Published on January 31, 2012

Collaborative Crowds

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Tweets posted during a recent event on crowdsourcing has made me think more deeply about whether the process can be used to promote deliberation by citizens. In this post I explore this idea and answer, yes and no. 

In the second of a series of posts inspired by the talk that I gave last week at the Institute for Government, I highlighted four possible uses for crowdsourcing:

      • Tapping into the wisdom of the crowd;
      • Accessing information that is highly distributed;
      • Understanding the preferences of the crowd;
      • Uncovering ideas hidden in the crowd/ Policy innovation.

The #ifgcrowds stream on Twitter was active and interesting. It made me think again about whether there are more uses for crowdsourcing or not.

First @owenbarder chimed in with:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/owenbarder/status/161517430399696896″]

@_garrilla (Garry Haywood), following from outside the room, picked-up a similar point in a series of tweets during and after the event:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/_garrilla/status/161548917341831168″]

[blackbirdpie url=”!/_garrilla/status/161550611874185216″]

[blackbirdpie url=”!/_garrilla/status/161894216534994945″]

All of which rather goes against a central a central theme of my talk:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/owenbarder/status/161522735149891584″]

Garry and I exchanged a few tweets as he constructed a helpful post expanding on this theme – although he trumped my jelly bean analogy with a biblical one, which gives him an unfair level of gravitas I feel.

He makes the point that the original meaning of the word crowdsourcing involved users of a tech product discussing new product features, building a consensus and balancing trade-offs. He highlights another example, the marvellous gaming platform foldit, where users build on each others’ work to develop more effective proteins and enzymes.

The issue that both he and Owen raise is whether, in the policy world, government should be more ambitious and use crowdsourcing to build consensus, help the crowd to work collectively to identify new solutions and in the process build communities?

Or is this, as Garry asks, pedantry?

My answer to the first question is ‘no’, and to the second, ‘yes definitely’, at least if we are going to get hung-up on ‘doing crowdsourcing’ in a pure form. But it’s been a helpful form of pedantry that has helped me to clarify my thoughts.

It’s interesting that both of Garry’s examples aren’t from the world of policy. In fact, examples of crowdsourced, collective consensus developed policy are very thin on the ground. The main example that is quoted is the recent decision by Iceland to crowdsource its new constitution. The general feeling is that this has been a good thing. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though and I am struck by the fact that the main deliberative element in Iceland is a Constitutional Council made up of 25 people.

I think there’s a reason that examples of the use of deliberative crowdsourcing for policy development are so thin on the ground. It’s because the crowd that is likely to answer is much more diverse than the crowd answering an open call to help develop some cool new product features. This in turn makes it much harder to find the common-ground needed to build consensus and identify trade-offs.

I don’t actually think that the foldit example is relevant here, because no-one loses anything (in a real-world, immediate sense) if the protein doesn’t fold properly, or their ideas aren’t taken on board.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to find ways to build common ground and identify the trade-offs in policy, I just don’t think that a pure, online crowdsourcing exercise can to do this, worse I think it risks polarising the debate.

What I think crowdsourcing can do is to help to identify potential new ideas, generate a level of excitement and interest around an issue, that can then be used to develop an off-line process that is deliberative and consensus building. Which is why I think our discussion might have a significant element of pedantry to it.

I think that Owen, Garry and I agree that we need much more space for community and consensus building within the policy making process. Whether or not we call the process we use to achieve this ‘crowdsourcing’ or ‘crowdsourcing plus’ is somewhat beside the point, as long as we are clear about what we are trying to do, and how the process that is developed is going to help us to do it.

Photo credit: alexkess

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