Summary:

The White House wants to hear from average citizens with big ideas about what projects the government should tackle, and has asked them to respond on Twitter. The responses are being collected by Expert Labs, a non-profit run by former Six Apart executive Anil Dash.

The White House, after reaching out to scientists for their views on what big ideas the government should tackle, is now asking average citizens to speak up about federal priorities, and one of the ways they can provide their ideas is through Twitter. In a post on the official White House blog, Thomas Kalil — the deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — described what the government is calling the “Grand Challenges of the 21st Century” project. In addition to emailing ideas to the White House, citizens can post their ideas as a response to the White House Twitter account @whitehouse with the #whgc hashtag.

The Grand Challenges project started with a call to scientists in February, which wrapped up submissions earlier this month. Then the administration turned to Expert Labs to help it reach out to everyday U.S. residents for ideas. Expert Labs is a non-profit public policy venture run by Anil Dash, formerly with the blog software maker Six Apart, that’s associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is being funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Dash (who is speaking at Twitter’s Chirp conference today in San Francisco) described the effort in a recent interview with TechPresident. Among other things, he said that the goal of Expert Labs was to “improve the decisions policy makers make, by giving them the tools to tap into crowdsourcing in the same way that private companies do every day.” As he explained:

So instead of trying to fly 20 PhDs into a room in DC, we think a perfect situation would be for the White House to ask on Twitter and Facebook, “Hey, what are some of the important scientific breakthroughs we should be focused on?” What’s the next moon landing or human genome sequence? And instead of working from a set of a few hundred ideas, maybe 100,000 people will have a response to that, an answer. And Expert Labs can provide the technology to collect those answers, give policy makers tools to filter them out, and we can publish the responses for anyone in the public to analyze.

In order to collect and sift through the messages from those with big ideas, Expert Labs is using software called ThinkTank, a kind of Twitter-aggregation and filtering tool built by former Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani. So far, many of the suggestions are fairly obvious: cure cancer, develop hyrdrogen fuel, create a manned colony on Mars, build a space elevator, construct a high-speed rail network across the U.S., repair or reconstruct the ozone layer, etc. It’s not clear how Expert Labs will find the jewels amongst all the dross coming from Twitter — a problem the Obama government has had with other crowdsourcing experiments in the past — or how much influence they will actually have on what projects the government decides to take on.

As bizarre or outlandish as some of the ideas might be, however, it’s still fascinating to see a government using these tools to engage directly with its citizenry. The prospect of a White House having an official blog or Twitter feed — or even knowing what a hashtag is, let alone how to use one — would have seemed equally bizarre and outlandish not that long ago. The Obama government has used crowdsourcing tools of various kinds for a number of projects, including the OpenGov initiative, which was powered by Ideascale, and allowed citizens to post ideas and upload videos arguing for the ideas they thought the administration should tackle (as it turned out, legalizing marijuana was the No. 1 most-voted for initiative). The Grand Challenges project seems like yet another tangible example of how Barack Obama is the “Internet president.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Crystaljingsr

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