Methods: In 2015, the XPRIZE Foundation launched a global competition to “crowdsource” development of an “anytime/anywhere” solution that would teach adults to read in English. It incentivized the rapid development and deployment of mobile apps via a $7m prize purse. It set a high bar: the winning team must meet a minimum performance threshold which even most in-person programs fail to meet. Employing this kind of “moonshot” criteria is key to incentivized competitions; it generates the buzz necessary for press and stakeholders to help recruit the interdisciplinary talent needed to hit the desired goal.
Results: 109 teams from 22 countries registered to compete; in 2017, ALXP received 41 submissions – fully functional apps designed for adult learners reading at or below a third-grade level. Submissions were vetted and judged, resulting in eight semifinalist teams entering the 15-month field test. Their apps reflect vastly different pedagogical approaches, content, and structure -- from step-by-step lessons to games employing music and virtual worlds. The apps were distributed to 10,000 adults for pre-post testing. Gift card incentives were provided, but many expressed that receiving a learning app was their primary motivator. Early anecdotal evidence points to the utility of mobile apps as a promising intervention for improving literacy.
Conclusions: Use of moonshot competitions has many benefits compared to traditional funding mechanisms. Because teams are self-selecting and self-organizing, many have become highly engaged advocates and spokespeople for adult literacy. The positive PR associated with prize milestones brings attention to issues that suffer from a dearth of public awareness. By making it a “moonshot” – with a goal unattainable by conventional approaches – a new field of funders opens up (ie, venture capitalists interested in a “pay for success” model) and, thus, a broader competitor pool can be engaged without the tight restrictions of grant mechanisms. Lastly, the field tests required for evaluating the effects of such interventions yield large datasets -- beneficial for follow-on research and development, and for impact work. As the funding landscape shifts toward crowdsourced and innovative projects, social workers are well positioned to stay ahead of the curve by extending the grassroots and community-based participatory frameworks they already employ. The trick is to create ideas that catalyze donors, mobilize constituents, and empower clients in ways that drive toward “moonshot” social-behavioral change.