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Frontline medical workers

Federal Crowdsourcing Community Responds to the COVID-19 Emergency

Federal agencies and citizen-solvers heed the call to fight the spread of the disease through rapidly scaled open innovation programs

By Pierce McManus · July 22, 2020

On January 31, 2020, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared a public health emergency for the entire United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

In the weeks that followed, federal agencies and citizen-solvers alike heeded the call to fight the spread of this deadly disease, support healthcare workers on the frontline, and treat those stricken with COVID-19, through a vast number of rapidly scaled crowdsourcing and open innovation programs.

In today’s blog post, we examine how the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) joined in the effort by spotlighting some of the hackathons, design challenges, and data modeling competitions that they have sponsored since the health crisis began.

Department of Defense (DoD)

In early April, the Army launched the xTech COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge, issuing a call to innovators across the country to develop a low-cost, readily manufacturable emergency ventilator. The service sought a mid-size model that was not as large and expensive as those found in hospitals, but still capable of providing support longer than ambulatory transport versions. In part one of this fast-tracked, two-phase competition, innovators were asked to submit brief documentation and a short video that outlined the proposed technology, its technical viability, human and clinical risk factors, and how quickly it could be produced.

Proposals that made it to the second round were awarded $5,000 each, with authors invited to virtually pitch concepts before an xTech COVID-19 panel of Army, medical, and manufacturing experts. On May 12, less than six weeks after the start of the competition, the Army announced the selection of five winning entries, each receiving $100,000 to develop a concept prototype with the possibility of a follow-on contract to support additional production and deployment.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

One of the first federal agencies to sponsor a pandemic-related competition was the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In late March, HHS’s Office of the National Coordination for Health Information Technology teamed up with a number of healthcare-focused organizations and businesses for the Pandemic Response Hackathon, a three-day virtual collaboration that connected technologists with public health experts, doctors, and healthcare organizations with one goal in mind—mitigating the spread of COVID-19. More than 2,000 participants submitted over 230 project ideas that addressed various challenges of the healthcare crisis, from public health information sharing to keeping health workers safe. In the end, 18 projects were recognized for the strength of their submissions and will receive support to bring their product recommendations to market and implementation as quickly as possible.

Another consequence of the ongoing pandemic is the increased isolation and loneliness that comes with physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, an aftereffect that takes a disproportionate toll on the health and safety of already at-risk populations such as older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans. Given the need to help all three groups feel socially engaged and connected to families, friends, communities and activities of interest, HHS’s Administration for Community Living—in partnership with the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—recently launched the Mobilizing and Empowering the Nation and Technology to Address Loneliness & social isolation (MENTAL) Health Innovation Challenge.

The challenge is seeking solutions that assess socially isolated individuals and match them with appropriate technology tools and social engagement programming that best meet their needs. The challenge will compete in two phases with cash prizes awarded in each phase. The total prize award available is $750,000. The top two contenders will be asked to present their solution at CES 2021 and the winner will be announced at that Las Vegas event in early January 2021. The winning solution will become part of a public-private campaign to reach up to 10 million socially isolated older adults, people with disabilities, racial and minority populations and Veterans.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

The Department of Veterans Affairs, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a host of other organizations, sponsored two virtual hackathons that focused on some of the most pressing challenges of the crisis.

Over two days in early April, more than 1,750 volunteers from 49 states and 96 countries assembled online via tools to participate in Beat the Pandemic. The goal? Develop innovative solutions that answered two critical needs: protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of COVID-19 and supporting hospitals that face a shortage of staff, supplies, and resources. In the span of 48 hours, 199 potential solutions were identified and a $20,000 prize purse was distributed among 40 teams with the most promising ideas.

In late May, a follow-on event—Beat the Pandemic II—convened virtually to address the challenges of recovery and reopening by identifying possible ways that communities can safely return to a ‘new’ normal while simultaneously arming themselves against a resurgence of infections. In the end, 31 winning teams walked away with $500 each for their innovative solutions to problems ranging from how best to medically treat non-COVID patients during the pandemic to how to communicate unbiased and truthful information about the illness. Additionally, six teams from the previous hackathon, Beat the Pandemic, were recognized for furthering their ideas and making progress on their projects. These winners were each awarded $5,000 to help bring their solutions to life.

In early May, the VA’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Innovation Ecosystem put out a nationwide call to members of the engineering and design community to create innovative products that meet the needs of essential frontline workers when they launched the COVID-19 3D Maker Challenge. In this particular competition, teams collaborated virtually for one week followed by a two-day make-a-thon event where they produced working prototypes of their solutions via rapid manufacturing processes like 3D printing. The yet-to-be-announced winners will have the opportunity to present their design at the Fall 2020 Innovation Experience (VHA iEx), an annual celebration of innovative thinking and design. Following a similar format, the VHA subsequently launched the COVID-19 Maker Challenge, Nursing Homes Edition in June to address the needs of healthcare workers fighting the pandemic in facilities where some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations reside.

In yet another approach to gaining a deeper insight into the effects of the disease, and, in particular, its impact on the nation’s aging veteran population, the VHA Innovation Ecosystem and the Food and Drug Administration launched the joint VHA Innovation Ecosystem and precisionFDA COVID-19 Risk Factor Modeling Challenge in early June. In this competition, members of the scientific and analytics community were asked to develop machine learning and artificial intelligence models to predict COVID-19 health outcomes using synthetic veteran health records. Based on the findings of this challenge, additional risk and protective factors will be further investigated. Top performers will be publicly recognized, invited to contribute to a scientific manuscript, and may have the opportunity to present at a conference and continue their solution development with VHA Innovation Ecosystem.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a host of partners invited coders, entrepreneurs, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, builders, artists, and technologists to participate in the Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, an all-virtual, two-day, global hackathon that took place in late May. During a period of 48 hours, more than 15,000 participants from 150 countries created more than 2,000 virtual teams that used Earth observation and other open data to propose solutions to learn more about the virus and its spread, as well as a host of other pandemic-related challenges. As the Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge made evident, the unique capabilities of NASA and its partner space agencies in the areas of science and technology enable them to lend a hand during the global health crisis.


As recent events have shown, in times of great crisis, federal agencies can tap into the country’s vast network of innovators, makers, and citizen-solvers to meet—and overcome—some of the most complex and unanticipated challenges of the day through rapidly scaled prize competitions. As the web platform that connects federal agencies with the public to crowdsource solutions to problems both big and small, is proud to play an important role in the ongoing fight against this deadly disease.