Getting people to do stuff

I was prompted to write about this by a twitter exchange this morning. Sophia Looney from Lambeth Council was wondering about getting some help around data visualisation for reporting. “Heh” I chuckled to myself, “you mean the kind of thing the Audit Commission used to do so well before it let its brightest creative minds drift away…?”

But bitter cynicism aside, the question is: where are the data viz people who might be willing to contribute to something like this? How could the offer be made more attractive? Who’s already doing something or something closely related? I’m out of the loop on so much of this – my instincts are to ask Emma Mulqueeny, Thayer Prime, Paul Clarke, Dominic Campbell, Robert Brook.

My (probably ignorant, please put me straight) prejudice is that there are specialists giving time to being clever in the storage layer and the analysis layer, but they are having to act as talented amateurs in the presentation layer and that the whole thing is being led from a technical point of view. I hope this isn’t true any more and I’m just out of date, but I think there’s more value to be found in working out what stories local and central government want to tell and then seeing how they can be told with interesting combinations of open data. Regardless of the technology invoived, what is the story you want to tell and how can it be supported by data?

It may be that there’s a project to run at #C4CC on this – bringing together council performance & policy people with Higher Ed data viz folk like this chap and the open data crowd. I’m happy to facilitate something, let me know.

More generally, it got me thinking about how to articulate what I think is important to remember about crowdsourcing and getting people to do stuff… for free.

There’s a common theme in articles about the web: “There are people out there, doing stuff… for free!” Now, mostly this is in the context of someone writing or producing a mainstream media piece that’s actually saying “There are people out there doing what I trained for years to do and get paid moderately well for, but they do it for free – how long will it be before the people who pay me decide they can get a better deal elsewhere?” or for the less self-aware “Ha ha! Look at those suckers! They do all this, for nothing!”

I’ve seen many, many conference presentations, pointing to crowdsourcing such as Wikipedia and saying “Look, there are people out there doing stuff… for free! Maybe you could do something like this, and massively reduce your costs” Well, maybe, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

I want to add that we don’t know much really about how the social and economic dynamics of the web work. It’s still relatively new and even those of us who’ve been immersed in it for more than 10 years would be wise to acknowledge from time to time that it’s a vastly complex and always evolving subject. So when you hear anyone say “this is the way the web works” take it with a pinch of salt and substitute with “this is a way that I think the web works”

So this is my favourite theory about crowdsourcing. It’s not about complete selflessness, the people who contribute are not just giving stuff away, they are building something together. They’re making stone soup. To put it in more economic terms it’s the demand-side supplying itself (I first heard this from Doc Searls at LesBlogs in 2005) Why do they do it?

Because, when you want something done and when you have a way of connecting with a very large and diverse group of people it’s far easier and quicker to do it yourselves than it is to wait for a corporation or government to do it for you.

Key phrase: “when you want something done”. If I want something done, and I think I have something to offer, and I think it’s interesting, and I think there are enough other people who are going to contribute similarly, and I think our joint effort is safe from short-sighted people who might exploit it, then I might chuck something in the pot. A lot of ifs in that sentence.

The other bit that often gets ignored is that it does cost something. It’s tempting to think that it all comes for free, because the contributors are giving of themselves freely. Again, not quite. Yes, it costs massively less, but someone has to pay for whatever infrastructure is required for the job. They may be small costs and a long way away, but they are there.

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