Get Ready to Participate: Crowdsourcing and Governance

A year or so ago, Mark Deuze (Media Work) and I edited a special issue of the journal, Convergence, which explored some of the issues around "Convergence Culture." One of the best essays we received in our open paper call came from Daren C. Brabham, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Utah, who was doing his dissertation on "crowdsourcing." I've remained in touch with Brabham ever since and recently encouraged him to share some of his own recent thinking about how the crowdsource model can and is being adapted from the commercial arena to address issues of social welfare and public policy. I am happy to share Brabham's insights with the readers of this blog. 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.

Crowdsourcing is a killer business model, effectively stitching the market research process into the very design of products, minimizing overhead costs, and speeding up the creative phase of problem solving and design. Theories of collective intelligence and crowd wisdom help to explain why crowdsourcing works: broadcasting a challenge online taps far-flung genius in the network and aggregating that talent can, for some types of problems, be just as effective as solving the problem in-house.

What I have argued for a few years now, and what I am trying to make clear in my dissertation, is that crowdsourcing has the potential to work outside of for-profit settings. In fact, it may be a suitable model for solving government problems, supplementing traditional forms of public participation to help government make better decisions with more citizen input.

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.

Traditional public participation methods, such as town hall meetings and design charrettes, often involve relatively few voices in the decision-making process. The goal with Next Stop Design--as with all crowdsourced governing projects--is to draw in more voices by taking the process online. And though the realities of the so-called "digital divide" persist with any online process, crowdsourcing may still bring in a more diverse set of viewpoints than typically exists at town hall meetings. Finally, broadcasting the process online may attract innovative ideas from everyday Web users that might not have ever appeared in local face-to-face processes or among even large panels of experts.

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.

Daren C. Brabham is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. His article, "Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving," appearing in a special issue of Convergence edited by Mark Deuze and Henry Jenkins, was among the first research articles published on the crowdsourcing model. Directed by Professor Joy Pierce, his dissertation makes the case for crowdsourcing in public problem solving contexts.