Last month I participated in the ‘Frank, Friendly, Fearless Friday’ seminar series by the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration (one of my alma maters!), which provides the opportunity for faculty and students to present their current research and gather feedback from colleagues. The topic of the day’s discussion was crowdsoucing, and its potential for public engagement.
Although we’ve already written lots on this issue (my personal picks – Ellis’ short history of crowdsourcing and Stephan’s take on ‘Dialogue about Germany’s Future’), I want to share some interesting things I learned. Ascentum is also in the final stages of our work on a national crowdsourcing initiative, which has given me some time to reflect on the issue more deeply.
A (Very Brief) Primer
For those unfamiliar with crowdsourcing, think of one of the prime examples – Wikipedia. Moving away from the expert-driven approach, Wikipedia has re-defined knowledge building for the 21st century by drawing on the contributions from people all over the world (while also creating a system where the quality control of information is largely self-sustaining). At the centre of the crowdsourcing approach is the rise of user-generated content, which has dominated the past decade (one of the most interesting examples is Time Magazine’s 2006 choice for Person of the year – the symbolic ‘You.’) Additionally, companies like Threadless have also helped bring crowdsourcing to the mainstream, making it a viable business model for the development of highly creative, popular consumer products.
Crowdsourcing a Constitution?!
Shifting focus to the public sector, crowdsourcing has been used to address all kinds of issues, including some of the most significant ones facing any government. For example, Iceland crowdsourced its new constitution! Previously based on the Danish constitution (almost word for word), the new document was developed by leveraging citizens’ input across social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. The draft was presented to Iceland’s parliament last summer and a referendum on proposed changes was set for the end of this month (now delayed). It contained several key changes, including an increased emphasis on the distribution of power, greater opportunities for public participation in decision-making, significant revisions to the electoral system, and more autonomy at the local level. But don’t let the brevity of this blog understate the complexity of the engagement process. Please read more about Iceland’s crowdsourcing approach here.
Possibilities for Academia
The seminar also discussed the use of crowdsourcing in a wide range of academic projects. Looking just at social sciences and humanities, the focus of many projects has been on collaborative transcription. For example, there is University College London’s Transcribe Bentham project, which encourages the public to help transcribe one of the many thousands of papers written by Jeremy Bentham, a famous philosopher (and mainstay for any politics/ philosophy students out there!). Similarly, there is the University of Iowa’s Civil War Diaries & Letters Transcription Project. These types of projects are mutually beneficial – they provide these institutions with the resources needed to complete important research tasks, while at the same time opening up access to a wide range of historical works online.
These are just a few examples of how crowdsourcing lends itself to innovation, and in turn, how it can be leveraged as a strategic, collaborative pursuit that leads to better results for everyone.