How to harness the wisdom of crowds to improve public service delivery and policymaking

Eddie Copeland in PolicyBytes: “…In summary, government has used technology to streamline transactions and better understand the public’s opinions. Yet it has failed to use it to radically change the way it works. Have public services been reinvented? Is government smaller and leaner? Have citizens, businesses and civic groups been offered the chance to take part in the work of government and improve their own communities? On all counts the answer is unequivocally, no. What is needed, therefore, is a means to enable citizens to provide data to government to inform policymaking and to improve – or even help deliver – public services. What is needed is a Government Data Marketplace.

Government Data Marketplace

A Government Data Marketplace (GDM) would be a website that brought together public sector bodies that needed data, with individuals, businesses and other organisations that could provide it. Imagine an open data portal in reverse: instead of government publishing its own datasets to be used by citizens and businesses, it would instead publish its data needs and invite citizens, businesses or community groups to provide that data (for free or in return for payment). Just as open data portals aim to provide datasets in standard, machine-readable formats, GDM would operate according to strict open standards, and provide a consistent and automated way to deliver data to government through APIs.
How would it work? Imagine a local council that wished to know where instances of graffiti occurred within its borough. The council would create an account on GDM and publish a new request, outlining the data it required (not dissimilar to someone posting a job on a site like Freelancer). Citizens, businesses and other organisations would be able to view that request on GDM and bid to offer the service. For example, an app-development company could offer to build an app that would enable citizens to photograph and locate instances of graffiti in the borough. The app would be able to upload the data to GDM. The council could connect its own IT system to GDM to pass the data to their own database.
Importantly, the app-development company would specify via GDM how much it would charge to provide the data. Other companies and organisations could offer competing bids for delivering the same – or an even better service – at different prices. Supportive local civic hacker groups could even offer to provide the data for free. Either way, the council would get the data it needed without having to collect it for itself, whilst also ensuring it paid the best price from a number of competing providers.
Since GDM would be a public marketplace, other local authorities would be able to see that a particular company had designed a graffiti-reporting solution for one council, and could ask for the same data to be collected in their own boroughs. This would be quick and easy for the developer, as instead of having to create a bespoke solution to work with each council’s IT system, they could connect to all of them using one common interface via GDM. That would good for the company, as they could sell to a much larger market (the same solution would work for one council or all), and good for the councils, as they would benefit from cheaper prices generated from economies of scale. And since GDM would use open standards, if a council was unhappy with the data provided by one supplier, it could simply look to another company to provide the same information.
What would be the advantages of such a system? Firstly, innovation. GDM would free government from having to worry about what software it needed, and instead allow it to focus on the data it required to provide a service. To be clear: councils themselves do not need a graffiti app – they need data on where graffiti is. By focusing attention on its data needs, the public sector could let the market innovate to find the best solutions for providing it. That might be via an app, perhaps via a website, social media, or Internet of Things sensors, or maybe even using a completely new service that collected information in a radically different way. It will not matter – the right information would be provided in a common format via GDM.
Secondly, the potential cost savings of this approach would be many and considerable. At the very least, by creating a marketplace, the public sector would be able to source data at a competitive price. If several public sector bodies needed the same service via GDM, companies providing that data would be able to offer much cheaper prices for all, as instead of having to deal with hundreds of different organisations (and different interfaces) they could create one solution that worked for all of them. As prices became cheaper for standard solutions, this would in turn encourage more public sector bodies to converge on common ways of working, driving down costs still further. Yet these savings would be dwarfed by those possible if GDM could be used to source data that public sectors bodies currently have to manually collect themselves. Imagine if instead of having teams of inspectors to locate instances X, Y or Z, it could instead source the same data from citizens via GDM?
There would no limit to the potential applications to which GDM could be put by central and local government and other public sector bodies: for graffiti, traffic levels, environmental issues, education or welfare. It could be used to crowdsource facts, figures, images, map coordinates, text – anything that can be collected as data. Government could request information on areas on which it previously had none, helping them to assign their finite resources and money in a much more targeted way. New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics has demonstrated that up to 500% increases in the efficiency of providing some public services can be achieved, if only the right data is available.
For the private sector, GDM would stimulate the growth of innovative new companies offering community data, and make it easier for them to sell data solutions across the whole of the public sector. They could pioneer in new data methods, and potentially even take over the provision of entire services which the public sector currently has to provide itself. For citizens, it would offer a means to genuinely get involved in solving issues that matter to their local communities, either by using apps made by businesses, or working to provide the data themselves.
And what about the benefits for policymaking? It is important to acknowledge that the idea of harnessing the wisdom of crowds for policymaking is currently experimental. In the case of Policy Futures Markets, some applications have also been considered to be highly controversial. So which methods would be most effective? What would they look like? In what policy domains would they provide most value? The simple fact is that we do not know. What is certain, however, is that innovation in open policymaking and crowdsourcing ideas will never be achieved until a platform is available that allows such ideas to be tried and tested. GDM could be that platform.
Public sector bodies could experiment with asking citizens for information or answers to particular, fact-based questions, or even for predictions on future outcomes, to help inform their policymaking activities. The market could then innovate to develop solutions to source that data from citizens, using the many different models for harnessing the wisdom of crowds. The effectiveness of those initiatives could then be judged, and the techniques honed. In the worst case scenario that it did not work, money would not have been wasted on building the wrong platform – GDM would continue to have value in providing data for public service needs as described above….”