Crowdsourcing analysis for policymakers? What could possibly go wrong?

I’m looking forward to the ‘Crowdsourcing Analysis for Policymakers‘ event next week, with Andrew Stott kicking the evening off with some of his experiences working on the Government’s Open Data and Transparency Programme. We’re expecting a packed house but there are still a handful of tickets left – get yours now and maybe join us for dinner afterwards?

One issue that I hope will come up is the democratic problem presented by all transparency initiatives, including this one. Transparency is, after all, A Good Thing, we are told. It’s a very fine political horse to ride, as Steve Bell observed a while ago.

But what can possibly go wrong? I’d suggest that, before the Internet was thought off, politicians privately had the same thoughts about the pressures that they face to consult as they do today. The perennial problem of the hard to reach and the hard to avoids. The two demographics that help to justify representative government so effectively.

There are all kinds of problems with self-appointed participants – too many to list, so I’ll just adapt my favourite one from something I wrote about referendums a while ago:

“Doubt and equivocation are a good thing. Instinctive certainty often isn’t. As Darwin put it, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Doubters and equivocators are more likely to [not grasp opportunities to participate] and – following the logic of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that’s a bad thing.”

There are plenty more reasons to worry about this and conventional wisdom has generally concluded that it’s better to elect people to do this for us most of the time.

Crowdsourcing, however, creates a chink in the solid armour of the arguments for representative democracy. Sure, if you value participation at £zero, you may only attract people with a stake in the game. If you find a way of making it easy to do, and converting quick light responses from a wide range of participants, then you can attract more of a counterweight to self-interested pressure groups or the social classes that are over-represented in public discourse already. and micro-participation offer a way of reducing the problems of participation.

Another approach is to find people who don’t have the kind of prejudices that self-appointed participants often have and see if you can find ways of encouraging them to do some of your analysis for you. This is one of the attractions of trying to capture what Clay Shirky calls The Cognitive Surplus.

The thing is, gamifying decisionmaking is, in itself, hard work. If you have the resources and creative capacity to do it, then that’s fantastic. But as a half-way house, I’m currently working on a project to encourage school pupils to start playing with data to see what they can find.

I hope to see you next Tuesday – I’m sure you have your own issues with ‘ Crowdsourcing Analysis for Policymakers’.



About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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