Bridging the Knowledge Gap: In Search of Expertise

New paper by Beth Simone Noveck, The GovLab, for Democracy: “In the early 2000s, the Air Force struggled with a problem: Pilots and civilians were dying because of unusual soil and dirt conditions in Afghanistan. The soil was getting into the rotors of the Sikorsky UH-60 helicopters and obscuring the view of its pilots—what the military calls a “brownout.” According to the Air Force’s senior design scientist, the manager tasked with solving the problem didn’t know where to turn quickly to get help. As it turns out, the man practically sitting across from him had nine years of experience flying these Black Hawk helicopters in the field, but the manager had no way of knowing that. Civil service titles such as director and assistant director reveal little about skills or experience.
In the fall of 2008, the Air Force sought to fill in these kinds of knowledge gaps. The Air Force Research Laboratory unveiled Aristotle, a searchable internal directory that integrated people’s credentials and experience from existing personnel systems, public databases, and users themselves, thus making it easy to discover quickly who knew and had done what. Near-term budgetary constraints killed Aristotle in 2013, but the project underscored a glaring need in the bureaucracy.
Aristotle was an attempt to solve a challenge faced by every agency and organization: quickly locating expertise to solve a problem. Prior to Aristotle, the DOD had no coordinated mechanism for identifying expertise across 200,000 of its employees. Dr. Alok Das, the senior scientist for design innovation tasked with implementing the system, explained, “We don’t know what we know.”
This is a common situation. The government currently has no systematic way of getting help from all those with relevant expertise, experience, and passion. For every success on—the federal government’s platform where agencies post open calls to solve problems for a prize—there are a dozen open-call projects that never get seen by those who might have the insight or experience to help. This kind of crowdsourcing is still too ad hoc, infrequent, and unpredictable—in short, too unreliable—for the purposes of policy-making.
Which is why technologies like Aristotle are so exciting. Smart, searchable expert networks offer the potential to lower the costs and speed up the process of finding relevant expertise. Aristotle never reached this stage, but an ideal expert network is a directory capable of including not just experts within the government, but also outside citizens with specialized knowledge. This leads to a dual benefit: accelerating the path to innovative and effective solutions to hard problems while at the same time fostering greater citizen engagement.
Could such an expert-network platform revitalize the regulatory-review process? We might find out soon enough, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration…”