Below you’ll find the basis for my Ignite talk from ICCM10 in Boston originally titled “Veracity Blues: The Trouble with Crowdsourcing”.


Would you trust these guys with your data?

Not based on appearance, but experience or lack thereof. It depends right? You might trust them to lead you to a Heisman Trophy, but you probably wouldn’t trust them to lead your disaster relief initiative. This is because expertise matters only when coupled with context. But there’s another analogy here, and that’s one of how organizations view crowdsourced information.

The people in the above image share a common expertise. They are a small team. They trust each others experience. They’ve been vetted and validated as being the best of their lot by a coach. They plan their operations before they fully understand the problem. Who else does this remind you of?

The military. This isn’t a weakness. It’s how the military *has* to respond. Advance insight is not always a possibility, no matter what the stimulus, the strategy has be able to adapt to deal with unknown variable. Like wise, when a football team is in a stadium, they don’t have the benefit of waiting for a lot of analysis. Decisions have to be made on the fly. Football teams *can’t* rely upon the crowd, nor can most military operations.

An Aversion to Crowdsourcery

My colleague Patrick Meier likes to refer the reluctance to considering ‘the crowd’ as a valid source as (sort of) an aversion to ‘crowdsourcery’. Crowdsourcing has been described as forbidden, occult and dangerous so the word crowdsourcey is a pun on this fear of crowdsourcing. The typical response is that the crowd can’t be trusted because individuals are not only unvetted, but untraceable. It would be worse than guessing, to let random strangers who may or may not be guessing, make decisions — at least, it would be to groups still hesitating about the effectiveness of crowdsourcing.

Furthermore, the organizations are experts and the crowd will be full of people making ill-informed decisions. Or worse, the untrained crowd might disagree with the assumptions response organizations had about them, risking credibility or funding from donors.

But the reality is that the crowd isn’t impossible to vet — although it is difficult — and there are aspects of crowdsourcing that can be used as a resource.

Football Vs. Philanthropy


Ironically, this actually means that most humanitarian organizations respond to aid or releif, just like football teams do — they design their ‘plays’, they develop worst case scenarios, they huddle together then they rush onto the field to their adoring fans!

But humanitarian organizations have the advantage of having the time to prepare for pre-conceived scenarios. They don’t make every single decision out on the field in front of the public, a lot of it is done in anticipation. They don’t necessarily operate blind, they measure almost everything that can be measured before executing operations. Crowdsourcing, is a bit like inviting that ‘blindness’ back in. Who will say what? How do we maintain the integrity of data? How do we know who to pay attention to? The danger is to ignore the crowd entirely, functioning as if it doesn’t exist as a source of information.

  • Traditional humanitarian programs, like football plays, assume a lot.
  • Philanthropy affects people’s lives so it’s worth exploring untried solutions.
  • There will always be more about a situation that you don’t know.
  • The crowd is willing to be a resource. They want to engage and be engaged.

Chaos Theory and Humanitarian Groups

This seems somewhat obvious. So why do humanitarian groups operate like football teams and military ops? Because they are trying to mitigate chaos.

In chaos theory, a deterministic system operates on the principle that a certain set of conditions at the outset of an experiment will yield an equally certain set of results. One plus two will always equal three. However, due to what’s called the butterfly effect, dynamical systems are actually highly sensitive to those early conditions. The most subtle variations, very even more as time passes, resulting in a yield of wildly unpredictable results. I’m of the belief that humanitarian operations reflect dynamical systems. Political variables, organization structure, the people selected to run programs….these are variables that, from the outset, affect everything that organization will try to do because they aren’t ‘constant’ they change over time in reaction to things changing around them. Most organizations try to contain ‘the butterfly effect’ by favoring deterministic methodologies….if we do these things correctly, we’ll get these results.

By introducing the crowd, then, most organizations react with fear. We’re deliberately reintroducing ‘chaos’ into their orderly systems, the chaos they work so hard at keeping out. Through what I call folksonomic triage, however, I propose we use the crowd itself as a buffer against that chaos.

Folksonomic Triage

Folksonomy – people defined
Triage – condition based decisions

This is a term that I made up because I feel it describes most systems designed to corroborate individuals based on evidence mined from the crowd. For example, if person 1 says “The sky is red” while the rest of the people in the crowd say the “The skye is blue” we’ll likely favor the crowd’s opinion over the individual who differs. The user in this case is misinformed or lying. The spam filter in Gmail is a practical example of this in action, if enough people mark messages containing the same characteristics as spam, Gmail looks for messages containing some or all of those conditions and in the future will make decisions based on what it’s learned is most likely to be spam.

If the same person says, “There is an earthquake in San Francisco, California. The city has been leveled!”, how do we know if he or she is telling the truth? We can try to deduce the obvious. We know California is prone to earthquakes, they happen quite frequently there. We also know San Fran is a city that’s monitored by a number of agencies who study earthquakes, but perhaps we haven’t heard from them yet. So it’s possible that this event has occurred but we still aren’t sure. So let’s look at the crowd, we know San Fran has a lot of people who, if they survived such a quake, would be sophisticated enough to help spread the news via a number of communication channels. A lack of similar information means either the crowd is unable to respond or that there is nothing occurring that they would need to respond to.

So what does the crowd say? Maybe there was indeed an earthquake, but the person in question exaggerated their claims. Maybe the person is in Australia….thousands of miles away from San Fran….and read news that was misinterpreted. Maybe there was no earth quake at all. Are there pics, video, other reports that corroborate the story? Making decisions like this, systematic reasoning, is called triage. Because we’re making these decision based on the actions or expressions of other people, the crowd, I call it folksonomic triage.

Sometimes there is no crowd present, maybe it’s just a handful of people who are offering useless, or deliberately misleading, information. Other systems would need to be put in place to try to determine truth. After all, without much of a crowd, it’s not really crowdsourcing. Also, I should say that there is always the possibility of the outlier, the person in the crowd who predicts an event (either based on nice information or chance) or who is simply on the radar of people monitoring a situation before everyone else begins corroborating his or her claims.