Thanks for joining us for the second episode in the new “Crowd-Sorcerers Series.” If you missed the season premiere on “How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and Why It’s Easy,” you can read it here. For a quick synopsis of what this is all about, I’m responding to some initial “anti-crowdsourcing” remarks made by a frustrated humanitarian group in a recent email exchange. I’m referring to this group as Muggles after they christened the Crowdsourcing Community as “Crowd-Sorcerers.” The name calling is of course all in good fun.
Here’s more from the original email exchange:
Muggles: [Our] view is that the focus [on crowdsourcing] needs to be turned around. Don’t use crowdsourcing as technology to collect data, but as a means to distribute verified, accurate and reliable information that has been collected according to recognized/accepted standards.
Well, well, well. Isn’t this interesting? Writing that “crowdsourcing is a technology” reveals how out of touch Muggles are. Crowdsourcing is a methodology, not a technology. See my blog posts on “Demystifying Crowdsourcing” and “Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again.” Worse, to write that crowdsourcing should be used to disseminate information shows just how much confusion exists in the humanitarian space.
The importance of information dissemination has long been documented and has nothing to do with crowdsourcing! Perhaps the term they’re looking for is “crowdfeeding” but I coined this to highlight the need for technologies that promote information dissemination by the crowd for the crowd.
Confession: I shudder when reading language like “according to recognized/accepted standards.” Not because standards are not important, but just because I’m weary of the exclusive and at times elitist attitude that tends to come with this language. I get flashbacks from “Seeing Like a State.”
Perhaps an astute reader will have recognized that the title of this blog post (Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers”) is inspired from Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.” I won’t try to summarize all of Clay’s many lucid observations here but I do highly recommend the book to Muggles (along with Seeing Like a State).
This type of tension between regulation and innovation has been playing out in several other sectors as well, including banking (vs. mobile banking) and perhaps most notably in journalism (vs. citizen journalism). But the tensions there have matured somewhat (at least relatively). In the latter case, people are increasingly recognizing the value of citizen journalism while better understanding its limits—so much so that large media companies have themselves started to leverage crowdsourcing for content in their programming.
The journalism community’s initial reaction against bloggers is not too dissimilar to the frustration expressed by Muggles who keep hoping that crowdsourcing will just go away if they pout and stamp their feet hard enough. (Reminds me of the way that some Muggles freaked out at the invention of the printing press and later the telephone).
Here’s the bad news folks, you’ve seen nothing yet. The Crowd-Sorcerers are just getting warmed up. The level of crowdsourcing we’ve seen to date is just the tip of the wand. Haiti was a first, just a first. User-generated content is not about to vanish any time soon. In fact, it will continue growing exponentially. The vast majority of content available on the web will soon be user-generated.
The good news? Muggles can take this as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and share their savoir-faire. What should Muggles not do? Let me share a real example from another sector: election monitoring. One of the world’s leading election monitoring groups actively discouraged local NGOs in a developing country from contributing any reports to an Ushahidi deployment that was run in-country by a local civil society network—lets call them the Gryffindors.
The Gryffindors discovered this interference when they spoke with other local NGOs. They want to partner with these NGOs for the next elections but these groups are now hesitant. So here we have a Western (i.e. external group) directly interfering by telling local NGOs they cannot participate in a local initiative to document their own elections in their own country. (Sound familiar to the LogBase example from Episode 1? Naturally). Who do the elections belong to? Citizens or foreigners?
Muggles have the opportunity to provide unique thought leadership here. Make Crowd-Sorcerers part of the solution, not the problem.
There’s more good news. Despite what some Muggles may think, crowdsourcing is not actually magic. It’s just a methodology like any other, with advantages and disadvantages. At the end of the day, you’re just collecting information and this information can also be triangulated and verified like any other type of information.
That’s the whole point behind Swift River, to provide a free and open source platform that can help validate large quantities of information in near real time. Is it the silver bullet that we’ve all been dreaming of? Of course not, this ain’t Hogwarts. What Swift River does, however, is make the triangulation of crowdsourced information far more efficient for Muggles than ever before. So to suggest that crowdsourced information is inherently unverifiable is rather shortsighted.
Was the technology community’s response to Haiti perfect? Not even close, hence the current M&E on the Ushahidi deployment and these blog posts that I wrote up earlier this year:
In fact, much of my own frustration during the emergency period stemmed from the reckless behavior of some in the technology community. In addition, some tech folks who mean well end up producing tech solutions that don’t solve anything and never get used. So as I’ve blogged about before, tech folks need to get up to speed and get their act together. Hacking away every other weekend is all fine and well as long as the tech produced is actually in line with the needs of the humanitarian and disaster affected communities.
But lets be clear that the humanitarian community’s response to Haiti was hardly stellar (c.f., John Holmes’s leaked email, etc.). No one’s perfect, of course, and that includes Crowd-Sorcerers. The volunteer community that mobilized around the Ushahidi platform had never done anything like this (because nothing like this had quite happened) before, they had no prior training nor did they have much (if any) humanitarian experience to speak of. I, for one, had never launched an Ushahidi platform before. So boy did we all learn a heck of a lot.
Haiti was a complete first as far as live crisis mapping and mobile crowdsourcing goes. Yet Muggles blame Crowd-Sorcerers for not getting everything right on their first try. The importance of standards is repeatedly voiced by Muggles, as noted above. Well I call this a double-standard.
Stay tuned for Episode 3 in the new series: “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Highlighting Some Misunderstandings.”