Archive for June, 2011

A short history of crowdsourcing
Friday, June 24th, 2011

You’ve probably heard of “crowdsourcing” – a way for organizations to solve tough challenges by tapping-into the knowledge of their broad communities.While social media and web technologies provide governments, businesses and other organizations with tools to crowdsource more rapidly and collaboratively, crowdsourcing itself isn’t new.

In a great blog, DesignCrowd researched some of the most well known examples of crowdsourcing.  They think the first case could date all the way back to 1714 in England.  And, of all the examples they describe, it’s this one – the invention of the Marine Pocket Clock – that I find the most interesting.  Here’s the story.

1714: The Longitude Prize

In 1714, sailors in the British navy had a problem.  The motion of a ship through the waves meant that traditional clocks with a pendulum couldn’t keep accurate time, which they needed to for navigation purposes.  If they didn’t know where they were, captains and their unlucky crews could sail right into reefs or other dangers.

The Admiralty couldn’t find a solution so, in perhaps the first example of crowdsourcing, they issued a challenge to the public.  For a prize of £20,000 (US $4.7 million in today’s money), everyday citizens were asked for their solutions to this tough problem.

And it worked!  The winning response was received from a Mr. John Harrison, the son of a carpenter.

What does this tell us?

I really like this story because it shows some of the fundamental principles behind crowdsourcing:

  1. People outside an organization are willing to help solve a problem
  2. Organizations don’t have all the answers… sometimes they need to leverage the knowledge of people outside
  3. Even the most technical and seemingly impossible problems can be solved, and from the most unlikely sources

While the term “crowdsourcing” is new, the idea that organizations can look outside for help has a long and interesting history.

– Ellis Westwood –

Note: My thanks to DesignCrowd for the original blog that inspired this one.

Gmail and GSA – one giant step forward for government
Friday, June 17th, 2011

I am a big fan of the Government Services Agency or GSA in the US.  Canada’s equivalent is Public Works.  GSA have been early adopters and supporters of social media with but now are on the brink of a giant step forward for government.  They are moving to Gmail.  Think of the cost savings, the collaboration options, the bottomless in-box (for all intents), but also a recognition that web based makes sense.

Contrast GSA’s innovation with government departments here in Canada that use antiquated browsers (IE 6) and Lotus Notes as a major email platform.  I know, Lotus Notes.  GSA’s decision is one to be commended.  

One of the funny parts of this move is that some believe that this will make the more attractive to younger employees.  What is amuses me is that younger staff assume that this is the way that it works. It is their expectation that they should be using today’s technologies. However they are in for a surprise with blocked access to Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, and are shocked and appalled at zero blogging and a 6-12 month approval lag for a wiki.

It just shows that government can be innovative when it choses to do so.  GSA is a shinning beacon for other government departments, agencies or ministries to follow, on either side of the 49th parallel.


Using NVivo to truly understand participants’ views and ideas
Monday, June 13th, 2011

One of Ascentum’s pubic involvement tools is the Choicebook – a deliberative experience where participants learn about issues, tough questions, and recommend options or choices. These are built into larger engagement processes that may include in-person events and other online tools, like crowdsourcing. Depending on the engagement objectives, participants can be asked a variety of open- and close-ended questions, in a Choicebook resulting in the collection of reams of quantitative and qualitative data for analysis.

While we use SPSS to analyze our quantitative results, the thousands of words of text that we collect through open-ended questions is analyzed using a specialized tool called NVivo. As an analyst, I use both tools to help dissect and understand the views of the publics we engage. During a recent project, I was responsible for reading through 85,335 words of comments (about the same length as the second Harry Potter book, “Chamber of Secrets”), contributed by over 850 participants. Deploying software like NVivo allows me to ensure that participant feedback can be analyzed and presented in a systematic way.

But, NVivo is just a tool.  Getting true insights from qualitative data is as much about process and how the tool is used.  Here is how I approach analysis:

  1. For each open text question (for example, “Share a positive experience you’ve had with a government centre”), I import a Word document containing all of the responses.
  2. After reading a response, I can highlight certain elements of a response (e.g. “agents are very knowledgeable” or “for me, it’s about quick and easy renewal of my permits”) and drop them into ‘buckets’ I’ve created, which are known in the program as ‘nodes’.
  3. After analyzing (or ‘coding’) about 20 responses, I can get a sense of the themes arising (“knowledgeable staff” or “quick service”), and can start creating sub-themes or sub-nodes (“quick permit renewals” and “quick processing of applications”).

It’s almost like using a handful of coloured highlighters to classify data. The program not only allows me to get a sense of recurring themes, it provides me with a way of quantifying qualitative data in real time (“the most recurring theme when participants spoke about their positive experiences in the government information centre was the breadth of knowledge of the staff, mentioned 83 times.”)

It gives me a true sense of what the majority is saying, without losing the views of the minority. Participant feedback can then be neatly presented, and enhanced through the use of charts, to get a sense of the relative popularity of themes and quotations, to illustrate these themes (and ensure that the voice of those engaged finds its way into our client’s reports).

– Stephen Telka -

@ascentum tweets of the week
Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Here are just some the Twitter posts and links that we’d like to pass on from this week.  You can find us on Twitter at

  • Quote: Calgary Mayor @nenshi “we make better decisions when we involve people in our decision making”
  • Retweet: @Healthy_Weights After a break for #elxn41, Canada’s first national dialogue on childhood obesity is back! #healthyweights
  • News: We agree. Now’s a great time to engage Canadians in a public dialogue on the Senate & ways to make it more effective.
  • @ascentum blog: How to produce same-day reports for in-person dialogues that will seem, to participants, like magic!