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Good for digital is good for collective intelligence

16/01/17

Analysis: Nesta report highlights familiar thinking around best practice in encouraging large groups to provide input to policy formulation

In essence collective intelligence is nothing new. It refers to the ability of large groups to think and act together in a way that produces positive solutions to problems, amounting to more than the sum of their parts.

Report cover imageBut digital technology is providing an increasing number of tools for it to be applied more widely and work more quickly. Innovation charity Nesta has made it the subject of a new report which, while not saying anything radical, could be a handy source of reference for a public authority trying to harness the approach at local, regional or national level.

Titled Governing with Collective Intelligence, it provides an introduction to how it is being used in different parts of the world and some ideas on how to make it work better.

Most initiatives fall into four broad categories: better understanding facts and experiences; better development of options and ideas; more inclusive decision-making; and better oversight of what is done.

The potential is growing with the explosion of digital tools available, working in different ways to support the effort.

Passive and active

They include those that collect passive data, such as from mobile phones for use in purposes such as urban planning and health management; or electronic payment data that can show how people interact financially with public authorities; or social media for gaging how they feel about specific issues and the decisions taken by government.

There are also more active forms of data collection that involve people making an effort to supply it, taking in the reporting tools on authority’s websites – or those of third parties – online micro-surveys, and self-assessment tools.

Collaboration systems are playing a part – with similarities to those used widely in the corporate world – open data is becoming increasingly important in enabling the public to monitor their governments, and the report even cites a project in Stockholm in which people have used the Minecraft computer game to provide input on the development of empty plots of land.

Nesta suggests that the adoption of open government strategies, with open data playing a significant role, are providing the scope for wider use of collective intelligence; and it makes some recommendations on how to apply the techniques.

This is where a lot that will be familiar comes to the fore: much that the authors point to as good practice for collective intelligence is already widely seen as good practice for digital projects.

The report calls for some thought on the ethics of any projects, with an emphasis on transparency around what data is being collected and how it is being used. It says that projects should be about solving problems, not developing a technology, and that those in charge ought to look at what tools are already available for re-use before they call in the app developers.

It is necessary to identify the right crowd, looking for people who care about the issue and ensuring that they know their contribution is valued, and keeping in mind that sometimes this will comprise employees and suppliers rather than the public.

Simplicity, skills and integration

There are also recommendations to keep things simple, ensure that people have the skills to use the digital tools, integrate the efforts with existing processes, and remember that some people are unable or unwilling to use the internet.

It all conveys an approach that, although not exactly easy to implement, suggests there should be nothing too scary in approaching collective intelligence. The thinking behind making it work aligns with the thinking behind any significant digital project, bringing together a little imagination with careful consideration of the details and a lot of common sense.

Whether the term ‘collective intelligence’ really takes off in government circles remains to be seen, and there are certain to be voices urging caution about how quickly and how far authorities should take it up. There is a sound case for arguing that plenty of decisions in government should be left to those with an in-depth knowledge of the issues.

But there is a general trend towards using digital for a more democratic approach to policy formulation – on a basic level it is already there in the online consultation process for any public authority – and the Nesta report provides a good starting point for any leaders looking to give the public more space in the policy loop.

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