Wisdom of Crowds – Succeeding In Practice?

Guest Post: Chris Wolz

This is another in a series of blog entries being posted from the Communications Network Annual Conference in Los Angeles.

Adin Miller, a friend and all-around smart guy, wrote a reflecting on James Surowiecki’s talk about the “Wisdom of Crowds” at the Communications Network and CommA Fall 2010 Conference. Adin’s right that there are challenges to putting the wisdom of crowds to good use for foundations, but I’m optimistic – I am seeing good models of this today which can be applied by foundations in their work. Hey – foundations used to be nervous about social networking, too!

Surowiecki’s talk, drawing on his 2005 book, was about the surprising value of crowd-based judgments, from guessing the numbers of jelly beans in a jar, to mapping Martian craters, to open contests like the DARPA Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles.

Surowiecki also writes about several key criteria needed to develop “wise” crowds, namely: diversity of opinion, independence of opinions, decentralization (i.e. people able to drawn on own knowledge), and aggregation (i.e. a mechanism for turning private judgments into a collective decision.)

Adin and others from the conference expressed concern that tapping the wisdom of crowds (online) will be difficult for foundations because:

  • Achieving a diversity of opinion is not easy to accomplish online;
  • The self-reinforcing nature of online discourse can lead to lack of independence;
  • It will be a big challenge for most funders to be “willing to let the crowd challenge the power structure it represents”; and
  • Philanthropic institutions might embrace “input from crowds” but then reject the wisdom if it did not conform to the opinions of their leadership.

I agree with Adin that accomplishing a valuable discourse online can be challenging – but all the more reason to start experimenting now. And on the issue of whether foundations will actually accept input from crowds, I think there are areas where the input is needed, and can be highly constructive, making adoption non-controversial.

I see plenty of examples of where foundations could today tap the wisdom and insights from “crowds” online in valuable ways. Here are some examples, and my thoughts on implications for foundations:

Crowdsourcing Generation of Data and Ideas:

AID Data is starting a new project to mesh “official data” on development aid from donors with “observational data from people on the ground.”

Ashoka’s Changemakers uses an online “open source” approach to build communities of people interested in finding solutions to challenging global problems.

David Roodman of the Center for Global Development is writing a book about microfinance a chapter at a time on  and the feedback he gets is shaping his book.

The Federal government has recently launched Challenge.gov to enlist the public in helping to solve difficult problems.

Foundation application? Use online tools to gather data from across sectors. Use blogs and interactive features to collect input on research and writing in-progress. Use competitions and contests to generate new ideas from new audiences.

Predictive Markets:

The Iowa Electronic Markets uses an online wagering model to accurately predict political elections.

DARPA’s Future Markets Applied to Prediction (FutureMAP) program tested whether prediction markets could help identify strategic intelligence.

Foundation application? Use a predictive market to tap a global audience of experts to develop projections for likely problems – such as where the next pandemic will occur.

Crowd-funding New Ideas:

Funding platforms for artists, musicians, and inventors: Kickstarter and IndiGoGo

Crowd-based funding for projects – such as Global Giving and Donors Choose.

Foundation application? Providing online infrastructure to aid grantee organizations in decentralized fundraising. Also – foundations could use such fundraising as an information-gathering tool – to judge public interest and faith in different approaches.

Private Sector:

There are some examples of these crowdsourcing approaches being adopted in the private sector, such as by NetFlix, GE, Dell and Starbucks.

It may take some time for foundations to find the high-value use of crowdsourcing, but there are some good models to start from, so let the experimentation begin!

Chris Wolz is President and CEO, ForumOne.

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