Crowd-Sourcing a New Avenue in Social Sciences



Crowd-Sourcing a New Avenue in Social Sciences

Archon Fung Faculty ResearcherArchon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title
The Participedia Project: An IntroductionCoauthor
Mark Warren, University of British Columbia

It is a time of ferment in the field of participatory governance, with a profusion of experiments under way. Governments, international organizations, and civic groups are exploring various means of getting citizens involved in the political process. One of these approaches, called citizen assemblies, was utilized in 2004 and 2005 in British Columbia, where 160 inhabitants, who were picked at random, convened over the course of a year and devised a plan for reorganizing the province’s voting system. Participatory budgeting, another innovative strategy, affords citizens the chance to discuss and ultimately decide how public funds should be disbursed. During meetings held in 2009 and 2010, residents of Chicago’s 49th ward figured out how to allocate $1.3 million earmarked for infrastructure improvements. Following a disputed 2007 election in Kenya, more than 45,000 Kenyans used mobile phones and the internet to report on post-election violence (an approach that has since been adopted elsewhere in the world to monitor recovery from earthquakes and other natural disasters).

“There are now tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of participatory events and processes occurring every year around the world,” write Kennedy School professor Archon Fung and University of British Columbia political scientist Mark Warren. While Fung and Warren applaud the introduction of new forms of democratic engagement, they note that the level of activity greatly exceeds that which a single research team—even a large, multinational one—can track. “Our knowledge of this rapidly expanding universe is shallow,” they admit, “especially when we compare our knowledge of these emerging institutions to those we have been studying for many decades.”

In response to this “deficit in knowledge,” Fung, Warren, and their colleagues have created Participedia—a new online platform that attempts to pull together as many examples of participatory governance as possible, making this information accessible to scholars, practitioners, students, and other interested parties. The website presents case studies, a discussion of the methods employed, a list of organizations active in this area, and a directory of contributors to the site and registered users. Fung and Warren discuss the genesis of this idea, and its subsequent development, in their paper “The Participedia Project: An Introduction.”

The authors regard this effort as an innovation in the social sciences, the first time they’re aware of that a large data repository in their field is being built through crowd-sourcing —“which basically involves asking a bunch of people to go out and gather the data,” Fung says.

Wikipedia—an encyclopedia that is continually expanding and being refined through crowd-sourcing techniques—offers an obvious point of comparison. It features articles on millions of topics, whereas Participedia is much narrower in focus. Yet there are ways in which Participedia is more ambitious than its bigger and better-known predecessor, Fung says. “We’re trying to generate more systematic, more actionable kinds of knowledge—not just trying to describe things but to help people figure out what methods work best.”

To answer questions about what processes are likely to generate better outcomes in tackling certain kinds of issues, the founders of Participedia hope to accumulate cases that arrive in fairly standardized formats. “To compare data, we need to have data that is comparable,” Fung and Warren write.

Just as few could have foreseen in 1995, when Wikipedia first went online, that this collaboratively produced, web-based encyclopedia would soon have hundreds of millions of unique visitors a year, no one can predict the future of Participedia, a project in its early stages of development that is intended for a much smaller audience. But Fung can say what he’d like to see happen: “I hope Participedia becomes the archive around the world for information about participatory governance so that when an organization or government agency implements something, they put their experiences into this site as part of a growing knowledge base. In time, everyone can learn from everyone else’s experiences, putting this knowledge into practice to actually make things better on the ground.”

- by Steve Nadis

“I hope Participedia becomes the archive around the world for information about participatory governance.”

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