Last week the UK Conservative party launched a competition with a £1m cash prize to a person or team that creates an online platform that can be used to solve “common problems”. From the announcement:
I just wanted to flag up the £1 million competition that we have announced today for anyone who can develop an online platform that enables us to tap into the wisdom of crowds to resolve difficult policy challenges. In government, we will use this platform to publish all Green Papers, and open up the entire policy making process to the public. See briefing note below for more details. This really is the most radical crowdsourcing announcement ever made by a UK political party – not only in terms of our commitment to opening up the policy making process, but also because of our use of a Longitude/Netflix style prize.
The announcement is full of buzzwords and raises the very interesting question how crowdsourcing fits into the bigger picture of public engagement. Tim Bonnemann posted a very compelling answer to this question on the Intellitics blog:
Policy making ultimately means having to deal with difficult trade-offs and making tough choices. Contrary to the previous commenters, I’d argue that it remains a huge challenge to meaningfully engage citizens in this process, particularly online.
While the crowdsourcing initiatives that are often mentioned in this context (e.g. FixMyStreet, the Netflix Prize, the Next Stop Design contest etc.) may vary in terms of problem complexity and a few other aspects, they seem to share — to some degree, at least — a number of key characteristics:
Unfortunately, public participation (engaging citizens in decision making) is almost never lucky enough to rely on conditions as easy as these.
It remains to be seen if and how any software can provide a comprehensive solution to an issue that is so broadly defined, after all decision-making processes vary greatly. I’d consider Beth Novek’s Peer-to-Patent application, which opens up the US patent process to public input in order to speed up the process and make information available to patent officers that might not be obvious to non-insiders, as a wonderful example of a crowdsourced tool, which at the same time highlights the need for specificity and context. I believe there are plenty of opportunities in the context of urban planning where crowdsourcing can be successfully applied - and I’m not talking about a Wiki-Comprehensive Plan, but rather tasks like taking stock, analyzing use patterns of public spaces, coming up with design alternatives etc. We’ll explore more of these examples soon!