Phillip Smith

Open innovation challenges: do they work?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working hard to define the three questions that will define this year’s Knight-Mozilla News Technology open innovation challenges.

Think about that for a moment. We started with more than twenty different questions, gathered from conversations with our news partners, a number individuals who are innovating in the news-technology space, and the Mozilla community at large, and we have to narrow down that input to just three questions that will become challenges this year (and not embarrass ourselves along the way).

We’re almost there there.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the role of challenges and competitions in innovation. There are a lot of organizations doing challenges out there: Knight Foundation, OpenIDEO, Challenge Post, Skild, and so on. It begs the question: Are challenges just a fad, or do they actually work?

Clearly, I think they work. It would be hard to be enthusiastic about the launch of the MoJo challenges later this month if I didn’t. But what I like about them is the unexpected, not the expected, results.

There are some obvious examples of success using competitions in the news-technology space: EveryBlock,, and MapBox, to name just a few. But there are some less well known stories that I’ve been thinking about, because I feel they represent the truly interesting thing about challenges…

The first is from the Apps for America contest. For two years in a row, the Apps for America challenge was won by one person: Jeremy Ashkenas. Jeremy is an outlier – an astonishingly-prolific developer that has an enviable number open-source software projects to his name, including Coffeescript, Ruby-Processing, Backbone.js, and Underscore.js. When I spoke to Scott Klein at NICAR11, he mentioned that Jeremy’s success during the Apps for America contests was part of what put him on the radar of folks like Scott and Aron Pilhoffer – connections that would eventually lead Jeremy to Document Cloud.

More recently, yet more quietly, Dave Winer successfully used an open challenge to rapidly iterate his “river of news” and “minimal blogging tool” ideas. Dave used nothing more than a blog post with the challenge statement, examples of similar innovation, and a JSON feed with the data, and several people took up the challenge. Within days, if not hours, several submissions were posted back to Dave’s blog.

There you have it, two ends of a spectrum, and a few points in-between. Here are a few more pointers: Mozilla uses them, Ashoka uses them, and – heck – even Google uses them when it wants to send a robot to the moon. What more do you need to know?

Well, actually, there’s lots more to it than that, but I’ll leave it there. What do you think? If you have examples of challenges that worked, or failed, I want to hear about them.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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