Microtasking, citizen science, crowd contests... the potential of distributed labor and crowdsourced idea generation is becoming clear to government agencies and NGOs. Although we sometimes perceive governments as being slow to adopt new technologies on this "series of tubes" we call the Internet, the social-momentum behind crowdsourcing is forcing them to take notice and get proactive about embracing these new, open methods of communication, innovation and productivity.
As early as 2001, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) started using prediction markets to forecast political turmoil in the Middle East. After a whirlwind of negative press about the now infamous Policy Analysis Market and the morality of “betting on terrorist attacks”, the project was killed by policy makers (despite working pretty well). Governments struggle to find a balance between slow, cautious, bureaucratic politics and the fast-pace of innovation but we are starting to see more and more facets of the crowdsourcing umbrella appear in government initiatives.
An early success in government crowdsourcing was the DARPA Grand Challenge, a $1 million competition to race driverless vehicles through the Mojave desert. Building on that success, DARPA is now running a crowd contest for rugged vehicle design. The first vehicle was designed and built in 4 months! DARPA’s Red Balloon and Shredder challenges have again demonstrated how crowdsourced innovation benefits government missions.
Government has been more open to crowdsourcing solutions for humanitarian challenges; where public engagement is required and the challenges are less “spooky”. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Mission 4636 -- an SMS short-code set up by Ushahidi and Open Street Maps -- crowdsourced reports of damage and requests for help. The Red Cross and the US Marines used these reports for situational awareness and to guide the distribution of aid. The successes and lessons learned in Haiti led to the establishment of crowdsourcing components within the US government’s Quick-Netsprogram.
Finally, NASA’s citizen science site Be A Martian invites people at home to explore Mars and count craters. Besides contributing to science, this site has the added advantage of fulfilling NASA’s mission of public outreach and education.
From designing tanks for the military to saving the world with the Red Cross, from exploring earthquake zones to exploring the surface of Mars, more and more, the government is turning crowdsourcing to solve problems and engage the population. With deep pockets and interesting challenges, expect the government to play a growing role in the future of crowdsourcing.
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