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7/2/2009
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Tech Innovation USA: From Resilient Networks To Self-Scheduling Devices

U.S. agencies are driving government IT initiatives that could soon make their way to businesses.

Idea Factory
The Transportation Security Agency's crowdsourcing application, Idea Factory, is now featured on the White House Web site as a model of transparency and open government.

Two years ago, former TSA administrator Kip Hawley stumbled upon a new site called IdeaStorm that Dell had begun using to gather ideas from customers and others outside the company about Dell's strategy and operations. Hawley decided to launch a similar platform to solicit ideas from TSA employees. "Often, the people on the front lines have the best ideas because they're the ones who interact with passengers," says Neil Bonner, manager for application development at the TSA and one of Idea Factory's developers.

TSA employees can submit ideas for things such as new programs and rule changes, and the community then comments on and rates them. Once the activity reaches a certain level or an idea grabs the attention of an administrator, it's flagged and sent to an "idea committee," with representatives from TSA offices. Site admins flag ideas as being under review, and once a review is done, the TSA explains why an idea was approved or declined and what steps will be taken.

Since Idea Factory was launched in April 2007, TSA employees have submitted 8,800 ideas, 73,100 comments, and 234,000 ratings. The process has resulted in more than 40 new programs, including changes that travelers might notice such as the self-selected family security lanes now at every TSA-screened U.S. airport. About 25,000 people have visited the Idea Factory site, and 40% have contributed ideas, comments, or ratings.

One of Idea Factory's newest features: TSA leadership can write about projects being considered or implemented, or problems they're encountering, and get input from staffers. Acting TSA administrator Gail Rossides posts on Idea Factory and receives a weekly update on the site's activity.

Gail Rossides, Acting TSA administrator
TSA administrator Rossides is plugged in to its idea factory
Any organization could put the tool to use--if they have that kind of buy-in from senior leadership, says Idea Factory program manager Tina Cariola. "It's really a tool that's more than just the ideas," she says. "It's about building a community and engaging and empowering the workforce, especially a distributed workforce like we have."

Idea Factory was first built using Microsoft's ASP.Net development technology, then converted to a .Net Web application backed by a SQL Server database. The recently launched third version of the site lets users create their own groups, sign up for e-mail subscriptions, mark ideas as favorites, and forward them to others. Future versions might include more information about where an idea originated, like the airport where the idea creator works, and more advanced categorization. The TSA is working on federating Idea Factory for adoption across the Department of Homeland Security.

Although Idea Factory was developed in-house (over six weeks), commercial brainstorming platforms exist. The TSA initially sought out startup CrispyNews, which built Dell's IdeaStorm, to develop Idea Factory, but Salesforce.com was in the process of buying that company, whose platform it used to build Salesforce Ideas, which powers customer-facing and internal idea-generating apps for Starbucks, Fair Isaac, Flagstar Bank, and networking company Belkin.

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