The Politicisation of Crowdsourcing?

2 12 2009

Rory Cellan-Jones has written on the BBC’s dot.life technology blog, questioning the use and party-political nature of both Conservative and Labour crowdsourcing efforts.

The point, in the terms that Cellan-Jones considers it, is valid.  There is a great deal of reasonable scepticism about any new policy-gathering process, and think tanks are hardly without their critics. Crowdsourcing smacks of the worst kind of political PR stunt: Pseudo-democratic, quasi-technological, and orchestrated to attack political opponents rather than produce results. We may think of Labour’s ‘Big Conversation’ a few years back, or even the Conservative’s (slightly dubious) Stand Up, Speak Up campaign to influence their manifesto. These were not crowdsourcing attempts.

However, Cellan-Jones falls into a trap when he comes to what political parties should aim to achieve by crowdsourcing. He confuses attempts to decide policy with attempts to engage with the public via digital technology. He writes:

“Politicians in opposition and in government are latching onto the idea of using the web to engage with the wider public.”

This is, of course, true, but crowdsourcing is presented as an ‘engagement tool’, rather than a way of finding solutions. Genuine crowdsourcing examples do not call in everyone’s two cents on every issue; they wish to aggregate and cross-fertilize expertise from different but related sectors. A chemist (drawn from the crowd)  may help to tackle a physicist’s problem, and a national online network of teachers can give insights to nurses in keeping difficult patients well-behaved. But crowdsourcing is NOT an X-Factor vote on whether a bomb-disposal expert should cut the red or the green wire. Data is not made available to the public in the naive hope that 65 million suggestions will magically produce ‘the answer’.

Crowdsourcing, undertaken properly, we would expect to have political bias in politics – to deny this would be to assume that there is necessarily an objective ‘right answer’ to every policy dilemma or need for service reform. Similar thinking parts of the crowd are likely to be drawn together, and some shared assumptions are even desirable. ‘Crowdsourcing’ may itself be a misleading term to describe ‘open, lateral, problem-solving and innovative recruitment to a project’. But it is less of a mouthful.

UPDATE: The excellent William Heath has blogged on the same issue here

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