Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 5 July 2010 13:40 UK

Should we trust the wisdom of crowds?

Stage diver

By Tom de Castella

A problem shared is a problem halved, goes the old saying. But what happens if you share a problem with millions of people? Are you left with a millionth of a problem? Or just lots of rubbish suggestions?

Both the British government and BP have recently called on the public to help them sort out a mess. Chancellor George Osborne asked for tips on programmes to be cut to trim the huge budget deficit, while deputy prime minister Nick Clegg wants us to suggest "silly" laws that can be repealed.

And the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted BP to call on Joe Public for ideas to stem the flow of oil after its in-house solutions failed. So far BP's corporate Mayday has elicited more than 20,000 suggestions.

Nick Clegg
This is the most ambitious online crowd sourcing exercise ever attempted by any British government. It is an entirely new way for government to engage with people.
Nick Clegg

In trendy parlance, such appeals for outside help are known as crowdsourcing, a term that Mr Clegg made sure to name check in his appeal.

So what is crowdsourcing? Anthony Williams, co-author of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changed Everything, says examples are everywhere.

Open source computer operating systems, such as Linux and Google's Android, the big rival to Apple's iPhone, are written and refined by members of the public.

Another good example of such collaboration is Wikipedia, which allows users to write and edit entries for its online encyclopaedia: "For the first time millions of people can aggregate their talent and expertise," says Williams.

"Previously the assumption had been you had to create a company. Here is something completely different."

There are numerous modern examples of how collaboration has transformed businesses, Williams says. One good recent example is that of the Canadian mining company Goldcorp, which was struggling financially and unable to find gold on its land in northern Ontario.

When a new chief executive arrived he put all its geological data online, asked for help on where the gold was located and put up $500,000 in prize money for accurate suggestions.

Striking $3bn of gold

"They got submissions from people all over the world, including people using 3D computer modelling techniques. They found $3bn worth of gold on the property and Goldcorp became one of Canada's biggest mining companies."

PERFECT MATCH
Swan Vestas
Is crowdsourcing just the old employees' suggestions box reinvented?
One famous legendary business story - which may be urban myth - relates how an employee suggested to the matchmaker Swan Vestas that they could have one instead of two sandpaper strips on the matchbox
The company listened to the lateral thinking and reaped the benefits in lower costs

It's just one of a number of examples of how opening a problem out to the public and away from a small pool of workers can lead to huge gains, Williams says.

"These things happen a lot. You're making a problem accessible to a large range of people with a diverse range of skills. And it turns out it's not just for companies it applies to government as well."

The idea is gaining traction in the normally more conservative corridors of the public sector, says Natalie Evans, deputy director of think tank Policy Exchange.

"We now have the technology to reach a huge pool of talent and ideas from the general public in way that simply wasn't possible before. Done properly, this means we can leverage mass collaboration in a way that fosters a sense of 'public buy-in'.

"This can be particularly important where - say in the case of deciding where the axe must fall in terms of cutting public spending - there are difficult decisions to be made."

Seeking ideas is one thing? But how willing are those in power to act on the public's suggestions?

The point is neatly made in the findings of a survey published on Monday about where spending cuts should be. Some 2,000 members of the public were asked for their suggestions and one of the most popular targets was Britain's overseas aid budget. Yet this, along with healthcare, is an area the government has pledged not to touch.

Perry Walker, head of participation at the New Economics Foundation, believes crowdsourcing works well for ideas, less well for how you develop them.

PR is consultative clothing

"Brain storming works best when people don't talk to each other because people inhibit each other. But then what happens when you've got the ideas? You could have 30,000 ideas on what laws to repeal."

At this point smaller groups of committed citizens must be given a chance to filter and discuss the ideas, he says. Transparency and feedback are also crucial if the public is not to become cynical, he warns.

Geoff Mulgan
Geoff Mulgan, commentator and director of thinktank the Young Foundation

'Crowdsourcing is already being used extensively - the World Bank used it in Haiti, the firm Innocentive now has hundreds of thousands of scientists on tap to solve problems for a fee, and New Zealand briefly tried it for police legislation. So far reality hasn't caught up with the promise - and good strategic policy making involves deliberation, which the existing crowd-sourcing models aren't suitable for. But for more discrete and practical problem-solving it undoubtedly has a lot to offer.'

In fact, there is a question about whether what Mr Clegg and BP have done is genuine crowdsourcing at all.

Crowdsourcing, says Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, is really about using looser, freelance forms of commissioning tasks, allowing an organisation to tap into a much wider pool of knowledge or specialist skills.

BP's effort is more about public relations - appearing to be responsive, says Overell.

"BP has handled the oil leak atrociously. So its priority is public relations first and the need for high quality information second, in that order. 20,000 ideas is unmanageable, you'll need all sorts of procedures for sorting through them. Solving this sort of issue is a profoundly technical issue that the vast majority of people are ill equipped for."

And asking for ideas in this way is not new - the employee suggestion box has been around for years and is actually far more useful than what either the government or BP is up to, he argues.

"The best ideas of how to solve a problem usually come from employees, although it's probably best done through technology now rather than a box."

But it only works if there is a genuine interest from management - "too often over time it becomes a silly gimmick that you feel you have to do."

Another sceptic is Peter Kellner, who as president of polling company YouGov, is well used to listening to the views of ordinary members of the public.

Embarrassment

He doubts Nick Clegg's call to arms will elicit anything civil servants couldn't have come up with. And what's worse, the government will end up with egg on its face.

Populist open-ended gestures like this normally end in embarrassment, says Kellner.

"The last government allowed people to put up petitions on the Number 10 website and it quickly got out of hand with Jeremy Clarkson for prime minister. It's an invitation to idiocy and madness and an opportunity for lobby groups."

Surprisingly, Anthony Williams, whose follow up to Wikinomics is published later this year, agrees.

"The White House tried crowdsourcing when Obama first came in. They asked the public what its main priorities should be. Legalising marijuana came up number one."

For that reason, the term crowdsourcing has become unpopular with some of those like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who one would expect to support it.

"The problem with the term is the notion of a crowd - this amorphous crowd has no individual perspective. There's value in mass participation but where possible the people need some expertise. We just call it collaboration frankly."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The sort of thinking that Mr Williams exhibits is the reason crowdsourcing ideas for government are bound to fail. Anything radical or outside-the-box are too much for politicians to handle. Maybe legalising marijuana WAS the American people's top priority. Maybe by legalizing it the US govt would have solved a lot of problems. Another opportunity missed.
Rupert, Brussels

I can't remember who said it, but in situations like this, I think it's a good idea to remember the saying, "The IQ of a crowd is the lowest individual IQ divided by the number of people in the crowd".
Ollie, Oxford

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