Crowdsourcing to Drive Innovative Solutions for Civic Issues

In view of the challenges created by growing urbanization, dense population concentrations and limited budgets, many local governments are turning to innovative methods to find solutions to civic issues. Taking a cue from how many large corporations have used crowdsourcing and open innovation to solve complex problems and create innovative consumer products, local governments are looking towards civic engagement and open innovation to help identify and develop solutions to public problems.

Many government agencies have already taken to open innovation. For example, the U.S. Federal Government has been actively engaging citizens to help address public issues using prizes and open challenges. In fact, federal government use of crowdsourcing has increased 6-fold since January 2011, when President Obama signed in the America COMPETES Act into law. has seen participation from more than 42,000people in over 300 challenge, with $35 million awarded in prizes. Overseas, the Indonesian government held its first open hackathon earlier this year to build apps focused on tackling public issues related to the city’s budget monitoring and public transportation. Crowdsourcing initiatives are truly in the democratic spirit of by the people, for the people. Why, Iceland even crowdsourced their constitution!

A study  by the IBM Center for The Business of Government in collaboration with the University of Southern California sought to identify and analyze various methods by which governments can effectively leverage crowdsourcing and open innovation. Based on whether the problem is one of locating or analyzing existing data and knowledge, or whether it requires developing a completely novel idea or solution, there are 4 possible approaches governments can take. We discuss them briefly below.

1. Information Discovery and Management

This kind of approach is for tasks where the government agency reaches out to citizens to help gather, organize or maintain information and knowledge, such as the creation of collective resources. For example, Boston’s Mayor’s Office launched StreetBumps, an application that enables citizen volunteers to collect information about road conditions as they drive. The data is then collated and analysed to identify and fix short-term problems, as well as plan for long-term investments.

2. Distributed Human Intelligence Tasks

This refers to tasks that require human intelligence, being distributed to a community of volunteers. These could be online tasks or tasks requiring physical action in the real world. Some examples include the “Adopt a Hydrant” and “Adopt a Hurricane Siren” in Boston and Honolulu respectively, where civic agencies reached out to local citizens to help maintain essential infrastructure. Efforts to transcribe historic documents via crowdsourcing, such as this project to transcribe the 1940 US Census, also follow this approach.

3. Broadcast Search

This kind of crowdsourcing helps agencies find solutions to difficult ideation problems that typically have empirical solutions like cost saving formulae or scientific solutions. By reaching out to a larger community online, government agencies can connect with people in the margins who may have a unique skill set and perspective that could help in finding a solution. The “Vehicle Stopper” competition launched by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to create a viable, cost effective and sustainable means of stopping a fleeing vehicle, without damage, saw an overwhelming response of more than 1000 registrations, and more than 100 proposed solutions. The final solution selected was from a retired engineer in Lima, Peru, who was given the award of $25k for the rights to use his idea.

4. Peer-Vetted Creative Production

Not all problems have empirical answers, but are matters of policy, design, aesthetics or subjective taste. In such situations, the crowdsourcing model most commonly used by agencies is the peer-vetted approach, where the community not only proposes solutions, but also selects the final solution, usually by some combination of voting and commenting. For example, the Utah Transit Authority launched the Next Stop Design challenge to design the ideal bus shelter for a real transit hub. Though no reward was offered, more than 3000 participants registered and submitted more than 260 high quality designs.

These approaches and examples just go to show different ways in which governments can leverage open innovation through crowdsourcing methods. Of course, like in the commercial space, local civic agencies attempting this also need to be aware of the best practices and considerations to effectively executive such initiatives.

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