How do we get the crowd-sorcerers and the muggles to work together?

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Humanitarian aid is not a standard topic for the PSD Blog, but I ran across a post recently on the disaster in Haiti that cuts across a lot of themes. Over at iRevolution, Patrick Philip Meier discusses the tension between those who helped crowdsource information related to the disaster -- what he calls the crowd-sorcerers -- and the formal humanitarian aid organizations -- playfully called "muggles". The view of the muggles, according to Meier:

Unless there are field personnel providing “ground truth” data, consumers will never have reliable information upon which to build decision support products. Crowdsourcing may be a quick way to get a message out, but it is not good information unless there is on-the-ground verification going on.

Having set up his target, Meier knocks it down:

Not sure how you’d interpret these words but what they say to me is this: unless information comes from official field personnel, i.e., Muggles, it’s absolutely useless and should be dumped in the trash. I personally find that somewhat… is colonial too provocative?

Crisis information that was crowdsourced using the distributed short code 4636 in Haiti helped save hundreds of lives according to the Marine Corps. The vast majority of this information could not be verified and yet both the Marine Corps and Coast Guard used this as one of their feeds while FEMA encouraged the crowd-sorcerers to continue mapping, calling the crisis map of Haiti the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of information available to Muggles.

The debate between the "muggles" and the "crowd-sorcerers" extends well beyond the field of humanitarian aid. Social media guru Clay Shirky tries to get at this issue when he argues that we have entered an era where people can organize without organizations. While I agree with Shirky that the transaction costs around organizing have been dramatically lowered in many cases, he overextends the argument when he says that organizations will disappear altogether. 

Instead, organizations -- humanitarian aid organizations, multilateral development banks -- will need to figure out ways to work productively with the crowd-sorcerers. As far as the World Bank is concerned, the launch of the Open Data Initiative and the adoption of a new Access to Information Policy are both steps in the right direction. These will help open up the Bank's knowledge to the crowd-sorcerers out there. The next step is to figure out ways to help Bank staff take advantage of the insights that the crowd-sorcerers draw from this information.

Update: Paul Currion over at posts an exasperated rebuttal to Meier's post. On crowdsourcing, Currion concludes:

"Despite what some Muggles may think, crowdsourcing is not actually magic. It’s just a methodology like any other, with advantages and disadvantages."

That’s exactly what “Muggles” think. If they’re like me, they think that the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages, and that crowdsourcing and disaster response are not a good fit. Even the fiercest advocates of crowdsourcing don’t claim that crowdsourcing is good for everything, and I think that humanitarian response is one of those things that it isn’t good for. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main one is this:

Crowdsourcing should not form part of our disaster response plans because there are no guarantees that a crowd is going to show up. Crowdsourcing is no different from any other form of volunteer effort, and the reason why we have professional aid workers now is because, while volunteers are important, you can’t afford to make them the backbone of the operation. The technology is there and the support is welcome, but this is not the future of aid work.

I know too little about humanitarian aid to judge the relative merits of these arguments, but I still stand by my contention that there are many areas of development where the crowd-sorcerers and the muggles can work together fruitfully. I suspect there may be other spaces within the aid world where it will be easier to work out a modus vivendi.

(Thanks to Giulio Quaggiotto for pointing me to the post.)


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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