Citizens and their governments are finding new and meaningful ways to communicate through innovative information and communication technologies (ICTs). One particularly successful method is crowdsourcing – the process of soliciting and putting to use information, ideas, funding or judgments from a large group of people, enabled by the internet’s low barriers to participation.
Here in New York, crowdsourcing has become an increasingly important tool to address civic challenges, and is also being adopted nationally and around the world. Last month, New York City began a new initiative, called the Rat Reservoir pilot, to crack down on rat populations by partnering with communities, watchful citizens and experts to crowdsource improved online visualizations of rat locations across the five boroughs. Another worthwhile New York project is Crashstories.org, which allows drivers and witnesses to contribute to a crowdsourced map of traffic incidents, to which governments and others can then respond with more targeted services and preventative interventions. At Microsoft, we’re committed to furthering the impact of crowdsourcing through projects ranging from our Chip In program to budding partnerships in the fields of participatory budgeting and disaster relief.
Attributes of crowdsourcing – such as commons-based peer production and online polling – form what Daren Brabham describes in an IBM report as “a mix of top-down, traditional, hierarchical process and a bottom-up, open process involving an online community.” In this way, crowdsourcing allows governments and citizens to become partners in more effective, informed, and inclusive strategies for governance.
“Collaborative governance,” as Beth Noveck, founder of the GovLab at New York University, calls it, allows governments to reach two kinds of audiences: a non-expert crowd and a diffuse but expert group. Based on the principle of the wisdom of crowds, the non-expert group can in many cases collectively produce judgments which are better than those made by individual experts due to the wider range of perspectives and skills of the group’s members.
Noveck distinguishes the first type from a second: crowdsourcing which relies on the internet to reach a distributed expert group rather than a diverse one. One example is Peer to Patent, which, enabled by the internet, crowdsources expert public participation in the patent examination process.
On local and national levels, crowdsourcing is acting as a means to transform government activities into partnerships with citizens. The Smithsonian Institution and National Archives and Records Administration have begun projects to open tagging and transcription work of historical documents and artifacts to participation by the public. NASA has solicited the help of the public in detecting asteroids. Challenge.gov, powered by the Meatpacking District-based ChallengePost, engages the public in solving some of the toughest public challenges we face, in exchange for prize money. On a level never before possible, the internet has enabled citizens to contribute knowledge, information and ideas to inform public decisions and policies.
Crowdsourcing can allow governments to gather judgments and knowledge with a lower error rate and craft a plan based on a wider market of ideas, information, and analysis. But successful crowdsourcing requires a smart approach to asking questions and an intentional plan for responding to them. Noveck suggests that governments 1) start with a problem to which they clearly want and need solutions, 2) clearly define the kind and format of the response they are looking for, and 3) commit to implementing the best responses they gather.
In addition to a careful approach for interacting with the crowd, successful crowdsourcing must rely on a crowd which has access to the appropriate information. This became apparent when, after the Boston Marathon bombings, users of Reddit and other online communities attempted a crowdsourced manhunt which mistakenly accused innocent people of committing a heinous crime. James Surowiecki argues that what failed was not the crowd’s wisdom but the crowd’s access to information; the bombers were identified by law enforcement not from public images but from privately held footage from a retail store’s surveillance camera. This example illustrates that while crowdsourcing can be tremendously valuable and cost-effective, it is not a panacea. Crowdsourcing must be used at the right moment, for the right purpose. As Alec Ross has observed, crowdsourcing shouldn’t answer the question of what to do about Iran’s possible nuclear capabilities. Or the Boston Marathon bombings.
Instead, what crowdsourcing can do is strengthen democracy by offering a means for government to fold citizens more deeply into its operations and decision-making in appropriate circumstances. Crowdsourcing can allow governments to better catalogue historical information, find rats in the New York subway, document the paths of asteroids, and collect insights and information that make smarter and more efficient communities, cities and nations.
Even more importantly than what the ubiquity of computing power can do for government is what it can do for us, as individuals and as a society. By distributing computing power, tech-enabled capability can also distribute responsibility for many of the things that matter to our communities. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously concluded with an homage to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” We stand on the brink of a technology-powered democracy in which crowdsourcing and other tools enable the people to take part in their own governance as never before.