Today’s post comes from David Alan Grier, crowdsourcing expert and author of Crowdsourcing for Dummies. He tackles the question of who makes up the crowd. Check out his previous post for Owler.
“Facts are stubborn things,” wrote Vladimir Lenin, but if you look for the absolute fact of this quote, you will never find it. Lenin was not the first to make this observation. He may have been quoting an American President, an English writer from the 18th century or a French novelist from the same era. If you are Russian or Liberal, you tend to give it to Lenin. If you are American or conservative, you accept the claim that it was written by John Adams. If you fall outside those two categories, you might chose one of the minor claimants, such s Tobias Smollett or Alain-René Lesage. You will find no unanimity on this issue.
Facts are of interest to us because they tell us something about nature of crowdsourcing and the difference between it and traditional market research. If you don’t see the difference, you might trying to use crowdsourcing to solve a problem that it might not easily solve.
An example of a problem that does not easily fit the tools of crowdsourcing is the job of monitoring city services or checking city infrastructure. At first glance, these problems would seem to be perfect applications for crowdsourcing. They both involve large, complex entities that can’t ben easily observed by a single person. However, both have trouble with the nature of facts.
It would seem obvious that the facts of both problems are straightforward. We should be able to ask the crowd to look at various city services, for example, and determine which services were working well or which city parks need repair.
However, as the discussion of Lenin’s quote suggests, the problem of monitoring city services resist the application of crowdsourcing because this job has no underlying fact. One person may judge the snow removal in one part of the city as perfectly accurate while another may view the same service in the same place as a complete disaster.
The fact that two members of the crowd disagree does not mean that one is right and the other is wrong. We cannot get agreement between their two points of view by employing the standard crowdsourcing tools to correct errors – duplicating work, validating the crowd, or asking for evidence. (See my earlier postings “Can We Trust Crowdsourcing?” and “The Teaming Unwashed Masses.”) No matter what we do, we will still have two views of a common problem.
If we are using the crowd to monitor city services, we are not really using the crowd to gather data. We’re asking it to express its judgments. Judgments are based not only on the facts of the matter but also on the beliefs held by the people making the judgment. People who believe in government as an agent of the people will tend to approve of city services, even when they need improvement. People who dislike the idea that government should provide services can easily dislike the state of these services no matter how good or bad they may be.
Because judgments are partially based on beliefs, they will never get us to the truth of the matter. In the best circumstances, we could try to get the true state of city by shaping the crowd so that every bit of data is collected both by a liberal and a conservative, by a follower of Lenin and a fan of Adams. However, once we start doing that, we are no longer doing crowdsourcing. We’re doing something much closer to market research.
Of course, crowdsourcing has much in common with market research. However, the two methods are really looking at two different things. Crowdsourcing attempts to use the crowd to understand physical or social phenomena. By contrast, market research attempts to understand the crowd itself. Market research works to characterize the beliefs and opinions of the crowd, how individuals would act, what they value, what they believe others should do.
So when you start to consider how you might apply crowdsourcing to a problem, you need to consider where you are likely to find the facts. If you are going to find them in the crowd itself, if you are hoping to get their opinion about when city should shovel snow or fix a swing set, then you are doing market research and need to use the methods that will get you the most complete picture of the crowd. Otherwise, you might go through life thinking that a radical liberal invented your favorite quote when in fact it is also claimed by a conservative.
David Alan Grier
David Alan Grier is the author of Crowdsourcing for Dummies and other books. He can be reached at dagrier.djaghe.com