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Shark Tank: HHS Edition

Andrea Izzotti/

Earlier this month, 13 teams of government entrepreneurs made pitches in a "shark tank" environment to continue funding for their innovation programs through a new initiative at the Health and Human Services Department called HHS Ignite.  

The HHS Ignite program "catalyzes early-stage project ideas that can be completed within very compressed time frames. Teams selected into HHS Ignite are guaranteed an appropriate amount of their time to complete the project. HHS Ignite provides a space in which small teams of employees can try something new in a startup environment by exposing them to networks of innovators and equipping them with the methodologies and tools used by successful startup companies.

"Representing operating and staff divisions from across the department and selected from a pool of 68 applicants, the beta class of HHS Ignite consists of 13 teams that are taking on a diverse set of problems, ranging from new applications of technology in bench research to business process improvement to citizen-facing customer service and more."

HHS Ignite is part of a suite of innovation initiatives that comprise the IDEA Lab, led by HHS Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak. The IDEA Lab's mission is to bridge the old world and a vision of a new, networked world, where value is found in an individual’s talents, as opposed to their position in a hierarchical structure. The foundational effort of the IDEA Lab is to overcome barriers to communication and collaboration between organizational silos and practices that prevent people from working together. The approach is based on four tenets:

  • Innovation is a direct result of the freedom to experiment
  • Design is critical to effectively communicate ideas
  • Entrepreneurship allows an organization to take advantage of underutilized talent
  • Action, above all else, is encouraged

The innovations presented at HHS Ignite fell into three sometimes-overlapping categories: Data innovations, workplace efficiency and mission innovations. Not all of these innovations are technology-focused, and some don't rely on technology at all for their success.

Data Innovations

Developing a Data-Driven ACF Workforce: This team at the Administration for Children and Families put together an impressive application that created data visualizations to help account teams assess the programs they've been tasked to evaluate.

Integrating Health Insurance Marketplace Data to Visualize Efforts and Impact: Creates data visualizations to help answer the question, 'Is there a correlation between people visiting a site and signing?"

Data-Driven Website Optimization Using Multivariate Testing: Offers a data-driven approach to testing government websites to see how efficient they are at communicating their strategic messages.

Workplace Efficiency

Increasing Efficiency in Rule Making with Natural Language Processing: Helps regulators sift through public comments by categorizing them and sending them to appropriate subject matter experts.  

The NIH 3D Printing Exchange: The National Institutes of Health provides a database of 3-D templates that people can use to customize the printing of their own artifacts -- like a Thingverse, but for models of flu viruses.

Fast-Screening CE-MS Method for Bacteria Through Protein Pattern Recognition: Helps identify bacteria in food in minutes instead of days using Mass spectrometry

CMS Coordinated Press Response Strategy: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services creates a database of every cleared statement for release to the media, cutting down response time by 54 percent in the pilot study.

Moving Toward Energy Efficient NIH Laboratories: Installs energy-efficiency devices and more energy-efficient equipment at NIH labs, which are major consumers of electricity in the federal sector.

Mission Innovations

Recruiting Older Adults for Research (ROAR): Seeks ways to reach out to older populations to get them involved in medical research, especially for studies on relevant topics, such as Alzheimer's disease. 

The NLM Pillbox -- The Benefits of Being Open about Drug Data: The National Library of Medicine creates the largest drug database in the world, including information on drug interactions, a visual database of pills, and other data and metadata.

IHS Workforce Development -- Going Lean to Understand Needs: The Indian Health Service breaks down organizational silos, connecting people who need information to those who have it. 

The CDC Health Game Jam 2013: Tries to put into practice the popular saying "behavior is the next billion-dollar pill."  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brings together coders and public health officials to create games in categories such as nutrition, wellness and food safety to help players understand the health aspects of their daily activities. 

CDCOLOGY -- A Microtasking Project: creates an application similar to Task Rabbit, but reaches out to college students to perform mission-critical tasks, like literature review, that agency staff would normally undertake.

It will be interesting to follow these developments and see how other agencies iterate them based on HHS' example.

(Image via Andrea Izzotti/

Gadi Ben-Yehuda is the Director of Innovation and Social Media for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was a Web Strategist for the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. He has taught creative, expository, and Web writing for more than 10 years to university students, private-sector professionals, and soldiers. He has an MFA in poetry from American University, has taught writing at Howard University, and has worked in Washington, DC, for nonprofits, lobbying organizations, Fleishman-Hillard Global Communications, and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

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