IBM Center for the Business of Government Grant: Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology

I have received a grant from the IBM Center for the Business of Government for my research project, Citizen Apps as a Democratizing Technology:  Challenges and Opportunities for Federal Agencies. This project will be conducted as part of the policy informatics portfolio at the Metropolitan Institute.

Most US federal agencies have embraced President Obama's vision for 1) greater transparency, 2) increased citizen participation, and 3) greater collaboration. A critical outcome of these initiatives is the willingness of federal agencies to engage with citizens around open-data initiatives and the creation of technology for solving public policy problems - 'citizen apps.' We are witnessing an increasing proliferation of 'citizen apps', i.e. applications designed by citizens and developers to solve public policy challenges. Federal agencies are not only opening up data reservoirs, but are also incentivizing the development of citizen apps through competitions. In this research project, we propose to study citizen apps and the federal programs that fostered (incentivized) their creation.

There are many reasons why it is beneficial to involve citizens in the governance process. One, it opens up problem solving opportunities where citizens can participate. Second, it serves as a forum to increase the diversity of thought and knowledge brought to a problem. This increases the potential for innovation by engaging many minds to solve complex problems. Citizen participation leads to greater collective intelligence and hopefully more robust solutions for social issues. Third, it allows citizens to solve problems that a government agency might be challenged to address. Finally, it empowers the vision set forth by former President John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Citizen app programs normally come in two broad flavors. One set of citizen app programs are fueled by government open-data initiatives. In these cases, a government agency makes data available to the public and the public in turn responds by using this data creatively to generate technologies (the apps) that better the lives of citizens. The second set of citizen app programs is where a government agency issues a challenge or problem to the public. The public then responds by building solutions to the challenge. In this case, the government may incentivize the development of the apps through issue of recognition prizes and funding. This success of both types of citizen app programs depends on the dynamic collaboration of government agencies, app developers, and the citizenry. To date, our knowledge on what makes for successful collaboration among these three players is limited.

There are a number of design considerations that need to be addressed when building citizen app programs from the nature of incentives provided to goals of the apps, the motivations that drive citizens to create the apps, and how (and where) to deploy the apps, the involvement by the agency (e.g. staff time to interact with app developers), level and amount of data availability, and creation of problem-solving communities and forums, among others. In this research project, we will uncover design considerations that government executives need to bear in mind as they initiate citizen app programs. We will also compare and contrast citizen app programs to arrive at a set of best practices by looking at critical success factors that led to citizen app programs that were highly successful.

Our research project will thoroughly inventory and study the range of citizen apps to understand the typology of the apps, the data they use, the problems they address, the motivation of the designers, the usage by citizens, and the impact on government and governance. We propose to discover and define the inter-relations between the government agencies, the app developers, and the citizens. While our focus will be on studying citizen apps generated out of programs commissioned by the federal government, we will also look at programs started by progressive states (e.g. New York, California, etc).

The results of the final report will benefit public sector government executives, public managers, and the public-at-large in several ways: 1) it will enable government executives to avoid common pitfalls when incentivizing citizen app programs (for e.g. placing emphasis on the frontend, i.e. the creation of apps, and ignoring the more challenging aspect of ensuring that the apps are diffused into the agency's work practices or to citizens); 2) it will enable public managers to understand the landscape of citizen apps, the motivations of citizens who create them, and the factors that drive their usage; and 3) it will enable federal agencies to better engage citizens into the policy setting process through supporting technology development thereby increasing the chances of more effective solution generation for policy problems.

Hidden Champions and Dynamically Changing Environments – Vienna (Nov 17-18, 2011)

I will be traveling to Vienna (Nov16-19) to moderate a panel at the Hidden Champions in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Dynamically Changing Environments. The focus of the panel will be on designing collaborative alliances for sustainable innovation. I will share results from two of my prior project, I4I (Ideas for Innovation) and Intraprenuership. This conference is hosted by CEEMAN (Central and East European Management Development Association) and IEDC-Bled School of Management and in cooperation with RABE-Russian Association of Business Education and Polish Association of Management Education FORUM. The event will take place at the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber congress center.

Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters Project – The Metropolitan Institute

Maggie Cowell (Assistant Professor, Urban Affairs and Planning, School of Public and International Affairs) and I have received a seed grant ($20,000) from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) at Virginia Tech for our project “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks.” This project will be housed at the Metropolitan Institute.

The goal of this research project is to study how citizens coalesce into responsive communities, make an impact, and then dissolve during and after a disaster. This research will bring into light locally significant disasters that do not earn national headlines and where the local community turns to their own resources to respond. Too often these local disasters and citizen responses are not studied but they are vital to deepening of our understanding of community resilience and the dynamics of citizen engagement. We will uncover the dynamics of community emergence in response to a disaster. Questions considered will include: who organizes citizens into a community, how, and why? How do they respond to the disaster? How is technology, especially social media, mobilized for community organization and relief operations? And finally, what leads to the disbanding of these communities and is there any institutional memory preserved? Consisting of a series of in-depth case studies, made up of first-person accounts and interviews together with a review of secondary sources, the research will look at three stages of a spontaneous community response: the assemblage; the action and impact; and the dissolution of the community. We will study how these emergent communities use technology creatively in the various stages of the community formation as a catalyst to overcome the lack of formal response mechanisms or response planning.

This project will provide valuable insights for citizen activists, planners, and policy makers on the functions and impacts of community response and improve our understanding of citizen engagement. Understanding the emergence, and impacts of local community response can inform the efficiency of more widespread responses. We will construct a web-based platform to share results from the research project (including video interviews with citizens, case studies, and community planning tools). In addition, the web-based platform will support networking and community building among citizens who are interested in building resilient community networks.

  • “Resilience of Citizen Engagement to Local Disasters: Studying the Emergence and Dissolution of Community Networks,” Institute for Society, Culture and Environment @ Virginia Tech, 2011, (PI) (co-PIL Margaret M. Cowell)  ($20,000)

Speaking in France: Paris and Lille, October 2011

I will be giving two talks in France in early October. Both talks are hosted by the faculty at IÉSEG School of Management. On October 10, I will speak at IÉSEG’s Paris Campus on Designing the Innovation Process: Building, Managing, Communicating and Measuring (October 10). This talk is based on my forthcoming book, Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas within Your Organization (University of Toronto Press, 2011).

On October 11, I will head to IESEG’s Lille Campus where I will speak on the topic of Challenges in Inter-Disciplinary Research: Strategies from Crafting Research Ideas to Publishing. In this presentation, I will share my experiences in executing inter-disciplinary research projects. Studying complex phenomenon requires us to undertake research that (1) draws on multiple disciplines, (2) engages a diverse group of stakeholders, (3) appreciates a plurality of research approaches, and (4) communicates to a diverse set of audiences. Executing inter-disciplinary research is no easy feat to accomplish. Researchers face daunting challenges from the onset, beginning with the inception of ideas, then continuing to the crafting of problem statements, executing the research process, and communicating the results via publications in academic and practitioner outlets. However, these challenges should not be viewed as an excuse to abandon inter-disciplinary research in favor of narrow-minded and singular research exercises, which reduce complex phenomenon in deterministic fashions so as to arrive at simplistic problems that lack relevance. I will present a method (process) for executing inter-disciplinary research that has served me well. Illustrative examples of research projects will be used to exemplify this process and outline strategies for researchers to consider when conducting inter-disciplinary research projects.

In addition to the speaking engagements, I will be working on building collaborative research ties between IÉSEG and the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.


Investigating Failures in Large-Scale Public Sector Projects with Sentiment Analysis

I have co-authored a paper with Sandeep Purao and Jonathan Becker, both based at the College of Information Science and Technology at Penn State University, which analyzes the IRS’s Business Systems Modernization Project using sentiment analysis. The paper will appear in a special issue of e-Service Journal.

We describe results from historical analysis of the IRS Business Systems Modernization (BSM) as an example of large-scale, public sector projects. The project has already spanned a decade and consumed more than 3 billion dollars. The paper suggests extracting stakeholder Sentiments and Confidence from documents, with a view to exploring how such measures may offer early indications of project progress and assist managers to prevent undesirable future outcomes. The key contribution of this research is a demonstration of a plausible technique to elicit stakeholder perspectives based on the content in publicly available documents, either complementing any existing methods, or supplanting them in projects where collecting primary data may be infeasible.

A previous version of this paper was presented at the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences in theElectronic Government Track(Development Methods for Electronic Government, Minitrack).

Welcome Letter from the Director – Metropolitan Institute

Just completed finalizing my first letter as the Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. We will soon be loading this on the Metropolitan Institute's website and sharing it with faculty, staff, and friends of Virginia Tech.

Welcome Letter from the Director


It is a privilege to introduce myself as the new director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. I look forward to growing the Metropolitan Institute in the rich history of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, fueled by the dynamism of the School of Public and International Affairs. As we chart a new course for the Institute, I invite members of the Virginia Tech family (students, professors, and administrators) and past/future partner organizations from the Washington, DC metropolitan region and beyond, to visit our web site, review our upcoming work, and contact us as we explore new collaborations.

For the past decade, my intellectual curiosity has focused on designing more resilient and innovative organizations. Critical to this endeavor is understanding how information is managed within and beyond the organization’s borders. As part of my explorations, I have employed numerous research methodologies from behavioral to computational, and have collaborated with industry and academic partners across a range of disciplines from engineering to public administration and management.

A necessary reality of conducting my research was traveling to various parts of the globe to study organizations, the leaders and managers who were responsible for them, and the employees who supported their mission. Over the course of last five years, I have had the privilege of traveling to over 20 cities, including Mumbai, Madrid, Rome, Ljubljana, Johannesburg, Bangkok, London, and Prague. Observing and experiencing the diversity of metropolitan forms led me to consider the design and consequences of how information traversed urban systems across infrastructures, organizations, and social networks.

Urbanization is a major force of change in our world today and will impact the future of the planet on a number of dimensions from resiliency to sustainability and economic vitality. The need to become more effective and aware of the design and implementation of policies has never been more critical. Central to developing new and more effective models of urban policy are the needs to:

  1. Innovate the policy setting process, making it more dynamic, inclusive, cost effective, and timely.
  2. Leverage information through the deployment of computational systems, simulation platforms, and participatory platforms that allow for crowdsourcing of solutions to local problems
  3. Facilitate multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches to framing, studying, and solving, the most complex urban problems.

I envision the future of the Metropolitan Institute as an open collaborative platform that brings together diverse expertise to solve complex urban issues. The Metropolitan Institute will fold together the best and brightest in the fields of informatics, urban planning, international affairs, engineering, and public policy to forge a new set of solutions for today’s urbanizing world. The Metropolitan Institute is a space that is open for all of you to connect and collaborate.

In the near-term, I plan to meet with stakeholders across Virginia Tech and also community partners, industry, and government to listen to your ideas. I have been humbled by the warm welcomes I have received from the various scholars and leaders at Virginia Tech. An esteemed university like Virginia Tech has many friends in public and private organizations across the 50 states and the world beyond. I look forward to meeting with the many friends of the University and welcoming them to the Institute. I am excited to begin designing a new future for Metropolitan Institute.

I look forward to meeting with you and hearing your ideas.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Kevin C. Desouza
Director, Metropolitan Institute
Virginia Tech

Complexity, Policy Informatics, and Public Administration

Erik Johnston (Arizona State University), Qian Hu (University of Central Florida), and I have completed a paper for the Governance of Complex Systems: Challenges of Making Public Administration and Complexity Theory Work Workshop to be held in Rotterdam, Netherlands in June 2011.

How the Application of Complexity and Policy Informatics to Public Administration can Change the Questions we Ask and the Solutions we Discover

We argue for introducing complexity theory to public administration because it allows us to exploit new connections, to raise new questions, and to explore innovative approaches to governance and management. To support more regular, effective, and defensible use of complexity as a contribution to policy-making, public administration scholars must continue to build supporting evidence. In this paper, first, we reflect on why existing analysis frameworks create structural blind spots for understanding governance practice. Second, using examples from our own research and professional experience we demonstrate that a complexity approach allows new questions to be asked that directly connect to policy problems and facilitate decision making in a cost effective manner. Third, we explore a number of factors including practical strategies and ethical concerns that may encourage or preclude the use of a complexity framework and method in policy settings. And finally, this paper calls on public administration scholars to be thoughtfully aware of and ethically responsible for the consequences of the use of complexity methods in research and practice.

Johnston, E., Desouza, K.C., & Hu, Q. “How the Application of Complexity and Policy Informatics to Public Administration can Change the Questions we Ask and the Solutions we Discover,” A Paper for Governance of Complex Systems: Challenges of Making Public Administration and Complexity Theory Work, Rotterdam, Netherlands, June 23-25, 2011.

8 Ways to Democratize Experimentation: HBR Blog

My third post on the Harvard Business Review site went live today. The post was written in collaboration with H. James Wilson and is titled, 8 Ways to Democratize Experimentation. Building on our previous post on experimentation, in this post, we offer 8 tips for organizations to consider as they try to infuse experimentation as part of every employee's work.

  1. Increase managerial attention.
  2. Train employees on the basics of conducting experiments.
  3. Accept that experimentation is a messy and untidy process.
  4. Deploy organizational resources and assets to give employees the time and space to experiment with their ideas.
  5. Build a process whereby experiments can be conducted in a systematic manner.
  6. Create a platform or bulletin board.
  7. Give intrinsically motivated experimenters the same care provided to "sanctioned," large-scale experiments.
  8. Start a working papers and presentation series for both researchers and practitioners.


We would love to hear your comments on the ideas presented.

Innovation Audit and Visit @ Delta Faucet Company

Next week, I will visit with executives, project managers, platform leaders, and employees at the Delta Faucet Company (Indianapolis, Indiana). I will be conducting an innovation audit, learning about innovation strategies employed by Delta Faucet, and making strategic recommendations on how to bolster the innovation quotient of the organization. Having just completed a book titled Intrapreneurship: Leveraging Ideas within the Organization, I am looking forward to using the models described in the book to study how ideas are generated, mobilized, advocated and screened for, experimented with, commercialized, diffused and implemented by the Delta Faucet Company.