Why Crowdsourcing Matters

Crowdsourcing matters because it provides some the conditions that enable and encourage participation in civil society  – a forum, structure, permission, anonymity (to combat fear of rejection), and a cause to which to contribute.  It does not matter if someone is documenting public restrooms in Manhattan, sharing road closures in an open mapping program, cleaning-up a Wikipedia page – there is a place to contribute personal wisdom and have it accepted.  This power shift has implications – historically, our references maps, encyclopedias travel guides – have been drafted by “experts.” Crowdsourcing turns the tables and assumes we are all experts.  The number of potential applications is limitless!  (We will explore some of the applications in future posts.)

Crowdsourcing is based on the idea of the collective intelligence – that information is collected, aggregated and vetted by the crowd.  It started as a business strategy to solicit unique solutions to problems.  Businesses, like Netflix and Threadless, would issue a proposal with specific rules and goals, and a reward would be given to the winning proposal.

While initially a business application, crowdsourcing can be helpful in settings where public input is considered important.  The reward would be significantly different, instead of a material “prize,” it would be the opportunity to contribute to a cause or effort in a meaningful way.  One of the biggest challenges facing public officials is getting the public to participate.  Some would think that an invitation to participate in a meeting would be enough to solicit participation, but that is not always the case.  The barriers include the inconvenient time or place, feelings of intimidation in the company of experts, feelings that their participation is perfunctory, and cultural differences.

It’s the breaking-down of some (definitely not all) of the barriers that makes crowdsourcing is very interesting and holds so much promise.  Crowdsourcing creates conditions that enable the public to actively engage with and define public spaces.

In the case of Placing Literature, information will be collected on the web and aggregated through a Google Map application, with an option of adding photos. People will get to describe the places they read about – which is one of the key components of “placemaking.”  According to the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking involves “looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations.”

We hope that we are offering a tool to help people see not only the scenes (places) they read about in literature, but a structure to help describe the physical places important to them.  The hope is people will have the means to describe their neighborhoods and public spaces, but also their needs and aspirations for those spaces.

For further reading:

  • Project for Public Spaces: http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/
  • Intro to Placemaking, City Repair: http://cityrepair.org/how-to/placemaking/
  • Brabham, D. C. (2009). Crowdsourcing the Public Participation Process for Planning Projects. Planning Theory, 8(3), 242–262.
  • Sui, D., Elwood, S., & Goodchild, M. (Eds.). (2012). Crowdsourcing Geographic Knowledge: Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) in Theory and Practice (2013th ed.). Springer.
  • Zook, M., Graham, M., Shelton, T., & Gorman, S. (2010). Volunteered Geographic Information and Crowdsourcing Disaster Relief: A Case Study of the Haitian Earthquake. World Medical & Health Policy, 2(2), 7.
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