Columnist: Crowdsourcing's Golden Moment

May 7, 2012

by Neal Peirce

Defining "crowdsourcing" consumes close to 4,000 words on Wikipedia -- fitting enough for an electronic encyclopedia that's being updated 24/7 by more than 85,000 active contributors scattered around the globe. 

But how about the communities where we live? How broadly are we already using the "big open tent" of crowdsourcing, its reach now magically enlarged by the worldwide web, to apply the wisdom of "people like us" to create better towns and cities? 

The short answer: "It's spreading rapidly." And it's going far beyond the familiar concept of "public engagement" in which mayors or county officials define an issue or problem and then ask for citizen input on how to handle it. 

The big problem with the historical model, notes civic analyst Storm Cunningham, CEO of ReCitizen in Washington, D.C., is that "it implies that whoever is doing the engagement owns the process, and those being engaged don't." In too many cases, he adds, it becomes "an autocratic, top-down, paternalistic approach with stakeholder engagement window dressing." 

But just holding public meetings isn't a great solution either. As Cunningham rightly observes, such assemblies often "attract a few loud, selfish, narrow-minded citizens who co-opt the dialogue to promote their own agendas, or just shoot down the ideas of others." 

So how can crowdsourcing avoid all this? It is by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of citizens going online, suggesting ideas to tackle problems, then commenting on each other's ideas. Result: negativism, garrulous ranting gets sidelined. The best ideas rise to the top as the participants vote on each other's proposals. The "crowd" then becomes personally engaged in actual design and strategy to make the idea work. In the most successful crowdsourcing efforts, Cunningham insists, the ideas gain such support and momentum that city halls have no choice other than to become supporters and implementers. 

Cunningham calls the concept citizen-led regeneration, the topic of his forthcoming book, "ReCivilizing." This first major work documenting the phenomenon is scheduled for publication next January. 

One exciting new development: crowdfunding to finance smart crowdsourcing ideas designed to make cities safer or more beautiful or more welcoming places to live. There are even websites -- kickstarter.com, for example -- which lists promising projects that seek to elicit contributions from interested viewers. 

Two New York City architects had a vision of turning a huge abandoned Lower East Side trolley terminal into Delancey Underground, the world's first subterranean park. Needing $100,000 to do the design, they posted their project on kickstarter.com and 45 days later had $155,186 from 3,300 backers. 

In New Orleans, community activists needed $4,000 to turn an unsightly vacant lot into a community farm. Within a month they'd reached their goal. The formerly dead space is now alive with growing crops, and the fresh produce is improving local diets. 

But crowdsourcing has many more forms. One of the best known is SeeClickFix, a Web tool (and mobile phone app) that invites citizens to report neighborhood problems -- from broken street lights to uncollected trash to unsightly grass on abandoned properties. In each case, the report goes onto a Web-based map and local government is automatically informed. Users can even add video or picture documentation. 

Founded four years ago in New Haven, Conn., SeeClickFix has expanded to about 25,000 towns, with especially strong networks in New Haven and Philadelphia. Several major newspapers now follow it for local news, and the service also works to promote community volunteering. 

Boston has a highly successful Citizens Connect smartphone app for city maintenance, which officials say not only gets problems fixed but helps build public trust in government. 

Indeed, "establishment" support for crowdsourcing techniques is growing rapidly. A leading example is the "collaborative citizenship" project, Change by Us, developed by urban imagineer Jake Barton's Local Projects program in collaboration with CEOs for Cities and funded by the Rockefeller and Knight Foundations. 

The idea of Change by Us -- based on a successful "Give a Minute" initiative in Chicago and Memphis -- is to invite residents' ideas for civic solutions, help form project groups, and then assist them in locating funding. Change By Us is now operating in expanded form in New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle, with the blessing of the cities' mayors. 

Someday someone will likely find a clever way to subvert one or more of the new crowdsourcing tools. No approach is ever perfect. But in our current season of vicious political infighting over absolutist ideas, they're like an elixir -- to inspire citizens rather than frighten them, to hear and expand on their creative ideas, and then to round up funding and public support to advance the best. Maybe, with luck, they'll even revive the idea that government isn't some sinister, liberty-defiling, money-sucking monster out there. It is really us. 

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group 

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.