Wikipedia founder to open up UK government
Jimmy Wales, the man behind Wikipedia, has shown that a million amateur bright sparks can offer at least as much illumination as one lone expert. Now he aims to apply the same idea to politics.
Three hundred years ago, sailors were often lost at sea. From the rolling deck of a ship, it was impossible to make the complex astronomical observations required to show where on the planet they were. So the British government offered a reward: £20,000 for anybody who could find a solution.
This is the first recorded attempt to unlock the brilliance of the masses, a technique that is now known as ‘crowdsourcing.’ It was a spectacular success, eliciting hundreds of responses. Among them was John Harrison’s chronometer – an unprecedentedly precise clock that allowed sailors to work out their location by comparing the time to the position of the sun. Harrison collected the prize, and sailing became a safer business.
Nowadays, nobody is more associated with crowdsourcing than Jimmy Wales. He founded Wikipedia, a collaborative encyclopedia to which anybody can contribute their knowledge and expertise and now the world’s sixth most visited website.
This week Wales has been appointed to advise the UK government on how to use technology in policy making. With his help, ministers hope to harness the ingenuity of the entire British population.
There are many proposals for helping achieve this. Already last year the public were called on to identify examples of needless bureaucracy that could be ditched; such initiatives may become common. Citizens, for instance, might be invited to use government statistics to discover new ways of looking at society. Policy proposals could be published for open discussion, with the public suggesting and voting on changes.
Schemes like this rely on an idea called ‘the wisdom of crowds.’ Huge and diverse groups without specialist knowledge, says the theory, can sometimes offer more accurate insights than any individual expert. The phenomenon was first observed in 1906 at a country fair, when a famous statistician came across a competition to guess the weight of an ox. When he calculated the average of all the guesses, he was astounded by its accuracy – the crowd’s estimate was better than that of any individual.
Following the crowd
Some believe that crowdsourcing could revolutionise the way we are governed. Freeing up more data for public analysis would, as one enthusiast put it, ‘break the monopoly of the state’ over information. People would be empowered, while policies would benefit from the expertise of millions of minds. This, they say, is democracy at its finest.
It’s a nice idea, say sceptics, but making policy is complicated and requires specific expertise. Opening up the process would just invite a flood of ill-informed and unworkable suggestions. Democracy is fine as it is, they say – leave the business of government to the experts.
- Can Wikipedia be trusted?
- Should ordinary people have more of a role in government, or is this just a recipe for chaos?
- Put the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ hypothesis to the test! Fill a jar with beads and get everybody in the class to guess how many there are – make sure there’s no co-operation. Then find the average of all the guesses and see how close you came...
- Think of a problem that could be solved using crowdsourcing. Design a campaign encouraging people to chip in.
Some People Say...
“Anyone who listens to the mob is a fool.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So literally anybody might soon be allowed to suggest a government policy?
- Perhaps, yes – but there’s no guarantee you’ll be listened to. Governments are not likely to give up much of the actual decision-making power – they are just trying to channel the expert advice of their citizens. It’s not all one-way though. The government collects a lot of data, such as community crime statistics, that ordinary people might find useful.
- How else could crowdsourcing be useful?
- It’s not just politics. Conservationists use crowdsourcing to analyse satellite imagery and spot rain forest destruction; astronomers have launched a project to get ordinary people to discover and classify distant galaxies. There are thousands of projects spanning every area of life, and most of them are easy to get involved in.
- The maritime chronometer, built by a Yorkshire carpenter, was the first portable and accurate clock. Since the sun travels west, sailors could use the chronometer to determine their east-to-west location. As well as making overseas travel easier, it also allowed people on shore to keep more precise track of time. Some say that this made it one of the most important discoveries in history.
- Policy making
- Most governments nowadays try to base their policies on evidence – or at least to gather evidence to support their policies. Usually only selected advisers or experts are asked to gather data and make recommendations – crowdsourcing would broaden this process radically.
- In fact, calling Francis Galton just a ‘statistician’ does him a disservice. He did make some very important discoveries in statistics, but he found time to contribute to a huge array of other fields as well. Among other things, Galton created the first scientific intelligence tests, invented the weather map and devised an early method for classifying finger prints.