U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
This competition was developed by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), a partnership of USAID, World Vision (a multinational nongovernmental organization) and the Australian Government (DFAT).
By 2010, USAID had assessed the reading skills of primary school children in multiple countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America and found that a large percentage were not learning to read or were reading too poorly to use reading to learn. USAID made a commitment to improve the reading skills of 100 million children in less developed countries. An analysis of data from 22 developing countries and 160 language groups revealed that children who had access to instruction in their mother tongue were significantly more likely to be enrolled in and attending school, while a lack of education in a first language was a significant reason for children dropping out. In addition, multiple studies and reading acquisition theory supports the need for children to learn to read first in a language they speak and understand. One of the main barriers to improving the reading skills of children is the lack of appropriate and engaging reading materials in mother-tongue languages, which means children are unable to practice reading.
The ACR GCD Enabling Writers Prize Competition aimed to spur the development of software solutions that would facilitate the writing of high-quality, mother-tongue reading materials that were interesting and appropriate for early-grade students. The prize organizers offered a $100,000 prize for the best software solution. Solvers were challenged to develop an easy-to-use, open source software that would facilitate the writing of materials that were decodable (includes only letters and sounds that a reader has already learned) and leveled (written at the vocabulary and reading difficulty of students in a specific grade). The resulting software would combine an easy-to-use text generation software for decodable and leveled materials in multiple languages and scripts and in the most common publishing formats.
The competition had two phases: Solvers submitted their initial software solutions, and then the finalists’ solutions underwent field testing in Cambodia, Jordan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. In each country, teams used the software to write materials in their mother-tongue languages and then completed a software evaluation based on their experience.
The competition had 39 registered entrants from the Bahamas, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa and Germany. Three finalists were chosen for the field testing stage and received $12,000 each. A grand prize winner was awarded an additional $100,000. The three finalists were comprised of two nonprofits and one small tech startup.
The winning solution, which was developed by SIL International, supports writing in any language or alphabetic script. It also provides multiple page layouts, access to free artwork and downloading in multiple print and digital formats. The software, Bloom, is unique in two ways: Its simplicity allows individuals with limited technology skills to use the software without extensive training, and it provides writers with the ability to write leveled and decodable materials with pre-set parameters, enhancing the quality and appropriateness of the materials. Globally, there is an insufficient supply of mother-tongue early-grade reading materials. Writing and publishing books in these languages is an ongoing challenge, and the Bloom software is a tool that will help make this process easier for authors in any language. Bloom is an open source product that is freely available on the web or for use on computers, and SIL International may develop it into a commercial product or service in the future.
Areas of Excellence
Area of Excellence #1: “1.4 Determine if a Prize Is Appropriate”
ACR GCD knew that several for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations had developed online and computer-based programs that help writers produce supplemental reading materials, but none of these programs had sufficient functionality to produce materials in multiple languages and scripts for early-grade students who were just learning to read. Choosing one of these providers and paying them to develop the product might not work, since ACR GCD had no way of judging which provider was most likely to produce a product that, at the time, did not exist. The prize competition produced a large group of innovators willing to take on the task of developing this new product and caused them to turn their creative energy to planning on how they would develop it. The winner of the competition produced a product that is sufficient for the task and is committed to continue improving it. In addition, some of the innovators who did not win are continuing to improve their products to make them available to the broader international community. The prize competition ensured that ACR GCD would choose the best product developer and caused an increase in capacity of multiple providers that can compete with each other in the future.
Area of Excellence #2: “2.5 Develop a Communications Plan”
The Enabling Writers communication plan was focused on attracting solvers (i.e., potential applicants) for the competition and future ACR GCD competitions and raising awareness of ACR GCD. The main target groups were software developers (individuals and companies), leading tech and software communities and local entrepreneurs (e.g., software start-ups and engineers in developing countries).
Marketing activities were primarily conducted by InnoCentive, a U.K-based “prize” platform provider. To target its established network of more than 300,000 solvers, InnoCentive used social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; published a “Seeker Spotlight” blog; crafted a “Writing Made Simple” tagline; designed two Enabling Writers graphics for social media; created a prize landing page on its website; and promoted the competition in its weekly Challenge eBulletin. To reach new networks, InnoCentive built a database of both international and domestic contacts (innovation hubs, bloggers and those in the target groups mentioned above) and sent outreach emails to them, with the additional request to share the competition with their networks. Both InnoCentive and the competition partners—through their local presence and broader international networks—also disseminated competition announcements globally to receive applications from as diverse a problem-solving community as possible. This was particularly relevant because of the primary utilization of the software in a low-resource, developing-country context. To respond to technical and challenge-related inquiries from solvers, an email address was also set up and managed by InnoCentive.
The ACR GCD partners promoted the competition through their individual international networks and also through the ACR GCD Twitter handle. Twitter content was also provided for distribution through ACR GCD partners’ Twitter handles. The prize was also promoted on the ACR GCD website and in its monthly eNewsletter. Additionally, a press release was released by ACR GCD and InnoCentive at the launch and another was released by ACR GCD at the selection of a winner. ACR GCD also promoted the competition at conferences and other events. Since the competition, the software has been promoted at several conferences and a roll-out plan is in process.
The competition page received more than 130,000 views from more than 100 countries, sourcing 39 registrations. Google Analytics revealed that the top three referrals to the competition landing page were, by far, direct links, InnoCentive.com and AllChildrenReading.org. The next tier included Facebook, Twitter and fundsforngos.com.
As this was ACR GCD’s first prize competition, it partnered with InnoCentive to develop a list of contacts and conduct several marketing activities to reach new, nontraditional solvers beyond those that would be attracted through traditional grant opportunity marketing. This was a beneficial investment. However, after this first prize, ACR GCD has built a database of subscribers for its newsletter, Twitter followers and other relevant contacts/networks and has now successfully conducted its own prize competition marketing.
To more clearly inform the results of marketing efforts, it is recommended that the online application process include a question about how applicants heard of the challenge. It is also recommended to list all the marketing mechanisms employed, as respondents may not remember or may answer vaguely. For example, respondents may say they learned about the challenge “at an event” rather than naming the specific event.
Area of Excellence #3: “5.2 Document the Challenge”
The InnoCentive web-based “OmniCompete” platform was chosen as a portal to manage both applicant and judging feedback. The InnoCentive platform became a one-stop shop for reviewing applications and providing scoring of those most highly ranked. The platform operated around discrete values that judges would assign to weighted requirements. As each solution provider was evaluated, both quantifiable points as well as notes were held within the InnoCentive platform. The use of a web-based portal for the operational aspects of collating evaluations, automating notifications to prompt review in a timely fashion and collecting judging notes created a trackable and permanent library surrounding the challenge.
USAID learned that targeted outreach is critically important for attracting the teams of technology and literacy specialists who would need to be engaged in software development, and to ensure that the prize method is effective in reaching nontraditional implementers. For example, two of the competitive software submissions came from organizations that had never received U.S. government support. Organizers revised the prize call and shaped a list of frequently asked questions based on questions from several applicants about what type of open license the software needed to be provided, what programming languages should be used and what was meant by leveled and decodable software.
Area of Excellence #4: “5.5 Manage Solutions”
The Bloom software was compared against offerings that arose from both new literacy projects as well as existing applications that were internationally available. Bloom captured the majority of requirements in addition to having been built upon years of feedback and actual field use in South America, Asia and Africa. The software competition spurred applicants, including Bloom software designers, to add step-by-step functionality to create decodable and leveled readers, including menus, prompts and guidance for the users.
The evaluation of Bloom against existing applications revealed the strengths of the offering in light of the challenge’s requirements and eventual roll-out goals. Given the breadth of functionality and prior field use, Bloom offered a discrete feature set that was in line with the ACR GCD vision of an application for worldwide acceptance and eventual distribution. In addition to behavioral and non-behavioral requirements, SIL International proved to be amenable to quick changes and software adjustments during and after the challenge.
Directly on the heels of the challenge, a workshop for literacy authors was conceived and implemented during February 2016 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the help of the local USAID mission. Feedback from this workshop, both direct and through observation, helped refine the ongoing concept of a “writer’s workshop” to surround the software. Similar workshops were given at the University Research Corporation headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, as well as with an audience of collegiate-level diaspora writers at Indiana University.
Extending the model of the software from prototype to workshop platform and beyond, SIL proved to be adaptable and completely engaged with changing their decades-long business model and formulating a plan that would cover operating revenue. It is this plan to move forward with a corporate and development structure based around support fees that will enable SIL and implementing partners to continue the worldwide implementation of Bloom.
The competition reached more than 100 countries, which raised the profile of ACR GCD as a partnership and U.S. government agency initiative in the education technology space. Profiling the Bloom software at events has started a global discussion and awareness of the need for early-grade reading materials. Bloom is being promoted for use by governments and other organizations. It is already being used by World Vision, Peace Corps, Save the Children, Beyond Access and other organizations. In addition, the Bloom software is being introduced to university students in the United States as a way to encourage U.S. citizens and residents to write materials for their respective home countries.
A 10-country rollout plan is under development for the Bloom software. The rollout plan is being administered by University Research Co., LLC, (URC) under a contract with USAID’s Office of Education and through dedicated funds for rolling out technologies—such as Bloom—that ACR GCD sources through its prize competitions. The Bloom software rollout plan aims to attract groups in developing countries that can mobilize writers, effectively link with their ministries of education and ensure materials created are printed and placed into the hands of early-grade children. USAID missions and World Vision’s national offices have expressed interest in hosting writers’ workshops using the Bloom software. The first of these workshops was held in January 2016 with more than 30 representatives from Ethiopian publishing houses, the Ethiopia Ministry of Education and nongovernmental organizations in attendance. By the end of the five-day workshop, participants had created 61 books in six different languages. Three types of supplemental materials were created: read-aloud, decodable and leveled stories.
With its design as a low-cost, low-bandwidth, easy-to-navigate and adaptable software solution, the software developed in this competition, Bloom, will enable the scalable and sustainable development of local-language materials for communities and classrooms around the world.
As a partnership-driven and funded initiative between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government, we were able to use the memorandum of understanding between the three partners to identify the most appropriate mechanism for supporting the Enabling Writers’ prize call. As such, on behalf of the ACR GCD partners, World Vision issued the prize call and funded the award.