What Can We Learn from NASA About Crowdsourcing in a Pandemic?

What Can We Learn from NASA About Crowdsourcing in a Pandemic?
  • NASA crowdsourcing community - Innovation Management
By: Rob Hoehn

When COVID-19 shut down the United States in 2020, everyone wanted to be a part of the solution. At NASA, the entire NASA workforce expressed their desire to help the nation combat the virus – even though most of their employees were asked to work from home.

In order to honor that energy and attention,  NASA launched an agency-wide call on its crowdsourcing platform, [email protected], for ideas in three focus areas: personal protective equipment, ventilation devices, and monitoring and forecasting the spread and impacts of the virus.

All together, the NASA workforce generated 250 unique ideas from 220 idea submitters, with the entire community contributing 621 comments and 4635 votes. Those ideas added value to several projects, including using NASA’s supercomputing capability to advance research for treatments and a vaccine, as well as offering their artificial intelligence expertise to develop new data mining techniques for answering high-priority scientific questions related to COVID-19.

Other ideas have informed the efforts that have led to new virus tracking and forecast modeling apps, 3D printed masks and other PPE equipment, impact visualizations, NASA-modified ventilators, sensors for virus detection, and more. Seven of those ideas have already

been implemented.

But what can we learn about crowdsourcing from this story?

Leaders must participate as part of the communications strategy. A good crowdsourcing initiative depends on – you guessed it – the crowd! But to get a meaningful group of people to participate, you must have a sound communications strategy so that everyone knows about your challenge, what types of solutions you’re looking for, and how they can become a part of it. If the leaders at an organization show that they are part of the initiative, then it’s far more likely that participants will take it seriously. For example, over 3,000 page views were driven by a single email from a NASA Administrator. And that’s just one message nestled into an entire communications strategy. In total, the [email protected] community grew by over 1,500 participants in just a few weeks.

Know where your crowd can succeed. NASA didn’t attack every aspect of the pandemic. Things like hospital capacity, the economy, and vaccines were left for other people to address. NASA coordinated with FEMA and the White House to determine areas of need that also overlapped with NASA’s mission and expertise – the adjacent opportunities to NASA’s own work. This allowed for some surprises since the challenge wasn’t directly related to space flight, but also ensured that there would be some guaranteed success. Efforts like the E-Nose COVID breathalyzer have actually secured $3.8M in funding from Health and Human Services to support development of the viral detector through an Ames Research Center-Goddard Space Flight Center collaboration. Those powerful collaborations are where true innovation happens.

There’s just no substitute for good timing. Yes, NASA’s leaders wanted to help in the pandemic. But – more importantly – they saw that their workforce wanted to help. When you’re tuned into your crowd, their interests, and their news – then you can tap into the energy that they’re already bringing to a problem and find both solutions and enthusiasm. So where is the energy in your organization? What does your crowd care about right now? And don’t wait to reach out… act now, because attentions tend to wander quickly.

To get the full story about NASA’s crowdsourcing response to COVID-19, download the comic book case study here.

About the Author

Rob Hoehn is the co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale: the largest open innovation software platform in the world. Hoehn launched crowdsourcing software as part of the open government initiative and IdeaScale’s robust portfolio now includes many other industry notables, such as EA Sports, NBC, NASA, Xerox and many others. Prior to IdeaScale, Hoehn was Vice President of Client Services at Survey Analytics.

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