Patrick Ball and I had a series of long email exchanges this past week on the much talked-about-issue of crowdsourcing versus representative sampling. It’s an old issue that keeps coming up. But there’s really no debate, in my opinion. Crowdsourced data is not necessarily representative. That really should not be breaking news.
Also, it is worth repeating that Ushahidi is a platform, not a methodology. So an election-monitoring organization like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) could certainly generate representative polling data using Ushahidi by applying random sampling methods, for example. I already blogged about this several months ago in a post titled “Three Common Misconceptions About Ushahidi.” So I’m not going to rehash this here. Instead, I’d like to take a more “philosophical” approach.
In a “Theory of Justice,” the philosopher John Rawls introduces the “veil of ignorance“, a thought-experiment designed to determine the morality of a certain issue. The idea goes something like this: imagine that you have to decide on the morality of an issue before you are born, i.e., you stand behind a veil of ignorance as you don’t know where you will be born, what race, with what kind of family, etc.
As put by John Rawls himself … “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”
For example, in the imaginary society, you might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since you may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, this theory encourages thinking about society from the perspective of all members. The veil of ignorance is part of the long tradition of thinking in terms of a social contract.
What does this have to do with crowdsourcing? If you were standing behind this metaphorical veil of ignorance, would you outlaw the crowdsourcing of crisis information on the basis that the data may not be representative? Or would you still like to receive SMS alerts from crowdsourced information? The text messages sent to Ushahidi-Haiti by Haitians in life-and-death situations were not necessarily statistically representative, but they saved lives.
What would you choose?