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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Community Engagement through Crowdsourcing

As anyone who has been reading this blog probably knows I am fascinated with how the Internet and social media can be used in new ways to engage the community. The development of "wikis" has shown how open source programs can use the collective knowledge of many people to create innovative products. The old phrase “two brains are better than one” gets a whole new meaning when you bring together the collective brains of hundreds or thousands of people with a variety of backgrounds and knowledge. The most famous creation of a wiki is Wikopedia.

According to Source Watch “After experimenting with Nupedia, which relied on approved editors for quality control, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales concluded that a top-down "cathedral" development model would not allow the project to be successful. Wales sought a method whereby a larger group of users could asynchronously or simultaneously review content. Wiki software, which allows casual users easier access to editing tools, offered Wales an alternative to the problems he saw in the Nupedia model. Wikipedia soon developed a large group of regular users who controled content by reviewing recent changes and individual watch-lists of pages that they wanted to watch for changes. In a contrast to the Nupedia model, in which edit privileges were difficult to come by, Wikipedia offered edit privileges by default. Administrators revoke edit privileges at their discretion based on policies, and on their opinion of content or contributors. Wikipedia, more so than other wiki services in early 2004, had become a main source for encyclopedic content redistributed by other sites. While this means that a much greater body of Internet content is freely available, it also means that any errors in Wikipedia are reproduced across the Internet.”

The world of community services can use the wiki model to harness the collective knowledge and engagement to create needed community services. This model called “crowdsourcing” is a new innovative technique to be used by non-profits and other service providers to engage the community. Crowdsourcing does represent a new “bottom/up” model that challenges the more traditional board of directors driven "top/down model of operation. Many Boards are uncomfortable to give up some of their control of organizational operations and determining the direction of “their” organizations. Strategic plans are often developed with little input except from the board directors. Many organizations are uncomfortable accepting how closed their organizations are in obtaining input from the wider general community. Sometimes public hearings are held to satisfy a funder more than set a new direction for the organization.

There are many examples of crowdsourcing to collectively develop a project. Gretchen McKay, an Art History professor at McDaniels College, had some of her students help design some of her courses. This goes against the top/down model of professors with doctorates assuming that their role is to transmit information to students in a non-collaborative manner. Somehow educators have forgotten the old Chinese maxim of “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”

Would you believe you could create a symphony orchestra by crowdsourcing? The YouTube Symphony Orchestra has performed at New York's Carnegie Hall. Over 3000 musicians auditioned for the orchestra by submitting You Tube videos.

Governments are now using wikis as a way to get citizen input into solving community problems. Some even hold contests to identify the best ideas. The Federal Government is getting into this business with a challenge to the public to address issues of interest to the Federal Government. This is a more open process than putting out a complicated bid offer for which only professional groups could compete.

Fox is using crowdsourcing to hold a competition to create a 3-5 minute cartoon video for the Family Guy show. Fox will select the best and the public will vote on the winner of the contest.

Non-profits can use crowdsourcing to replace or supplement focus groups and needs assessments to obtain a sense of what community needs are in any area and to brainstorm possible solutions. The persons involved in the process might also be potential volunteers to implement ideas.

To overlook the potential of collective solution finding through the use of crowdsourcing is one of the most overlooked and yet a powerful benefit of our new digital technology. Wouldn't it be interesting to use a crowdsourcing approach to develop a Howard County Community Engagement Summit to identify important County issues and solutions?

Good article in the Baltimore Sun today April 16 that shows another example of crowdsourcing.

Post script- The Howard County Government Facebook page only pushes out information to the public. It is one directional. How about a way to allow citizens to post an issue or concern to be addressed by the county government? Maybe there would be more than 210 people who have "liked" the page.

Baltimore Sun has information on how you can get paid for innovative gadget ideas.

Frank Hecker has a great follow up to my blog on Village Centers that is a must read. I love his ideas on specialized Village Centers. I think that is an interesting direction to be examined.

Paula Linn has alerted me to a newly formed group in Howard County called 'No Labels'. The intent of the group is to address the important issues in this country without the traditional Republican and Democrat labels. No Labels hopes to organize groups in every Congressional district throughout the US. Sounds like a group of independent moderates who are tired of the voices of the two extremes. The Howard County group has had two meetings and will meet April 26th from 7pm to 9pm at Howard County Central Library,10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21144. There is a website for No Labels at which promotes the organization. Also please note that people who are interested in the local Howard County meeting can sign up at

Good commentary in the Baltimore Sun today on the impact of the Ryan Budget on Children's Health Care.

Columbia Patch has an article on a growing problem with graffeti. Anyone who has read the book One Broken Window sees this as a troubling sign for any community

The Columbia Association is sponsoring a "Dog Day Afternoon" this Saturday to bring your pets to. Check it out


Ian said...


Interesting post and great links. You've certainly shared a lot of examples worth thinking about.

Thanks for your thoughts on the County's Facebook page. It's less than a month old and still very much a work in progress, and the points you raised about engagement and dialogue are appreciated and also part of an ongoing internal discussion we have about how best to utilize these tools. In making a decision to limit wall posts -- though we still appreciate and encourage comments on posts -- we looked to other government Facebook pages for examples and found that most do not allow such posts. In cases where such posts were allowed, there tended to be spam and other comments not relevant to the functions of the local government or community. Balancing the signal to noise ratio in our age of digital communication is tricky, delicate and extremely important.

What I'm interested in is how we can really engage people in the work of government using the new digital tools at our disposal. We're fortunate in Howard County to have digital discussions taking place in a variety of venues -- Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc -- and our challenge is to find ways that we can transform dialogue into action using these tools. It's an interesting area, and one that I know you have some familiarity with, so I really do appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts.

Duane said...

I fully understand the limitations of having dialogue using Facebook and the difficulty with misuse of an open posting policy. I too am interested in how you can move dialogue to community action. I've been trying to think how a blog can grow in that direction. Since I have only been doing this for a short time I am still playing around with some ideas. Maybe something like a Howard County Community Engagement Event where residents are invited to come and share their ideas on how the County can be improved and the group voting on the ideas with the most potential. Attendees could then decide which of the selected items they were interested in getting involved with. Could grow into an interesting way to encourage civic involvement. Could be promoted in the schools, religious congregations and community civic groups. Just one idea.

Jessie at CA said...

May I recommend ?