Huge potential exists to harness the power of crowdsourcing for the study of society and human behaviors - the range of disciplines we call 'social science' that ranges from anthropology to sociology, politics to psychology. But, so far, the crowd is failing to employ their power to these issues.
For example, we can relatively easily imagine the possiblities for crowdsourcing in fields such as:
- Community mapping - involving the communities themselves
- Social psychology experiments
- The study of voting behaviours, and decision-making more generally
- Crowdsourcing government policy (something I'm investigating myself)
- Developing and deliberating on human rights and ethical issues.
But, it's just not happening as well as it could.
Given that crowdsourcing has roots in research, it seems odd that social science researchers appear to have been comparatively slow to investigate the potential of crowdsourcing. There's incredible potential here that we could harness - so much so that if you're entrepreneurially-minded you could lead the field.
From the earliest competitions organised by the French and British governments in the 18th century, to its re-emergence in the late 1980s and early 1990s in famous examples such as Goldcorp and the development of Linux, crowdsourcing has proven its power in research and development.
But physical scientists have been much faster and more visionary than their social scientist peers in how they have harnessed the potential of the crowd. 'Citizen science' projects such as SETI@home and Galaxy Zoo and have successfully invited the public to participate in scientific research. Science has even developed its own crowdfunding sites - for example Petridish.org, which allows the public to explore the world around them by helping to fund scientific research projects.
Where are the citizen social science projects? (If anyone wants to own this term there's certainly the opportunity to - a quick Google search reveals just 88,300 results, and not it seems for how I'm using the term here).
This is especially odd given how many social scientists study democracy, social justice and citizen participation, indeed, they helped to create our modern understanding of these concepts. So where is it in when it comes to their own work? Crowdsourcing-based research studies are taking off in psychology - but other fields seem to be lagging some way behind.
We know that crowdsourcing works for drafting and fact-checking. It's been nearly four years since the world's first crowdsourced white paper was published. Dell launched its project in August 2008, by asking the public to define the term 'Digital Nomad' and what this way of working meant for workplaces as well as individuals. 'Qualifying insights' split a modest $3,000 bonus.
Earlier this year, Wired magazine published an article about GitHub, a ’version control’ site that allows open source software programmers to share code with other developers and keep track of who made what changes. What was interesting was that the writer used GitHub to invite and capture suggested edits and amendments to the article itself (the GitHub repository for the article can be found here). The result was a better researched article.
We also know that crowdsourcing produces better, cheaper political and market research. The UK firm YouGov (formerly known as Polimetrix in the US) is an international internet-based market research firm launched in the UK in 2000.
YouGov draws demographically-representative samples from a panel of about 350,000 people in the UK. Volunteer members of the public are credited with 50 points for each survey they complete which typically take around 20 minutes to complete, and are sent a cheque worth £50 ($77) when they accrue 5,000 points. In addition there is a monthly prize survey, the completion of which enters the member into a prize draw. YouGov's political polling is consistently amongst the most accurate.
So where is the social science version of Galaxy Zoo, where interested citizens can participate in (and even help to determine) social science research?
There have been some great examples - for instance in the UK the Great War Archive project, which asked people to contribute photos and memories of their own wartime collections, and check out Mapping for Change and the way it engages communities through collaborative mapping. Yet such approaches are far from the norm in social science.
So much more social research could be enhanced by the involvement of the public - from helping to set research agendas, contributing to and helping to analyse data sets, to formalising findings and conclusions. Social science issues are human issues, after all - they are about how we relate to each and organise our society and economy - so there seems to be a natural fit with crowdsourcing that's largely being overlooked.
This raises some obvious and legitimate concerns - from representation to research ethics and integrity - but none of these seem insurmountable. Indeed, social scientists would surely benefit from greater public engagement with their work. The prize is surely quicker, cheaper and more imaginative research - the findings from which could benefit us all.
Where do you see crowdsourcing playing a larger role in social science? How can we stop getting an F? Let us know in the comments below.