You are here

Further Critical Questions about Crowdsourcing

The second speaker in this (really productive) session on crowdsourcing at the Berlin Symposium is Malte Ziewitz, whose interest is in the application of crowd wisdom to regulatory problems. Crowdsourcing itself isn’t actually all that new – there have been questions about the wisdom or folly of crowds for a very long time already, and ‘the crowd’ has been positioned as a problem (the uninformed mob) as much as as a solution (drawing on folk knowledge and commonsense).

Current thinking on crowd wisdom comes variously from management science, computer science, and economics (painting crowdsourcing as an engineering challenge, focussing on generating ‘useful’ information, and worrying about bias, abuse, and manipulation) and from political science, sociology, and regulation studies (focussing on the solicitation of lay views, concerns over knowledge gaps and expertise in regulatory decision-making, and questions of technology and regulation). These combine into a view of crowd wisdom as a techno-scientific solution to regulatory problems – through terms like ‘wiki government’, ‘infotopia’, ‘peer production’, and ‘civic technologies’.

Examples for crowdsourcing which have been well-recognised are the Peer to Patent project (which draws on ‘lay experts’ in the evaluation of new patent applications); Patient Opinion (a social enterprise which collects feedback on public health services in the UK, and feeds this information back into the system); Web of Trust (a commercial browser add-on which allows users to rate the trustworthiness of the Websites they visit); or the New Zealand Police Act Review through a wiki-based platform. Each of these operate from different principles – they address different areas of interest, are run by different stakeholders, utilise different methods, and focus on different types of crowds.

This needs to be examined in more detail. What we mean by ‘crowd’ differs from case to case, then; what ‘wisdom’ they might be able to contribute is also different, and the supposedly regulatory problems which are being addressed also differ widely. How did we get here? What accounts for the rise and currency of ‘crowd wisdom’ as a regulatory idea? Are crowds a mere regulatory fad or fashion – and why (now)? Further, just how well do such crowd processes work? We need further empirical case studies, especially also examining seriously mundane modes of regulation which take place well outside state interests (e.g. on Amazon).

There is also a recursive relationship here – knowledge is a resource for regulation, but such knowledge is also a target for regulation; contributions don’t just reflect reality, but the act of contributing also constitutes reality. What about the rhetoric of democratisation – what is good or legitimate participation in this context; what level or type of democracy do we need here (just those who want to participate, or true representation)? How can we test this – what would a laboratory of regulatory experiments look like? (Malte tried this at a small scale with the How’s My Feedback project.)

Crowd wisdom is not straightforwardly available, then; we must challenge notions of regulation, crowd wisdom, and democracy, and engage in much more design and experimentation.