Using crowds to solve problems

crowd by James Cridland
Get Ready to Participate: Crowdsourcing and Governance:
[Via Confessions of an Aca/Fan]

Crowdsourcing and Governance

by Daren C. Brabham

It’s been three years since Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in his Wired article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” The term, which describes an online, distributed problem solving and production model, is most famously represented in the business operations of companies like Threadless and InnoCentive and in contests like the Goldcorp Challenge and the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Contest.

In each of these cases, the company has a problem it needs solved or a product it needs designed. The company broadcasts this challenge on its Web site to an online community–a crowd–and the crowd submits designs and solutions in response. Next–and this is a key component of crowdsourcing–the crowd vets the submissions of its peers, critiquing and ranking submissions until winners emerge. Though winners are often rewarded for their ideas, prizes are often small relative to industry standards for the same kind of professional work and rewards sometimes only consist of public recognition.

Recognizing that not all creativity and innovation resides in-house, some organizations are looking for connections to outside innovators. New social tools allow them to make connections, through such sources as InnoCentive. When done well, these approaches can not only produce new ideas but help vet these ideas for suitability.

This approach can work in areas other than for-profit settings. Think non-profit biomedical institutions or government.

Though you’d be hard pressed to see them ever use the word “crowdsourcing,” one such example of crowdsourcing in governance is Peer-to-Patent. Begun in June 2007, Peer-to-Patent is a project developed by New York Law School’s Institute for Information Law and Policy, in cooperation with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The pilot project engages an online community in the examination of pending patent applications, tasking the crowd with identifying prior art and annotating applications to be forwarded on to the USPTO. The project helps to streamline the typical patent review process, adding many more sets of eyes to a typical examination process.

Another attempt to use crowdsourcing in public decision-making is Next Stop Design, a project with which I am involved that asks the crowd to design a bus stop for Salt Lake City, Utah. With Thomas W. Sanchez and a team of researchers from the University of Utah, we’re working in cooperation with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and funded by a grant from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration. On the Next Stop Design Web site, you can register for free, submit your own bus stop designs and ideas, and rate and comment on the designs of others. Launched on June 5, 2009, the project runs through September 25, 2009, and the highest rated designs will be considered for actual construction at a major bus transfer stop in Salt Lake City. Winning designs will be publicly acknowledged and included on a plaque affixed to the built bus stop.

It will take some changes in viewpoints but the ability of the public to directly engage important aspects of government should only enhance policy. Obviously, this approach could not be used in every area but careful positioning of the approach could have real consequences.

There is much potential for crowdsourcing in government, certainly as one of an array of social media methods quickly being embraced by all levels of government. President Obama has made his intentions with technology and transparency in government clear. His appointment of Beth Noveck, the New York Law School professor who launched Peer-to-Patent, as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, makes his intentions very clear. I predict over the next two years we’ll see in the U.S. a rapid proliferation of government by the crowd, for the crowd. Get ready to participate.

It will be interesting to see if this approach also harnesses some of the social commitments seen in the Millennials. This generation is already connected and has shown some strong willingness to work on social needs. I think that the impact of these approaches may be greater in non-profit settings than in for-profit. By engaging people in the charitable work in ways that easily make them a part of the process, non-profits have an advantage that few for-profits do.

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