by DAVID AXE
The U.S. State Department is offering up a cash prize to an American, or team of Americans, who can invent a new social-media tool for treaty monitoring. In other words, the feds want an app for tracking nukes.
As part of the Arms Control Challenge, launched last week, Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller is soliciting ideas from “garage tinkerers and technologists … gadget entrepreneurs and students, to support the U.S. arms control and nonproliferation agenda.”
“Are there new ways that we can use existing data, such as Twitter streams, to generate information that will be useful to arms control and nonproliferation verification and monitoring?” Gottemoeller wrote. “Are there ways that we can help our inspectors to do their jobs better, by having better tools available? Are there ways that governments and citizens can work together to ensure better monitoring and verification of treaties and agreements?”
The winning idea is worth up to $10,000, but the creator must license the concept exclusively and in perpetuity to the State Department.
This is not the first time the State Department has tried to enlist the “crowd” — a.k.a, the public — in its concept development. In March the Department sponsored the so-called “Tag Challenge” in Washington, D.C., New York, London, Stockholm and Bratislava. The event was meant to help develop new methods of tracking criminals.
In 12 hours on March 31, participants had to “locate and photograph each of five volunteer ‘suspects,” according to a State Department release. “The winning strategy will likely involve building a network of spotters and teammates through social media in each of the five cities,” the agency predicted. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology snagged the $5,000 first prize in that event.
Other U.S. agencies have adopted similar “crowd-sourcing” enforcement strategies. In February, the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security released an app “that enables West Virginians to submit tips concerning suspicious criminal and terrorist activity.” “With the assistance of our citizens, important information can quickly get into the hands of our law enforcement community allowing them to provide better protection,” said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
And in March, the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security released a similar app.
It’s one thing to play a game of international tag using Twitter and smartphones, or to snap photos of suspicious persons and upload them to an app. It’s quite another for an everyday person to track a nation’s nuclear arsenal. Criminals try to blend in with the public, making it possible for the public to get involved in tracking and apprehending them. But nuclear weapons are pretty much always held in secure facilities that even billion-dollar spy satellites cannot see into.
In that way the Arms Control Challenge is distinct from previous U.S. government crowd-sourcing efforts. The crowd might be able to help develop the Arms Control app, but despite Gottemoeller’s rhetoric will probably never use the app. It’s a tool that will likely be useful only to inspectors with existing, special access to a country’s nuke arsenal.