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Should the power of the crowd be used to solve our social problems?

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood November 20, 2020
According to new research from Nesta and The GovLab, the answer is yes. Which is why we need to encourage the growth of open source-powered ‘collective intelligence’


Question - what links all the following great projects? 

GoodSAM: a way to call emergency services and instantly share your location and live video from a mobile device, used by 1.3 million people worldwide. 

Helsinki's Climate Watch website: a place where citizens interactively mark the progress (or not) of city authorities against its ‘Carbon-Neutral Helsinki' action plan. 

vTaiwan: a digital democracy platform that's been used to involve the public in everything from developing a law banning plastic straws to regulating Uber. web platform-a place where, for ten years, over 100 US Federal agencies have posted ‘open innovation' challenges to get new solutions to hard problems.

One last example: mapping tool Ushahidi, used in 160 countries by 150,000 activists, who have used it to do everything from the prevention of forest fires in Italy, to identifying incidents of street sexual harassment in Egypt. 

If you said what links them is that they're all examples of ‘crowdsourcing', according to new research from the UK's "innovation foundation" Nesta and New York University's The GovLab, what they, and many other such projects, actually are is ‘collective intelligence'. That's to say, governments, nonprofits and other institutions who are turning to "new ways of working" to become more effective at solving problems.

Key among these new methods, say the pair in a new study - Using Collective Intelligence to Solve Public Problems - is the greater collaboration and engagement with the public, using new technology that endeavours like GoodSAM and are enabling. The former, says Peter Baeck, Co-Head of the Nesta Centre for Collective Intelligence Design, is an especially powerful model for mobilising the public's collective capacity to take action, given it mobilised 750,000 volunteer responders to support the NHS and the social care sector during COVID, for example:

As COVID spread rapidly around the world we saw collective intelligence being harnessed to predict, monitor, and find solutions: from crowdsourcing evidence of the spread of the disease and working with the world's distributed maker community to manufacture PPE, to using tools such as crowdfunding to fund emerging community based responses such as mutual aid groups.

Encouraging citizen activity to provide solutions to a challenge

Collective Intelligence can be turned to not to just deal with emergencies, though; it can include work on better understanding root causes of problems, such as the City of York training community researchers to speak with 1000 residents about the triggers for loneliness. In the words of one of the main authors of the text, GovLab's Beth Noveck,

Collective intelligence brings the distributed range of knowledge and capabilities needed to make progress on complex problems. It's about the enlistment of groups to solve social issues with a greater or lesser sense of shared agency and purpose.

Okay - how is this not crowdsourcing, though? For Noveck, crowdsourcing often implies an 'open call' where anyone can contribute. For resource-constrained public institutions, this can generate an unmanageable number of low quality contributions. There are other ways to leverage the wisdom of the crowd efficiently, she claims, which can include encouraging citizen activity by a process, such as a contest where they can compete to provide one or more solutions to a challenge.

Why should local authorities, battered by years of austerity and now COVID, pay any attention to these ideas? For Noveck, crunch times should be the ideal time to ask for public help:

Turning to their greatest asset, their citizens, cities are solving problems more effectively and more legitimately. It's not uncommon for governments to be under-resourced, underfunded and understaffed, but collective intelligence can organise 500 different projects engaging 20,000 people with one person coordinating it, as is the case in one US project we looked at.

Organisations that can complement traditional ways of working with collective intelligence can actually respond better and faster to changing, even emergency, circumstances. And with the right controls in place for managing privacy, COVID has shown people are willing to undertake a range of actions, including sharing data for contact tracing efforts, to help achieve public objectives.

It's not simply an issue of saving money, though. When York uses its own residents to come to the aid of those who are lonely, or GoodSAM engages off-duty doctors and nurses to save the lives of accident victims, they are doing more than what money could buy-they are creating a stronger community.

Open source - adapt functionality for new citizen needs

Noveck has insight into how the public sector works, incidentally; she served on the first Obama administration's transition team, helping to set up a group to plan the initial agenda on technology, innovation and government reform. She was also one of the designers of the US's first national open data portal,, and then did a stint as senior advisor for Open Government by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011. She is careful to note, however, that innovation in governance should not be a partisan issue but always about ensuring we use more data and citizen engagement in policy creation.

Talking about the UK and governance innovation, her collaborator on the research, Nesta's Baeck, says the Pandemic has highlighted just how far behind the UK is in exploiting the power of collective intelligence-the majority of examples identified in the study are from Asia, the US and Northern Europe.

Open source emerges from the report as probably the single most important technological way to make collective intelligence projects get off the ground. Noveck calls out the way the Ushahidi tool enables users to adapt its functionality for their specific needs and contexts, keeping 'the crowd' engaged and effective in its contribution to problem-solving, like the way it's been used for everything from  tracking violence in the Kenyan elections to rescuing earthquake victims in Haiti because of its ability to be customised. Projects that use open source tools are also more likely to evolve and grow rather than simply die out when the initial tool's usefulness diminishes, she says.

What is the ultimate collective intelligence message to politicians and citizens, then? For Baeck:

Collective intelligence needs to become part of how we think about solving any complex public problem-as it will put us in a much better place to solve the future crises we don't even know about yet.

My take

Definitely food for (collective) thought there.

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