Crowdsourcing and democracy

Crowdsourcing is becoming an important way for government to gather information and get work done - giving new meaning to the phrase "by the people, for the people." While crowdsourcing is still a relatively new concept, there are already a number of government projects leveraging the crowd. Crowdsourced digital maps played a significant role in helping with relief efforts in the aftermath of the Japan Tsunami, and the New York Times has written about the use of crowdsourcing in crisis situations like Haiti and Libya. On the home front, cities and government organizations, including the city of Seattle, NASA, the Department of Education and the Department of Veterans' Affairs, have successfully solicited feedback and incorporated ideas from the public to enhance their citizen-facing web sites and generate ideas and apps that impact government initiatives.

We are seeing government agencies increasingly using online crowdsourcing as an efficient way to get feedback directly from citizens in order to improve their services or to collect, manage and organize important data.

Resolving the hesitation

With the growing use of crowdsourcing in the public sector, it is essential that agencies are confident in the quality and relevance of the crowd they are sourcing - especially for the more sensitive, targeted tasks. Crowdsourcing providers often offer some type of combination of worker assessment, peer and expert review and worker qualification - including enabling public ratings of "trustworthiness" for participants.

The government is unique in that, depending on the agency, it vets crowdsourced candidates on several different levels. Anyone working directly with confidential information in an agency needs to have appropriate credentials to participate. But in other kinds of projects, one need only affirm eligibility to work in the U.S., and assure knowledge about the topic at hand. While some aspects of crowdsourcing security are still being developed, today's technology and crowd providers can make it possible to distinguish within the crowd accordingly.

Simplifying QA

In terms of vetting a crowd, the social media connections of workers can be a useful resource. If they are connected to the professional associations and people who signify they can turn around a high-quality result, they may be of particular value.

The cloud also makes the process of quality-assuring the participants in a crowdsourced project easier. In placing a project on the cloud, disparate crowds can collaborate, and agencies can monitor in real-time how workers are progressing with an ongoing crowd task. This allows the unearthing of answers to such questions as: Are crowd participants regularly submitting quality work? Are there outliers who aren't submitting anything reasonably close to the target project? By putting crowd on the cloud, computing resources can also expand and contract elastically to mimic the patterns of crowd-based work.

As I mentioned in my last post, we work directly with government agencies on translating large amounts of information and documents. For many projects, this involves crowdsourcing. We are able to leverage translators with varying levels of ability, from the most knowledgeable topic experts who also speak some of the language, to expert or native speakers who may know less about the technical topic at hand. With the participants centralized on the cloud, agencies can collaborate to ensure the overall work follows the style guide, is consistent and makes sense within its context. This is a real-time mentorship arrangement where more advanced members of the crowd coach the less consistent members, ensuring a good result at completion of the project.

For the people, by the people

Crowdsourcing holds significant potential for the democratic process as a whole. It does more than just provide additional sources of useful data and input for governments. Consider Singapore's recent eGov2015 initiative, which provides a new model of government based on collaboration with its citizens. As part of this initiative, Singapore government agencies will interact with citizens through crowdsourcing and social media initiatives to co-create policies and services. The government of Iceland crowdsourced a rewrite of its constitution after the 2008 economic collapse. This enabled large scale input of ideas to establish policies and initiatives that would prevent a repeat of the financial crisis. Closer to home, California Congressman Darrell Issa is leveraging the crowd to draft a viable alternative to this year's controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation.

Both abroad and at home, crowdsourcing can play into a virtuous feedback loop. As citizens increasingly engage and contribute their feedback via social media and other web technologies, our government gains knowledge around the issues that matter most to the public. Agencies understand this and incorporate feedback directly from the public, adjusting policies when public sentiment changes. In many ways, crowdsourcing is providing an evolution to democracy for the electronic age.

Aaron Davis is Chief Technology Officer of Lingotek | The Translation Network and a leader in collaborative translation platforms. Aaron is at the forefront of the technology and theories enabling organizations to communicate and interact with a global audience.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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