Expert Labs, ThinkTank, Gina Trapani and our Grand Challenges

A few months ago, I started as director of “Expert Labs”:, a new independent non-profit effort with the goal of improving government by letting policy makers tap into the collective wisdom of the public. We’re part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and because our goal could have seemed a bit nebulous I’ve held off on explaining the full vision of the effort until today, when we’re announcing our first project, platform and project director. Here’s the highlights:

  • We’ll be collaborating with the White House in support of the Grand Challenges initiative. The President has defined a list of the biggest scientific and technological challenges facing America, as part of his Strategy for American Innovation. But they need our help, especially from those of us in the scientific and technological community: What should our highest priorities be for the biggest technological challenges of our time? What items have been omitted from the President’s list of priorities? In short: If you had to pick the next project on the scale of the moon landing, or the human genome sequencing, what would you suggest? And how would you find the leadership and community that would achieve that goal? These are the questions we want to help answer.
  • To help get answers for these questions, Expert Labs will be sponsoring the development of a technology platform that allows policy makers and community members to ask questions across the existing social networks that exist on the web. My guideline for the technology platform was that it be free and open source, make smart use of existing technologies and APIs, have a thriving developer community, and be appropriate for use in cloud environments for easy deployment by government agencies, private industry, and even individuals. So I’m excited to announce that we’ve selected the ThinkTank application as our first official technology platform project at Expert Labs.
  • And, as you might expect since we’ve agreed to sponsor her application, I’m ecstatic to announce that Gina Trapani is joining Expert Labs as our Project Director for the Grand Challenges project, overseeing our technology efforts around ThinkTank and making sure that the platform is a good fit for the community of policy makers, scientists, technologists and the general public that it’s designed to serve. Gina is of course the founding editor of Lifehacker and publisher of Smarterware, a best-selling author, and a co-host of This Week in Google, one of the most popular podcasts on the Internet. She’s also an incredible talent and a woman of remarkable character and I couldn’t be more excited to have her on the team.

Phew! That’s a lot of great news. Since I announced my role at Expert Labs two and a half months ago, we’ve been hard at work meeting with folks across the Federal Government to find out how we could be of the most value. The truth is, when I started this project, I really only had a hunch that there was something amazing happening at the confluence of technology and government. But the months since have shown that my optimism there is well-founded, even if it is still just early days for this kind of effort.

The Startup Mindset

You see, Expert Labs sits at an interesting intersection. We are not part of the government, don’t take any money from the government or any tax dollars, and don’t take orders from anyone in the White House or any other part of the administration. In the early days of refining Expert Labs, I saw us as something like a “gCombinator”, creating technology that serves government needs, but with a model that looks a lot more like an entrepreneurial technology incubator.

And while we’re proudly independent, we’ve also been given a remarkable amount of access. The federal government as a whole is making an incredibly rapid evolution towards becoming more open and accessible, particularly to technologists. You can look at something like the OpenGov Tracker and see the results of this in real time. That’s not to say things are ideal; Only 611 ideas for improving government have been submitted in total thus far. But I think that we can get orders of magnitude more Americans to participate in, and suggest ideas for, better governance if we make it as easy as just using Twitter or Facebook. And I think we can provide great motivations for them to do so if we show that their ideas and inspiration have direct impact on the policy decisions that are made.

White House - Grand Challenges

This is a time of remarkable opportunity for the tech industry that I have spent my career working in. I’m just a regular guy, who was working just a few years ago as a PHP coder building content management systems. Today, I’ve been able to go to the White House and help make the case that a better technology platform, connected to the social networks we already use, could have the same transformative effect on policy making that it did on the world of media or business. And they were ready to listen, not just to me, but to our entire community. (I’m not saying that to name drop; In the new world of open government, things like visitor records for the White House are actually easily accessible.) I mean, hell, I got excited just knowing that my project’s website got linked to from the White House blog — imagine when that’s a two-way conversation for all of us!

And if you’re a web programmer today, you can have a huge impact, even if you don’t know the first thing about government or policy. You don’t have to work for the government to work for your country. All you have to do is follow the ThinkTank project and make submissions of any code fixes or improvements that you have. Or join the mailing list and become part of the community. Or simply run the app for your own business and submit your feature requests about how it could be better suited to answering large-scale questions on various social networks. Simply by playing with new technology, participating in an open source project, and sharing what you’ve learned about what works in crowdsourcing ideas online, you can make a huge impact in our government’s ability to listen to our ideas.

Just Getting Started

I’m incredibly excited to get started with our first official project at Expert Labs, and there are more to come in the future. Today, I hope you’ll read over the Grand Challenges Request for Information from the White House and understand a bit more about what this project is about. Then you can visit the Expert Labs site (or follow @expertlabs on Twitter) and keep up to date with us as both the technology platform and the overall Grand Challenges effort progress.