Crowdsourcing for social service

A social services-oriented program sponsored by Pepsi makes blogger Steve Kelman wonder about the potential role of crowdsourcing in government.

Last week I blogged about crowdsourcing. Maybe some blog readers have heard ads for an initiative Pepsi is sponsoring called the PepsiRefresh Project. Making use of the Internet-age double meaning of the word "refresh" -- both for the kind of refreshment Pepsi hopes to provide thirsty people and the "refresh" command on the Internet suggesting renewal and starting over -- Pepsi is pledging to provide $1.3 million a month in grants (provided in sums of $5K, $25K, $50K, and $250K) to self-nominated social service ideas for making a better world that get the most votes from people visiting the project website.

I first came across this approach about a year ago, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation developed a list of about 15 or so historic renovation projects for sites in the Boston area, invited the public to vote via a website for their top priority, and pledged to provide a grant to the winning project. (I am assuming Boston wasn't the only city where this was done.)

I checked out the PepsiRefresh website, and actually voted for an idea. (You need to register in order to vote, which takes about two minutes.) For February, there are about 800 ideas that have been nominated in different categories (such as health, arts and culture and neighborhoods).

Some come from very established organizations, such as Teach for America and the American Legion (who in effect are asking for grants from Pepsi for their existing programs). But others are local grassroots initiatives coming from individuals or small groups, such as the Quad Cities Animal Welfare Center (in Iowa), which is seeking $5,000 to get volunteers to help elderly people take care of their pets -- this is the one I voted for! -- and a schoolteacher seeking $250,000 for an initiative to keep kids out of gangs in Kokomo, Indiana.

The site is quite easy to navigate, and tells visitors what the most-popular ideas are in different categories, as well as linking to lower-ranked ideas in similar areas to encourage visitors to click around.

It's a fascinating example of crowdsourcing. Obviously, it provides a low-cost way to learn what "the crowd" thinks. But it has another virtue as well. It provides a way to educate and inspire the people who visit the site about public service initiatives. Maybe it can give people ideas about specific projects they might want to try themselves. More generally -- with the help of Pepsi's campaign to publicize the initiative -- it can help develop buzz, especially among young people, about service.

It is hard to imagine this approach being applied directly in government, as a way to determine, at a micro level, priorities for spending taxpayer funds. Among other things, worries about organized voting campaigns (of the sort Jonathan Zittrain was worried about in the Kennedy School presentation that I discussed in the blog last week) would prohibit this method from determining priorities for spending money. But clearly there must be ways for federal agencies to use this approach in order to gather information as part of a decision-making process, as well as to educate citizens about real-life prioritizations that agencies need to deal with all the time. One could imagine the National Park Service explaining various competing maintenance or other projects, and soliciting public feedback. One might even do like Pepsi, and ask visitors at each park to nominate ideas for park improvements, of which the most-promising could be costed out and then voted on.

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