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The Downsides to Crowdsourcing

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, August 26 2013

Crowdsourcing often makes its way into techPresident coverage, whether in a story about crisis mapping or election reporting. It has been a real boon for NGOs and government offices alike. Still, there are limits to the usefulness of crowdsourced information that must be acknowledged.

A recent report on IRIN highlights the challenges organizations using crowdsourcing might face. An organization or government body must consider whether participants are representative of the general population. For example, in a cell phone survey in a country with low mobile penetration, only elites will have the opportunity to respond.

IRIN cites Somalia Speaks:

For example, Somalia Speaks, set up by Al Jazeera in 2011 ahead of the 2013 London Conference on Somalia, asked Somalis, using text messages, to send in their views and questions for their government about the conference. Although they received more than 3,000 replies, the International Telecommunications Union estimates that mobile penetration within Somalia is only 7 percent. Therefore the views texted in are unlikely to be widely representative of all Somali people.

Then there is the question of processing data, when a large number of people do participate. The sheer onslaught of data during a crisis, for example, can overload systems that aren't built for that kind of traffic. This causes a bottleneck, where interpretation and use of data lags behind the acquisition of data.

Then one must question the accuracy of reports. Ideally the crowd could shoulder the burden of determining veracity, too, in a self-policing sort of way.

This went horribly awry in the days following the Boston bombings, where an impromptu, crowdsourced manhunt started on Reddit and quickly spread to Twitter and Facebook, ultimately blaming the wrong man and traumatizing his family.

In an interview with IRIN, Patrick Meier, a thought leader in crisis response, explained: “Reddit is not designed for critical thinking. People posted all sorts of dubious information [regarding the Boston bombings] and it snowballed.”

Meier is trying to address that very problem in crisis response in his online platform veri.ly.

The IRIN report goes on to explain how to make the most of crowdsourcing, which includes tried and true advice like “keep it simple” as well as suggestions on how to get humanitarian staff and techies to work effectively together.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.