2 min read

How Crowdsourcing Helps Governments Solve Big Problems

By govpilot

When we talk about crowdsourcing it can be tempting to place it in the box of new technology along with social media, apps, and mobile. But governments have been turning to large groups of people to solicit input, generate ideas, and solve problems for centuries.

The National Weather Service, for example, was actually born out of a crowdsourcing project spearheaded by the Smithsonian Institution about 150 years ago. They enlisted volunteers from across the country to submit their own weather observations – via the groundbreaking new technology of the telegraph.

Crowdsourcing may not be a new idea, but technological advances have made it a more viable solution than ever before. Local governments are turning to their citizens to brainstorm names for new parks and solutions for local problems. They’re using 311 apps to gather crowdsourced data on traffic patterns, potholes, and crime. They’re using crowdsourcing to break massive tasks like indexing digital documents down into manageable chunks that can be handled by digital volunteers.

Governments CAN source….

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Big civic challenges require out-of-the-box creativity. And one of the best ways to get out of that box is to source your ideas from as many people as possible.

NASA has used competitions to great effect, most recently soliciting ideas for airlock hatches and heat shield technology. Other agencies use Challenge.gov to list prize competition that are open to the public. As of mid-2015, approximately 70 federal agencies had posted around 400 competitions in the site’s five-year history, and 50,000 “solvers” had submitted responses, garnering over $90 million in prizes. InnoCentive is another site being used by federal agencies (and private companies) to post competitions.

On a more local level, cities, counties, and states have hosted design competitions, and actively solicited public ideas to deal with environmental, social, and infrastructure challenges.


When faced with a big decision, government organizations need to tap into the knowledge of people who know the problem intimately and are affected by it – or face implementing the wrong solution that doesn’t serve constituents. Town hall meetings used to be the tried and true way to gather citizen input before making a decision. These days, of course, technology has made that job easier.

In Chicago, officials have created a dedicated website to collect input. The website, CHIdeas.org, features a round of discussion topics ranging from minimum wage to emergency preparedness, where people can leave their comments and suggestions. After the time period for discussion was closed, community leaders began sifting through to find the best ideas and implement them.

As well as the soliciting brand-new ideas with open questions, local governments can also use crowdsourcing to rank existing ideas. A simple poll on a website or social media can allow citizens to rank their priorities for their preference for a certain solution. This input not only gives citizens buy-in to government decisions, it allows government officials to make better decisions informed by the insights of people most affected by them.


With new mobile technology and apps, governments can now use everyday citizens as their eyes and ears to collect information on a whole range of topics. From submitting whale sightings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to posting airport checkpoint wait times on the My TSA app, government agencies are increasingly collecting information via mobile devices from the public.

This gives agencies the ability to conduct widespread research cost-effectively, and it’s catching on. This last year, the White House released a series of tools and innovation methods, called the “Open Innovation Toolkit”, to help spur the development of these technologies.

Helping hands

Crowdsourced labor is a good way to break down a huge task into something more manageable. The National Archives frequently uses crowdsourced labor to do everything from transcribing video captions on historic films to indexing census data. Amateur historians are also volunteering their time to search for the Declaration of Sentiments, the foundational document for women’s rights drafted in Seneca Falls, New York that has been missing for decades.

Local governments can use crowdsourced labor to gather local historical documents, index resources, and process datasets that aren’t computer readable.

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Tags: Constituent Engagement