Yale University’s Hélène Landemore: “From crowdsourcing the hunt to crowdsourcing the law?”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

In this blog post, Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political science at Yale University, discusses crowdsourcing, its political advantage, and government involvement: 

Crowdsourcing has become a popular tool to engage people in processes ranging from urban planning to solving complex scientific problems. Yet it had never been used before for a high-profile police operation like the one involved in the Boston bombings. The success of this first attempt begs the question: Couldn’t crowdsourcing techniques be for other governmental tasks? In an age where technologies allow for quick, almost costless multiple-way exchanges between the public and the government, it seems like a waste of opportunity not to tap further the now famed “wisdom of crowds.”

In the case of the manhunt, consider some striking aspects. It was the pictures, videos, and reports shared by the crowd that initially helped the FBI piece together who the bombers were. Then, after the FBI decided to go public with the pictures of the suspects, it was in part the information flowing from the crowd that helped quickly confirm the identity of the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile social media kept the public apprised of the police progress and recommendations while gathering, processing, and circulating the information percolating up from the ground. Ultimately, it was a tip emanating from the crowd, in that case a Watertown resident who happened to own the boat on which the second suspect sought refuge, that brought the hunt to a speedy end.

There is no question that the police did an amazing investigative job of their own going over the mass of information, making difficult decisions at every step, and taking all the physical risks and responsibilities. But it is also apparent that one of their cleverest decisions was to involve the crowd from the beginning, a crowd that deserves some credit in the result. Without the crowd, the criminals might not have been identified as quickly, which could have resulted in their escape and more casualties, or perhaps in the second suspect being discovered dead rather than alive.

Crowdsourcing means less secrecy and more transparency. The FBI’s decision to go that route was a trade-off between the risk of letting the suspects know that they had been identified (thus giving them a chance to change their appearance or go underground immediately) and the cost of not capitalizing on the useful information lying somewhere within the crowd. Crowdsourcing also involves the risks of false rumors and informational cascades. Websites like Reddit, 4Chan, Twitter and others have been rightly blamed for rushing to conclusions and spreading false and damaging information about innocent individuals. 

Let’s not forget, however, that more traditional police operations are not foolproof either. Further, while the crowd can err, as can smaller groups of experts, it is also able to self-correct in ways that experts typically cannot or do not. Within a few hours after the mistake was revealed, the websites that had spread false information apologized and deleted the relevant links. There is definitely a learning curve to using these new technologies safely, but so far the evidence is that the crowd is up to the challenge. Most importantly, there are advantages to involving the crowd, in terms of diversity of perspectives as well as information-processing power, which, in this day and age, simply shift the balance against expertise and secrecy. 

In any case, my suggestion here is not that crowdsourcing should be used in every police operation. It is simply that when it comes to government as usual, where the stakes are generally lower than in a life-and-death scenario like the one Bostonians just went through, there should be more opportunities for regular people who happen to have the motivation, information, and smarts to participate and help along. 

The Obama administration has recently launched a promising Open Government initiative. Yet not much has been done, so far, to harness the power of crowds at the federal or state level. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and many others have been more ambitious in that respect, embracing not just Open Data and Participatory Budgeting but also experimenting with various crowdsourcing techniques. Other countries are also ahead of the curve, as evidenced in Iceland’s recent attempt at crowdsourcing, partly at least, the writing of a new constitution, or Finland’s ongoing experiment in crowdsourcing a contentious legislative process on off-road traffic (full disclaimer: I’m involved in this project). Couldn’t we imagine doing something similar on, say, Wall Street regulations or gun laws in this country? 

One of the many lessons of the Boston bombings, one that shouldn’t go to waste, is that there are many people out there both eager and uniquely able to help leaders, representatives, and the experts they rely on. Better still, they’re willing to do it all for free. If the crowd can help catch terrorists, why couldn’t they help fix the economy, education, healthcare, or the environment? The political problems we face are daunting and complex and we need all the brainpower we can get. I say, let the crowd in.

Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many by Hélène LandemoreIndividual decision making can often be wrong due to misinformation, impulses, or biases. Collective decision making, on the other hand, can be surprisingly accurate. In Democratic Reason, Hélène Landemore demonstrates that the very factors behind the superiority of collective decision making add up to a strong case for democracy. She shows that the processes and procedures of democratic decision making form a cognitive system that ensures that decisions taken by the many are more likely to be right than decisions taken by the few. Democracy as a form of government is therefore valuable not only because it is legitimate and just, but also because it is smart.

Landemore considers how the argument plays out with respect to two main mechanisms of democratic politics: inclusive deliberation and majority rule. In deliberative settings, the truth-tracking properties of deliberation are enhanced more by inclusiveness than by individual competence. Landemore explores this idea in the contexts of representative democracy and the selection of representatives. She also discusses several models for the “wisdom of crowds” channeled by majority rule, examining the trade-offs between inclusiveness and individual competence in voting. When inclusive deliberation and majority rule are combined, they beat less inclusive methods, in which one person or a small group decide. Democratic Reason thus establishes the superiority of democracy as a way of making decisions for the common good.