Web 2.0 Expo: Startup Aims At Public Policy Crowdsourcing

Expert Labs, founded by Anil Dash, will use social media tools to bring private sector expertise to the U.S. government's decision-making processes.
Social media pioneer Anil Dash has left his position as a top executive at blogging company Six Apart to found Expert Labs, a non-profit aimed at crowdsourcing expertise to help government make better policy decisions.

Dash announced the new venture in New York at Web 2.0 Expo, which is co-sponsored by TechWeb, InformationWeek's parent company. Until now, most government use of social media has been to talk to the public rather than listen, Dash said.

"The policy now is to have a closed door meeting for half an hour and say, well, we talked to the experts and here's the policy," he said. "If I can ask my friends on Twitter which headphones I should buy, if I can ask, as a business on Facebook, what's your response as a consumer of our product, then why can't the government ask those same kinds of [questions] about shaping policy? There are always going to be more experts outside the beltway than in those offices making policy."

Dash began to think last summer about how he could help the government by using the lessons of Web 2.0 to empower the government to do things differently. "If we can bring the right resources to bear and bring together a sufficient number of the right experts, there really is an order of magnitude increase in the types of problems we'll be able to solve," he said.

Expert Labs will help facilitate government use of social media in soliciting expertise from the public, both through advocacy to government agencies and by encouraging technologists to build and expand the tools needed to do it. Dash hopes to make the tools developed available on the government's application portal.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has provided Expert Labs with a $500,000 grant, and the organization will be an arm of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science. Dash will serve as Expert Labs' director.

As part of AAAS, Expert Labs will be able to tap into the expertise of the association's hundreds of thousands of members. In an interview, Dash said that he has begun reaching out to other professional organizations in an attempt to bring in expertise from fields other than science.

Dash has drawn support from the Obama administration and its open government policies, and he has begun to forge relationships with federal agencies. "This current administration and folks all across the government have indicated a willingness to listen to this kind of dialog," he said.

Some federal agencies are engaged in their own crowdsourcing efforts, though few are soliciting ideas specifically from experts. The Department of Homeland Security is expanding an internal crowdsourcing effort at the Transportation Security Agency called IdeaFactory, and the White House solicited public input on its forthcoming open government directive. Many federal rule-making processes have long included periods of public comment, but the process is unwieldy and not user friendly.

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