#LocalGovCamp (Session 4 – Crowdsourcing Public Policy)

Monday, June 29, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Public Sector, Technology

This plainly wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a discussion about different methods by which councils could crowdsource policy ideas and information, and the various pros and cons of doing so.

I felt somewhat conned therefore when it appeared to be very much a sales pitch for one particular product. It wasn’t a question of whether you should crowdsource, it was taken for granted that you would; it was taken for granted that you would also choose this particular product to do so, with no mention given of alternatives, and we were simply presented with a “hey, it’s this good” sort of a piece.

I was therefore what might be considered the equivalent of a ‘hostile witness’ (although this is entirely their fault for getting the pitch so badly wrong). This plainly wasn’t what I came to LocalGovCamp for and I’d certainly not like to see this sort of presentation again (although I’d be quite happy for a discussion of pros and cons of crowdsourcing and different crowdsourcing methods). In short, they went about their task in completely the wrong way:- if I’d wanted to listen to a supplier flogging their product, I would at least have expected to have known that this was what that session was likely to be about, so I could have attended something else.

So you might consider me hostile, yes. But the point is that despite this, I’m now in a position where I want to go and have a look at the product in a little more detail. I want to find out about it, how it can be used and so on. I’m not necessarily convinced it’s a great thing for local government (which is another reason I didn’t like it — I felt that it was the wrong pitch for a local government crowd), but what I am convinced about is that I’d like to find out more about it personally.

It’s interesting. It’s possibly promising, despite their somewhat unfortunate start. But I’m getting ahead of myself — back to the presentation…

The reasons for crowdsourcing were covered pretty briefly — “there are loads of clever ideas outside government”, “how do you engage and make sense of them?”, “what happens if you do engage and then get 4,000 comments?”, answer is of course, use our product.

The idea behind debate graph is that rather than collating all of the comments individually and requiring each single comment to be answered, people are asked to break their items down into an issue, suggestions, and then a series of statements which either support or run contrary to those suggestions.

Therefore instead of getting the same argument stated multiple times, the desired action will only be stated once, and you will get a handful of arguments in favour (or against) it. Each of the arguments can then be rated by registered users in order to effectively work out what the crowd think are the most important issues, the most persuasive arguments and so on.

Another advantage of having all of the arguments (for and against something) on the same page is that apparently it reduces polarisation because contributing people get to read and understand the views of those on the opposing side, and generally have to be at least relatively polite to them (as dismissive arguments will generally be rated poorly, and so won’t show up as worthy argument).

This sort of mapping of information can also help promote relatively neutral ideas which aren’t favoured by any lobby or pressure group, but might be the least unpleasant compromise which everyone is capable of settling upon. No group would put forward these ideas as their first choice, but in a situation where all groups, all views and all ideas are being compared, the more neutral, centrist views might well score more highly. Of course, the assumption was that this is automatically a good thing, but the flip side of this is that one or other of the extremists might actually be right, and this sort of mapping would tend to push you away from their views…

I asked how they had addressed the issues of participation inequality (to summarise: 99% of the online output is produced by 1% or less of those online) because participation inequality might quickly need to a few active participants skewing the perception of what the public at large actually want, particularly as you need to register to take part, which is another barrier to people joining up.

A great recent example relating to participation inequality is the Daily Mail’s online poll. The Mail Online asked the rather loaded question: “Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue?”. A number of twitterers objected to this and quickly “vote yes, pass it on” type messages were running around twitter.

The UK-based Mail Online was forced to shut down one of its online polls yesterday after a concerted campaign by Twitter users and, Journalism.co.uk can reveal, UK-based psychologists, nearly brought their servers to a halt with an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote.

The poll, which asked the somewhat leading question “Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue”, attracted ridicule from many within the Twitter community leading to, at one point a 96% vote in favour of the proposition.


I’d guess that the “yes” vote wasn’t actually what most twitterers believed, but that the poll votes were sufficiently low that a reasonable number of people who were high-end active online participators (as twitterers tend to be) taking the time to vote yes and pass on the tweet could seriously skew the poll. Unless you can solve the issue of participation inequality, Debategraph will carry the same sort of risks in terms of ranking (in terms of arguments/statements, each argument/statement exists singly, no matter how many people support it).

The people behind Debategraph had suggested that the very visual nature of the product reduced the participation inequality, which may well be the case, although no figures were provided to back this up. Critically for something about Local Government (I think there was a clue in the name “Local Gov Camp”), no thought had been put into the localisation of the product — there was no way of only accepting responses or rankings from only a specific geographical area, which is where the product might have come in handy for council consultations. Indeed, the guy speaking about it even admitted that they had not yet thought about localisation.

I have to be critical therefore: I think it was a poor, ill-judged pitch of a product which is not yet ideally suited for local government use. But … and this is a fair important but … I think it’s an interesting product, one I’d certainly like to see and use more of, and I’d love to revisit this idea in twelve or eighteen months to be saying that the product is now perfect for the local government market and I’d like people to take a look at it.

The maps are designed to be easy to find, easy to explore, easy to extend, and critically easy to embed across the web using an iframe (though I’d rather the more traditional embed/object methods).

If anyone is involved in using it, any pilots, any knowledge or experience of it, I’d love to hear about it, because despite my misgivings about the way it was presented — and the fact that I’m not convinced it’s ready for local government — it does look to be a very interesting, very powerful, and potentially very useful tool. It’s certainly one which I would urge people to keep an eye out for… I will certainly be keen to watch as it develops…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Comments to #LocalGovCamp (Session 4 – Crowdsourcing Public Policy)

  1. ThePickards (Jack Pickard) says:

    June 29th, 2009 at 6:21 am

    New post: #LocalGovCamp (Session 4 – Crowdsourcing Public Policy) http://tinyurl.com/mtsgk3 #fb

  2. pigsonthewing (Andy Mabbett) says:

    June 29th, 2009 at 11:45 am

    I read: #LocalGovCamp (Session 4 – Crowdsourcing Public Policy) – Jack Pickard http://tinyurl.com/mtsgk3

  3. Twitted by pigsonthewing says:

    June 29th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    [...] This post was Twitted by pigsonthewing [...]

  4. garment daily business reports says:

    July 28th, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Websites you should visit…

    [...]below you’ll find the link to some sites that we think you should visit[...]……

Leave a comment