Innovative teams of entrepreneurs, business execs, engineers, scientists and other professionals have won millions of dollars to address social issues in recent years through competitions hosted by InnoCentive, HultPrize and the Knight Foundation.

XPRIZE, which is among the biggest and arguably the most prestigious contest of this ilk, already boasts more than $55 million worth of active prizes. But, today, in partnership with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, the nonprofit group is launching a new $7 million competition to help low-literate adults. Your challenge? To create a mobile app that leads to the greatest boost in adult literacy skills in just one year. (Yep, there's going to be a field test.)

Below, in a conversation that's been edited for clarity, are some insider tips on how to boost your odds of winning courtesy of Jennifer Bravo, senior manager of prize development at XPRIZE, and Liza McFadden, CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation.

 

Why did you decide to go with apps, specifically?

Bravo: There are some apps that are out there -- not very many for adults, frankly, when it comes to literacy skills. Most of the market is really focused on kids and young adults. For us to overcome the problems of access to literacy-based services and scalability, mobile is really the way to go. If we want to be able to reach the 36 million adults that need assistance and we're serving between 2 and 3 million of them with our current system we need something scalable to the degree that we have not even begun to approach.

 

What mix of team members seems to work best at tackling such a broad and difficult issue?

Bravo: What we anticipate for this, and what we see in some of our other competitions, is a mixture of people who have subject matter expertise -- in this case literacy and adult learning expertise -- coupled with people who are innovators in tech. So for this competition we will most likely see people who are game developers and app developers working with people who are content experts.

McFadden: There's an opportunity for educators to be part of solving it. I think educators from all spectrums -- university down to high school -- might get really excited about this.

 

Is there a way forward that seems to have succeeded more than others when teams have tackled issues of this magnitude in the past?

Bravo: A lot of our other XPRIZEs are for technologies that don't necessarily have a strong user component or the human behavior component. This is a prize that really inherently involves the adult learner, so teams will have to focus much more strongly on the end user and end-user experience.

In this particular prize, we're actually having the teams design something to change human behavior rather than just measure it. The teams will have to be much more focused on what that user experience is like, especially knowing that persistence is one of the key challenges to success in improving literacy -- people will have to stick with these programs over a yearlong period, so how are the teams going to design something that's interesting and relevant to adults, long term, while improving their literacy skills? The teams have quite the challenge ahead of them.

McFadden: Teams will have the opportunity throughout the design phase, and even when they start the testing with adult students, to make changes. They'll be able to look at human behavior and say they seem to really be struggling with name your issue -- maybe pronunciation or understanding certain words -- and maybe change what they're doing.

Having that ability makes it a lot different than trying to design an engine that's going to go 100 miles on a gallon of gas and then getting it down in the parking lot and saying here it is. This is something where you're going to be able to look at the human behavior and take that into consideration and just keep moving as fast so that your technology is growing as fast as you're learning.

 

What else should teams keep in mind?

Bravo: The solutions are going to have to be pretty flexible, because there are lots of different literacy levels within the test population and a lot of different experiences with literacy -- some people will have been through the public education system in the U.S., and some people won't have been. The solutions will need to be able to handle that level of variation.

 

More details about this XPRIZE can be found here.