Software // Information Management
Commentary
9/22/2009
01:06 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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Federal Government Wrestles With Crowdsourcing Problems

The problem with letting everybody contribute ideas to an open forum is that everybody does. White House-led open government initiatives are learning that lesson, as forums set up to let American citizens contribute suggestions for government actions are being hijacked by potheads, conspiracy theorists, and anti-Scientologists.

The problem with letting everybody contribute ideas to an open forum is that everybody does. White House-led open government initiatives are learning that lesson, as forums set up to let American citizens contribute suggestions for government actions are being hijacked by potheads, conspiracy theorists, and anti-Scientologists.The White House turned to crowdsourcing as a means of achieving a Utopian ideal of direct democracy, using the Internet to allow citizens to participate in every government decision. But the initiative is in trouble, as idealism crashes up against reality, the New York Time reports.

The Times draws a parallel between the open government initiatives and a gnomic utterance made by candidate Obama made in 2008. Responding to people who viewed him as a messianic figure, Obama said, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

During the transition, the administration created an online "Citizen's Briefing Book" for people to submit ideas to the president. "The best-rated ones will rise to the top, and after the Inauguration, we'll print them out and gather them into a binder like the ones the president receives every day from experts and advisors," Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, wrote to supporters.

They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing - not so much to the administration as to us, the ones we've been waiting for.

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology's tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online "brainstorm" about making government more transparent. Good ideas came; but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate.

If the Internet needed a further nudge from its pedestal, the health care debate obliged. From the administration's point of view, the Web arguably proved better at spreading deceptions about "death panels" than at spreading truth, and at turning town halls into brawls than at nurturing the unfettered deliberation that some imagine to be the hallmark of the Internet.

Government needs better tools for weighing public opinion without letting small, highly motivated interest groups put their thumbs on the scales, writes Ed Felten at the blog Freedom to Tinker:

This is not a new phenomenon -- there's a long history of organized groups sending letters out of proportion with their numbers. Now, these groups obviously have the right to speak, and the fact that some groups proved to be better organized and motivated than others is useful information for policymakers to have. But if that is all that policymakers learn, we have lost an important opportunity. Government needs to hear from these groups, but it needs to hear from the rest of the public too.

It's tempting to decide that this is inevitable, and that online harvesting of public opinion will have little value. But I think that goes too far.

What the administration's experience teaches, I think, is that measuring public opinion online is difficult, and that the most obvious measurement methods can run into trouble. Instead of giving up, the best response is to think harder about how to gather information and how to analyze the information that is available. What works for a small, organized group, or even a political campaign, won't necessarily work for the United States as a whole. What we need are new interfaces, new analysis methods, and experiments to reveal what tends to work.



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