country,” McBride says.

Until then, he will continue performing as many as 150 shows a year and recording new music to inspire kids to better living, a calling buoyed by the USDA My Plate challenge in 2011.

“I hope the federal government will host more of these types of contests where the average Joe can win money and have a chance to become a positive role model in the process,” McBride says. “What I loved about the contest was that everyone could enter, even my 8-year-old son, and we all contributed to making great tips for eating healthy at home, at restaurants and on the go.”

Posted in Department of Agriculture, Success Stories, Video contest, Winner Stories | Leave a comment

Challenge Winners Have Success Stories of All Kinds

Some come from the private sector, others come from universities and high schools.

Some develop a new technology, others end up starting a business.

Some come from big cities, others come from out of nowhere.

The best thing about a challenge is that anyone can participate and anyone can win.

Check out some past winners and see what they have to say about how the challenges they won allowed them to improve their lives and the lives of others.

Posted in, Success Stories, Winner Stories | Leave a comment

Global Challenge Battles Forced Labor

When you sign on to help with a challenge, you open yourself up to a variety of people, opportunities and interest areas.

Sometimes, you may be asked to develop a fun, educational app or design a multimedia project. Other times, you may be asked to join the fight against modern-day slavery.

The Partnership for Freedom Rethink Supply Chains Challenge called on citizens to do the latter.

A public-private partnership featuring several federal agencies and industry players, the Partnership for Freedom sought technological solutions that could help identify and address labor trafficking in global supply chains.

The winners were announced in May.

The winning team received $250,000 to put toward its solution, a digital risk assessment tool that will help seafood suppliers and major retailers better identify areas within a supply chain at risk for forced labor.

The second-place team came up with a mobile phone-based system that improves visibility of trafficked workers by collecting and analyzing feedback received by workers on an anonymous two-way communication channel. The runner-up received a $50,000 grant — no small potatoes there.

In addition to the very real and widespread problem it addresses and the sizeable prize purse, this competition showed what can happen when participants with good ideas go beyond competition and work together.

The winning team was a partnership between two organizations — they saw the problem, determined how each could contribute and decided to join forces to propose their solution.

Posted in Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Partnering, Prize Competitions, Public-Private Partnership, State Department, Technology, Winner Stories | Leave a comment

Q&A: Prize Money Expected to Grow for Great Lakes Data Challenge

The Great Lakes ecosystem is an all-important national asset that contains 84 percent of the fresh surface water in North America and 18 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water.

More than a million U.S. jobs and $62 billion in wages are directly tied to the Great Lakes, making restoration efforts all the more critical.

Reports indicate that these remedial environmental efforts are paying off, but the ecosystem still faces threats from climate change, water quality issues and invasive species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) and other partners want your help. They are offering $9,500 in prizes to those who can come up with the best apps, mash-ups, visualizations, and other solutions that can make the most of data in efforts to improve the health of the Great Lakes and help ensure the vitality of this ecosystem for future generations.

PrizeWire recently sat down with Kelli Paige, executive director of GLOS, to learn more about the GLOS Data Challenge  and how you, the solver, can help address these critical issues.

PrizeWire: NOAA, GLOS and many other organizations work constantly to monitor and ensure the health and vibrancy of precious natural assets like the Great Lakes. What led to the decision to host a challenge, and what are your goals in taking these issues directly to the public?

Kelli Paige

Kelli Paige

Kelli Paige: Bringing new perspectives and innovative ideas to Great Lakes problems is what the challenge is all about. The environmental field is typically dominated by researchers, regulators and other science practitioners. Collecting and using data about the natural environment is so integral to the nature of our work, it’s easy to look within our own community for expertise in analyzing the information. We thought this challenge would be a good opportunity to engage others with experience working with big data, like the tech sector, and encourage folks to think outside of the box. The region faces many different management issues and we hope the data challenge inspires solutions that help ensure the Great Lakes continue to be a safe and valuable resource.

PW: You’re looking for solutions that can help all users of the Great Lakes, from natural resource managers to vacationers. How might a solution that targets a specific type of user be judged differently than one intended for a more general audience?

KP: The exciting thing about our challenge is that we are open to any creative and innovative approach. If the proposed solution helps the user find or understand information in a way they couldn’t before, I would say that is a success. We have examples of data tools that provide specific information to a user group like public health experts in one area on the Great Lakes, but we also have information that can be quite widely consumed through our data portal. For this particular challenge, no one user is more valuable than another as long as the solution demonstrates it is useful.

PW: What kinds of existing data will participants have to work with? Are there additional data types that you hope to develop through this challenge?

KP: GLOS primarily provides access to real-time or near real-time data on the physical, meteorological, and biological conditions of the lakes themselves. We are requiring that at least one data set accessible through GLOS is used. However, there are a variety of other data types available through our website, and even more that can be found elsewhere. That includes GIS data layers, socio-economic information, and databases on different types of infrastructure in the region. We’ve got a nice list to get folks started in the guideline details on our website.

A metal drum lays on the sand besides Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

PW: The focus of this challenge is on the Great Lakes and likely will generate a lot of interest among those with connections to the Great Lakes region. But what might someone from another part of the country bring to the challenge?

KP: The Great Lakes are a massive and complex ecosystem and there are an endless number of topics to interest anyone on a salty coast or in a land-locked state. Our coastline totals nearly 11,000 miles, water levels and shipping traffic are regulated by a complex system of locks and dams, and commercial and sports fisheries support a multi-billion dollar fishing industry. Bi-nationally, the Great Lakes region is the third largest economy in the world and the resource is a direct source of drinking water for millions of people. We have “issue experts” available to answer any questions for those who might not be as familiar with the region and we’re excited to see how a different regional perspective could inspire a new way of working with the data.

PW: More than 40 million people rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, and the crisis in Flint is fresh in people’s minds. How important is public data when it comes to addressing water quality issues at the source and throughout the process of delivering it to people’s homes?

KP: One of the lessons from Flint and also from the Toledo algal bloom crisis in 2014 is that we need to be more pro-active about anticipating and communicating potential impacts to our drinking water. More monitoring alone is not enough, we need to be able to share the information with other drinking water managers and government officials so they can feel confident about the decisions they make and communicating those decisions with the public. Making meaningful connections between relevant but disparate data sets for the resource managers would be a great first step towards addressing this problem.

PW: Is there anything else you’d like to say to those considering registering for this challenge?

KP: We are still getting interest from groups that want to sponsor the challenge so we expect the prize money to continue to grow. Be creative and be inspired by the Great Lakes. We look forward to the submittals!

Be sure to visit the GLOS Data Challenge on and on the GLOS website for more details.

The deadline for submissions is Aug. 10.

Posted in Apps, Data, Environment, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Visualization | Leave a comment

New Resource Matches Innovators with Funding

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and partners today launched the Global Innovation Exchange in Silicon Valley.

The Exchange is an online platform for innovators, funders, and subject matter experts to connect innovations with funding and resources. The goal is to accelerate development innovation where it is needed the most by making information easily accessible and collaboration possible at the right stages of innovation.

More than 4,200 innovations, 8,800 collaborators from around the world, and nearly $173 million in current funding opportunities can be found on the Exchange.

Post your innovation today at!

For more information, contact

Posted in Open Innovation, U.S. Agency for International Development, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s Baseball Season, and Hits Another Milestone

If you haven’t noticed, the number of challenges listed on has crossed the 700 mark.

That’s currently a handful more challenges than Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has home runs.

But unlike baseball greats who have approached and even surpassed the 700 mark (there are three), doeesn’t slow down and it doesn’t retire.

It just keeps growing and getting better.

A little history just to give you an idea.

If you had visited the site in 2010, you would have seen 20 or so challenges where federal agencies were offering cash for good ideas and solutions. Now there are 700 on the site.

That’s an increase of 3,400 percent in less than six years.

In case you were wondering, the winners of the oldest challenge listed on the site made a short video to promote healthy living and eating among the youth population. The next oldest challenge asked citizens to come up with methods for astronauts to do laundry in space.

The 700th challenge, launched on June 13, comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It’s looking for promising research ideas that could become startups.

Following close on its heels was Challenge No. 701 from NASA that looks to to improve lives in space and on Earth through vascular tissue research.

And now we have Challenge. No. 702 from the Department of the Treasury. It’s offering up to $1 million in prizes for ideas on how the Community Development Financial Institution Fund can generate economic growth and opportunity in some of the nation’s underserved rural areas.

As you can see, the variety of topics being addressed by challenges continues to thrive.

And so do your good ideas.

So keep checking back for new challenges, and keep those solutions coming.

Oh, and if you were wondering, Alex Rodriguez is batting just .215 this season. He’s slowing down and isn’t likely to hit very many more home runs before he hangs it up.

Federal agencies, on the other hand, already have a slew of other challenges in the pipeline for

Ruth, Aaron, Bonds* — here we come.

Posted in, Department of the Treasury, Milestone, NASA, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Prize Competitions, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

We the People

It’s March 24, 1792. An announcement, no bigger than your average classified ad, appears in a Philadelphia newspaper.

It offers $500 and a piece of land in the District of Columbia to the person who can come up with the best design for a capitol building for a new nation. The designer of the second-best proposal will receive $250 or a medal.

The nation, of course, was the United States, and the idea for the competition came from then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, whose handwritten draft of the announcement can be seen at the Library of Congress.

Over the past decade, the U.S. government has put a renewed emphasis on the use of prize competitions to tap the ingenuity of the American public. Recent federal prize competitions have addressed critical issues from space travel to literacy.

But a look to the past reveals that two of our most cherished landmarks also stand as enduring symbols of what can be accomplished when government goes straight to the people and asks for their ideas.

Location, Location, Location

Formed with land donated by Maryland and Virginia, President George Washington selected D.C. as the headquarters for the new government.

He chose commissioners to oversee development of the federal city, which they named after him. The commissioners selected French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the city and design the U.S. Capitol building.

L’Enfant found the perfect spot for the Capitol, but when he refused to produce drawings for the building, the commissioners dropped him.

That’s when Jefferson made a suggestion.

Birth of a Competition

Jefferson wrote the commissioners with an idea and included a draft of the competition announcement, which Washington had approved with the caveat that the commissioners nail down final details.

“I see nothing wanting but to fill in the blanks,” Washington wrote on Jefferson’s draft, “and that I presume the Comrs. will do…”

The final announcement appeared in several American newspapers during March 1792.

Entrants had four months to design a brick building with several spaces, including:

  • 300-person conference room
  • 300-person room for Representatives and a lobby
  • 1,200-square-foot room for the Senate and a lobby
  • Twelve 600-square-foot rooms for committees and clerks’ offices

The stakes were high, and Jefferson worried that naysayers would use the firing of L’Enfant to try and sabotage the entire endeavor.

Any opposition would have to be countered with “double exertions,” he wrote to the commissioners.

The pressure was on.

A Slate of Disappointing Designs

The commissioners received 17 proposals by mid-July 1792. They weren’t impressed.

Neither was the president.

Sensing the disappointment, Jefferson went so far as to try to secretly win the competition he had suggested. The future president, himself an amateur architect, anonymously submitted a sketch.

But Washington and the commissioners rejected it, too. The competition deadline had come and gone, and they had no design to move forward.

Fortunately, they were having better luck with plans for another iconic American landmark.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Around the same time they advertised the Capitol contest, the commissioners also announced an open competition to design a house for the president.

White House floor plan by James Hoban. (Source: Massachusetts Historical Society)

White House floor plan by James Hoban. (Source: Massachusetts Historical Society)

Once again, the winning plan would net $500.

Washington didn’t want a palace but still hoped to find a design that would elicit respect from citizens, something that fit within the young country’s modest resources but could be expanded upon in the future.

Washington reviewed at least six proposals. Legend has it that Jefferson, who would eventually be the first president to spend his entire term in the new residence, again submitted an anonymous design that was not chosen.

By July, though, commissioners had selected a winner in the competition to design the President’s House.

The winning drawings came from James Hoban, who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland following the American Revolution.

In Hoban, Washington and company not only found a vision for what eventually became known as the White house, but also, a ready resource who could help with the Capitol.

The Doctor Is In

Three months after the Capitol design competition ended without a winner, a letter came from Tortola in the British West Indies, now the Virgin Islands.

William Thornton, a physician trained in Scotland, wanted to know if he could submit a late entry into the competition. The commissioners agreed to take a look.

William Thornton's exterior drawing for the U.S. Capitol Design competition, 1792 (Library of Congress).

William Thornton’s exterior drawing for the U.S. Capitol design competition, 1792 (Source: Library of Congress).

Thornton proposed a building with three sections — a central dome and two rectangular wings. Washington praised the design for being both simple and grand. The commissioners declared it the winner.

Construction began on the Capitol in 1793. A year later, Thornton was appointed a city commissioner. (When Jefferson became president, he tapped Thornton to oversee the U.S. Patent Office, which he did for the remainder of his life.)

But Thornton wasn’t the only entrant to receive prize money. Officials also gave runner-up Stephen Hallet a sum of $500 for his efforts and eventually adopted his ideas for the Capitol’s interior.

They extended Hallet’s work to oversee construction of the building, but things didn’t go well. The only professional architect to enter the competition and a protege of L’Enfant, Hallet tried to push his own design over that of Thornton’s and was eventually fired.

His replacement also butted heads with Thornton and had to be dismissed.

Officials then brought in Hoban, who oversaw the initial construction of the Capitol in addition to the execution of his winning White House design.

Both the Capitol and White House have seen their share of changes. During the War of 1812, British troops torched the new buildings and left them in ruins.

They were rebuilt, with Hoban returning to oversee reconstruction of the White House he designed.

Over time, each has gone through expansions and modifications. Still, the buildings we see today largely resemble the hand-drawn plans submitted during those two prize competitions from more than 220 years ago.



History of the U.S. Capitol Building:

Interpreting Buildings: Designing the White House:

Building the White House:

Posted in Design, History, Prize Competitions | Leave a comment