Crowdsourcing, the Guardian, and international aid programs (guest post by Rick Davies)

I recently invited Rick Davies, external monitor for the Guardian’s Katine project, to provide his insight into how much crowdsourcing has actually taken place – and what issues have arisen around that. This is his response:

In October 2007 Paul wrote an enthusiastic post about the Guardian’s involvement in what could be seen as a crowdsourcing experiment with AMREF, an African NGO working in Katine sub-country in Uganda, and supported by the Guardian.  In that post Paul quoted Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger:

“We’ll need money obviously. But, just as importantly we need advice and involvement. Among our readers are water engineers, doctors, solar energy experts, businessmen and women, teachers, nurses, farmers. We absolutely don’t need a stampede of volunteers, but we would like a technical know-how bank of people who are prepared to offer time and advice. We’ll let you know how to get involved as we go.”

Paul then emphasised that this was “In other words, crowdsourcing – but not crowdsourcing as seen so far in newspapers, where the focus is on asking readers to help gather or analyse information for a story: this is crowdsourcing to help address the actual issues identified by the story.”

After I made contact with Paul earlier this week he asked me if there was any evidence of crowdsourcing actually taking place.  My initial reaction was reserved.

As described by Alan Rusbridger above, I think that crowdsourcing via the web may be a solution to a problem that is not necessarily recognised. I suspect AMREF might well argue that they have the necessary expertise, and where they don’t have it, they know how to find it. Certainly an early post by AMREF on the Guardian website was cautious about the possibilities[1].

There has however been one important positive example of unsolicited help that AMREF has welcomed. That was the offer of solar panels for the new AMREF sub-office in Katine sub-county, where main supply electricity is intermittent at best[2]. Something closer to crowdsourcing[3] will be evident if and when AMREF seeks out specific types of help via the Guardian Katine website.

One more immediate challenge is the person power needed to “harvest” the ideas that might come via the Guardian website.

The project has only recently appointed a communications officer, who will be paying attention to the Guardian website and other equally important more local communication tasks. The solar power offer was mediated via the Guardian, who told AMREF. AMREF did not have to find it after sorting through many less useful offers. There are of course pros and cons to that mediating role.

One relates to what I thought was a conflation of the roles of the Guardian and AMREF, as present in Alan Rusbridger’s statement. In practice they cannot and should not be doing the same thing. This is one of a number of reasons why I have argued[4] that it is important to more clearly define what the Guardian’s specific role is, especially the role of its website. I think more clarity here could lead to more appreciation and use of the website by AMREF.

The other point about Rusbridger’s statement is that it does seem to assume that the main problems are technical when in fact it could be argued that they are really more social and institutional.

For example, how do you get decentralised government to work effectively in countries like Uganda, and how do you aid agricultural innovation in a context where private ownership of land is not the norm? I suspect these problems are less amenable to crowdsourcing solutions, especially when the contributors are from other cultures. But I could be wrong.

These comments should not be read as an argument against using crowdsourcing in this context. In my view it is still early days with this experiment of linking a media organisation (as donor/intermediary), an aid organisation and a local community.

There are some discussions underway about engaging the local community with the website, via localised internet access. If that happens the results could be very interesting. Local people are likely to have their own views about what information and ideas they want to access from the world that becomes more open to them this way.

Rick Davies, external monitor for the Katine project

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