The Madness of Crowdsourcing

Paul Currion, guest-blogging on Mobile Active, performs a detailed deconstruction of crowdsourcing for development, using Ushahidi as an example to make his points. The Jester applauds!

The Jester thinks of Ushahidi as two distinct entities which happen to be named the same thing… (1) Ushahidi, the technology platform; (2) Ushahidi, the individuals who built the platform who are dedicated to international development.

Much of the excess hype around Ushahidi comes from people who think that (1) is the secret sauce, and that it offers a new hope for development. But, actually, it’s (2) that makes Ushahidi great, and it’s not particularly new. It’s people like Eric Hersman, Juliana Rotich, and Patrick Meier who are the real hope, and they are doing it with good old-fashioned positive intentions and elbow grease. It’s their devotion to development causes that, for example, allowed Ushahidi’s rapid set up for Haiti. (Even if the content wasn’t ultimately of value to aid workers, as Currion notes, it still raised global consciousness about the relief efforts, as well as what was still needed. In fact, the Jester believes much of Ushahidi’s positive value to date has been in raising public consciousness about certain global events.) Without (2), (1) would have been just another map mash-up tool, of which there are gazillions online. Technology (1) magnified the intent and capacity of people (2).

Paul Currion’s key insight, though, is that for aid purposes, even (1) and (2) only go so far, because (3) is missing. And, what’s (3)? (3) is human/institutional intent and capacity on the ground. As wonderful as Ushahidi (1)+(2) is, it makes no difference if there isn’t (3), a force on the ground that can actually respond meaningfully to the noisy information (1)+(2) produces. In the case of Haiti, response teams were already overwhelmed. Additional information, per se, was only adding to the unread mail. Ushahidi’s debut in Kenya provided a lot of insight into violence that might not have otherwise been known, but did it do anything to quell violence? That seems unlikely, because the same government that should have taken that information and responded, wasn’t even responding to violence pre-Ushahidi.

This is a common lesson in ICT4D: is limited not by its technology, but by its microfinance institution partners on the ground. Government hotlines are limited not by call volumes, but by the quality of the response team. PCs in schools are limited not by their clock speed, but by the capacity of teachers to integrate them into curricula.

Crowdsourcing has a place, likely in helping well-meaning rich people share information about development with each other. But poor countries aren’t going to crowdsource their way out of poverty any more than they can broadcast-TV their way out of poverty.

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3 Responses to “The Madness of Crowdsourcing”

  1. S.Ananthanarayana Sharma Says:

    Crowdsourcing is a new term for ICT for development? The point that is human intent or attitude of the decision makers on their ground, and the organisational/institutional capacity, which makes the difference is well made.

    For instance, in South India, which is in the international forefront of micro finance, there is a lot to be done ON THE GROUND in terms of using ICT. For instance the current flap in Andhra Pradesh over borrower suicides, could have an ICT solution – of a baseline census (possibly using biometrics) of all SHG/ micro finance LPGs/individual borrowers – with their credit profiles updated. THis becomes an institutional credit database. This in standard banking jargon is I think called “KYC” (Know Your Customer) norms, and already exists I think in quite a few banking retail markets?
    I was surprised to read an article in a reading business magazine recently that the biggest micro finance entity, SKS is still manually reconciling their MIS portfolio data, inspite of massive investments in ICT?

    Something is wrong somewhere in terms of the choice of the software, perhaps the ICT technology itself, and definitely in terms of building capacities of the actual people who enter in the data, process the information and have to submit it in time to decision makers.

    S. Ananthanarayana Sharma

  2. Joe Edelman Says:

    Exactly right.

    It’s my hope, however, that tech can help with #3 as well. I’ve talked with Ory and Patrick about integrating Ushahidi with Groundcrew, our software for realtime, on-the-ground mobilization and coordination. But in terms of developing the right relationships with aid organizations and on-the-ground workers, both of our organizations have a long way to go.


  3. Paul C Says:

    Thanks for the comment on the article – I posted a reply over on the mobileactive site. I particularly appreciate how you separate out the platform from the people – you’re absolutely right on that, and absolutely right that the real strength is the people.

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