Five Ways Crowdsourcing Can Transform the Public Sphere

It’s a powerful concept, but governments need to use the right tool for the job at hand.
by , | May 23, 2012

In the 19th century, British scholars convened to compile a comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Rather than catalog the entire language on their own, they turned to the English public to submit definitions and context for each word. After 70 years of editing and compiling and six million submissions, the Oxford English Dictionary was born.

More than 150 years later, a new online learning platform called Duolingo is aiming to get millions of people worldwide to translate the Internet while learning a foreign language at their own pace.

Turning to large groups of people to solve problems, make decisions, and generate ideas in a decentralized way is not a new concept. However, advances in technology and societal changes have made the process of tapping the wisdom of the crowd easier and more direct than ever. Before jumping on the crowdsourcing bandwagon, however, government organizations must first understand the five basic models and when to use the activities associated with each.

Crowd competition: For a problem that has a defined solution but requires creative problem-solving, a contest or prize provides incentives for participants to generate actionable solutions. And the contest might yield unrelated innovations in the process.

Want a quick $1.5 million? Figure out a way to store enough solar or thermal energy for a moon rover to operate during 14 days of lunar darkness, and NASA will cut you a check — it's that simple. The Night Rover Challenge is one of many NASA competitions opened to the public in recent years. Through these contests, the space agency has access to the talent and ideas of highly skilled individuals from around the world at a relatively low cost.

Crowd collaboration: Some organizations face problems not only of creativity but also of complexity. When citizens combine their ideas and observations, they can scour the details of a problem and build on each other's insights with a degree of specificity most bureaucrats only dream of.

In the depths of the recession, the small coastal city of Santa Cruz, Calif., faced a large budget shortfall and the scrutiny of its increasingly agitated citizenry. As pressure mounted, the city looked to these same citizens for help. The general population analyzed city financial records, volunteered new ideas, and rated and contributed to each other's submissions through an online platform. With the help of nearly 10 percent of its citizens, Santa Cruz implemented publicly generated solutions to close a $9.2 million shortfall while raising immeasurable amounts of social capital that still benefit the city and its programs.

Crowd collaboration is ideal for building and sharing knowledge, coordinating emergency response efforts and developing citizen-driven policy.

Crowd voting: Sometimes, before decision-making, an organization needs to harness on-the-ground knowledge from the people who know a problem intimately. In this situation, voting is a means of aggregating the judgments of the crowd to rank ideas. Crowd voting gives citizens a sense of buy-in to government decisions, and it gives government valuable insights from people who are, obviously, experts in their own lives.

The dilapidated old building next to your apartment building that has sat empty for years is for sale, and flocks of developers, speculators and city officials now are deciding its fate. Will it be a community center or a charter school? Whatever the final decision is, they're not asking you, and maybe that's a problem. Popularise is a platform, currently covering Seattle and Washington, D.C., that invites the crowd to vote on ideas for new uses of old or empty buildings. By allowing the public to vote on proposed ideas, developers and site planners benefit from knowing what developments the local population likely would support.

Crowd voting is particularly good for making simple decisions and ranking options, but not well suited for strategic-level decisions that require organizational buy-in.

Crowd labor: Some tasks are merely tedious. When a project requires little creativity or coordination, just hours of work, crowd labor breaks it into thousands of small, simple tasks.

Geneva, Switzerland, has thousands of years of rich history — and nearly 200 years' worth of unorganized public property records. The city's government has taken on the task of digitizing and organizing these records by breaking up this monumental effort into thousands of small tasks for the public's enjoyment through an online video-game-like platform.

Crowd labor activities such as microtasking suit efforts such as data validation, translation, data entry and digital archiving.

Crowd funding: Crowd funding is perhaps the most specific and simple way to engage the crowd.

In the midst of the 2010 Haitian earthquake crisis, millions of dollars poured into aid organizations around the world — not from checks and deposits but from small payments made by thousands of individuals via their mobile phones. The impressive feat of channeling the good intentions of the masses into substantial funds in a short time period was possible because technology has bypassed checks and stamps — the simple act of sending a four-letter text message to a phone number was all that was asked of people.

The potential of crowd funding activities goes beyond obvious applications, such as disaster-relief efforts, and can include funding start-ups and individual programs within large organizations.

The successes of public-sector crowdsourcing initiatives and advances in technology have caused the public to expect to engage with government on a personal level. Once an organization creates a platform — like turning Geneva's land records into a game or making charitable donations as simple as an SMS — it can harness the crowd's incredible potential. Understanding the different models and uses of crowdsourcing is a key first step for any government agency that wishes to unleash the power of the crowd.

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