New website shows how agencies can find creative ways to serve multiple missions.
The Air Force recently launched a website called "The Air Force Collaboratory," which entices young people to participate in an online dialogue and share ideas for solving (initially) three unclassified research projects in which the Air Force is engaged. None of the projects is directly (or at least exclusively) military in nature. One involves developing technology to allow the Air Force quickly to determine the location of survivors of building collapses; a second focuses on a new kind of robot with various search and rescue capabilities; and a third involves determining the proper point in space to which a new GPS satellite should be launched.
The first-level purpose of the site is to involve young people, in a collaborative way, in dealing with a tough technical challenge for the government. This is not a contest; there are no prizes. Instead, the site appeals both to a desire to excel and a desire to serve, both important themes for the Air Force.
"I hope you're up to this," a voice says about the GPS project. "Your idea will save lives," reads a computer-generated text for the collapsed building project. It is nice to involve young people in something bigger than themselves, and it also sends a good message about the ability of the government to innovate that the Air Force is trying out a new way to get technical input on important projects.
But information about the site's backstory tells you its other purpose. According to a New York Times article, the site was developed by GSD&M in Austin, Texas. That would be the same agency that holds the Air Force's recruitment advertising contract. The site is also a way to encourage kids interested in technology to consider joining the Air Force.
So there is also sort of a contracting story here – an example of what the government wants from a good vendor, which is original and innovative ideas that can be used to help further the organization's mission.
All in all, an interesting effort. Check out the site – it's hardly an example of stodgy government in action. The Air Force Collaboratory has been up for about a month now. I'd be curious to know what kind of response it's getting, either in terms of generating ideas or in terms of whetting the appetites of potential recruits.