Questions About the GSA’s Travel Data Challenge

On February 19, 2014 the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced whatThe Beat calls a “first of its kind” competition to develop travel data analysis technology. The formal announcement posted by the GSA says:

“In this GSA Travel Data Challenge, the public is asked to develop a technology-driven solution using GSA travel data that allows an agency to identify opportunities to reduce costs.  As such, GSA challenges the public to create a tool using GSA travel data that could be replicated across government to every agency, using their own travel data.”

This exercise is described as “crowdsourcing” in other publications that usually pay little attention to how the GSA administers its travel programs or analyzes travel data–one supposes because the novelty of the approach somehow makes it important.

The Travel Data Challenge raises a number of questions that are equally worthy of some attention. Here are some of the most obvious:

  1. The competition offers $35,000 for a winning submission; lesser amounts to other categories totally $90,000 in all. This is but a fraction of what such a solution would likely earn in the open market, which makes one wonder why any established developer would want to participate.

    Participants grant the government a perpetual, royalty-free license to any and all intellectual property comprising the winning entry. A good deal for government, but a bad deal for a truly innovative developer. While the terms of the contest go on to say that “All other rights of the winning entrant will be retained by the winner of the competition,” since the rules also say that “The final tool should be in Open Source Code,” we are left to ponder how little those remaining rights might be worth.

  3. The GSA has existing contracts-holders for a variety of travel management and analysis products. Why isn’t the innovation and creativity the agency desires forthcoming from these presumably well-funded and well-compensated sources? Perhaps the agency should be questioning whether its procurement and program management practices are truly adequate to deliver the sustained innovation it seeks, or if that is not the problem, then whether the incumbent vendors are up to the job?
  4. The Organization and operation of the event give the impression that many aspiring participants are unprepared for the task. Travel data analysis and interpretation is a complex and highly specialized field. The agency has provided only the sketch of what it wants to accomplish, and many of the online questions posted on the event site indicate that an understanding of the sources, tools, and objectives of successful travel management are equally barren within the community of interest developers. A much more thorough developer briefing is needed if all sides of the contest are to avoid wasting their time.