Coders take up USPTO's $50,000 challenge

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is offering $50,000 in prizes in a monthlong competition to develop algorithms that could help patent examiners pull together digital data from hundreds of pages of applications.

The competition is being run as an experiment in the NASA Tournament Lab, an online collaboration between the space agency, the Harvard Business School and TopCoder, a commercial virtual community of programmers and developers who compete to produce software for contest sponsors. The Tournament Lab is part of NASA’s Center for Collaborative Innovation.

If effective, the algorithms could reduce the amount of time patent examiners spend paging through applications looking for data to match with drawings and other images, helping to speed up the application process and make it more cost-effective. It also could make patent information more accessible to the public.

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The contest also is part of a larger government effort to drive innovation through nontraditional efforts such as crowdsourcing and competitions.

“Few image processing problems can be solved reliably today, but image processing experts think this particular problem is sufficiently well-defined to reap the benefits of crowdsourcing, which has a strong track record of surfacing novel solutions from unexpected places,” Robynn Sturm Steffen, a senior administration science and technology adviser, said in a recent White House blog posting

“As federal agencies like the PTO begin using new tools — like prizes — to solve tough, mission-critical problems, the new Center for Excellence for Collaborative Innovation will become available [as a] new resource,” Sturm Steffen said.

More than 900 developers signed up for the competition, which is scheduled to run through Jan. 16. Winners will be announced one month later.

The algorithms will have to recognize and analyze images and be able to associate text data from elsewhere in the forms with the appropriate images.

The contest was announced on, an online platform run by the General Services Administration through which agencies can post challenges for development work.

The Online Tournament Lab was launched in October 2010 by Harvard University and NASA as a venue to study the use of ad hoc groups to produce solutions outside of traditional organizations. The use of such ad hoc groups in software development is best known through collaborative efforts such as the open-source communities that develop and maintain open-source software.

But the challenges offered in the lab are competitive rather than collaborative, with winners receiving prize money and the sponsoring organization getting the rights to the software developed.

The lab is host to TopCoder, which runs competitions for paying customers who get access to the TopCoder community of more than 320,000 coders and developers around the world. When the process works, contest sponsors get professional results quickly and at prices typically lower than they could get by hiring contractors for the job. Contestants get experience, exposure and a shot at picking up some money, with prizes ranging from $100 or less to a few thousand dollars.

Contestants in the USPTO challenge will be grouped into two-person teams, which will compete with other teams in a number of virtual rooms containing about 20 teams each. The first place team will get $10,000 and the second place team $5,000. The remaining $35,000 will be distributed to the top two teams in each of the virtual rooms, with the top performer receiving 75 percent of the room prize and the second-place finisher 25 percent. If there are 900 participants, that would make about $1,600 in prize money available to each room.

“These types of experiments add to the public sector’s collective knowledge of what kinds of challenges work best,” Steffen said in the blog entry.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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