How Crowdsourcing Technology can Make Schools Safer

Can crowdsourcing technology make schools safer? Absolutely, and there are three reasons you should put it to use at your school. But before I explain, you need to know about The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. This bestselling business book was the inspiration for a new technology that “aggregates opinions” and makes it possible to harness the collective wisdom of your crowd.

A review from Publisher’s Weekly on Amazon summarizes the book’s focus nicely:

While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” … If four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s “collective intelligence” will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don’t know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. “Wise crowds” need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are “smarter” than if a single expert had been in charge.

So, how does leveraging the wisdom of the crowd make schools safer? Typically school districts rely upon experts to advise them on any number of issues and challenges. I’m not here to knock experts; they have an important role to play, as you will see in a moment. But in the context of school safety there are numerous potential hazards and safety threats, more than any one expert is likely to have the background to address.

So why not turn those people in your district who “may not know all of the facts” relative to school safety? It’s counter-intuitive, but this is an ideal scenario to involve your crowd. (Your crowd, of course, is your stakeholders. They are the teachers, administrators, support staff, school bus drivers, the ladies who work in the school cafeteria, etc.)

Now, let me introduce you to Ron Stephens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center. The NSSC has created a set of guidelines and best practices, based upon thousands of school safety site assessments his non-profit organization has conducted over the years. His guidelines take an “All Hazards” approach and cover a wide spectrum of potential threats, issues, and concerns.

We’ve taken Dr. Stephen’s guidelines and best practices and put them into an online review application that was built to aggregate, display, and even mine the collective wisdom of a group­­–your stakeholders. We call it the School Safety Review. Here’s how it works:

1. Using a secure URL, school districts invite numerous stakeholders to participate in this 30-minute online review. These stakeholders are NOT safety experts. These folks will not likely “know all the facts.” But they do indeed represent “diversity of opinion” and “independence from one another.” The technology also “decentralizes” them in that it provides a private portal for them to complete an anonymous review. By contrast, the results would be much different if the principal asked everyone to an all school staff meeting to “discuss” the very same issues.

2. Reviewers are asked to gauge their level of confidence that their school is following the guidelines and best practices from the National School Safety Center. Keep in mind, the review is not designed to make a school look bad. It simply uses a nationally recognized model and asks stakeholders to think about their own safety plans and policies in a particular context.

3. When the review period is over, usually about two weeks, the results are available to designated school administrators in the form of VoiceMaps(™). One Superintendent likened the VoiceMap to a CAT Scan for his school district. That’s a good analogy because the VoiceMap doesn’t solve safety issues by itself, but it does highlight areas of “high confidence” … meaning that things are operating adequately. It also highlights potential safety gaps and areas of concern, issues that may require training, revisions to existing plans, or an expert to take a closer look. Thus, the School Safety Review is a diagnostic tool.

So, why should a school district put the School Safety Review technology to use with their stakeholders?

Three reasons:

1. It’s the easiest and most cost-effective first step that any district can take. You can literally launch it next week and have results in hand a couple of weeks later. Few things happen that fast in the K12 world. But when it comes to school safety, why wait.

2. It lets everyone know that your district cares about school safety because it is a tangible demonstration to parents, teachers, staff, and the community at large.

3. The collective wisdom of a district’s stakeholders will be smarter than any one expert. Besides, save the experts to help address the data points derived from the School Safety Review.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure. My company has an obvious commercial interest in the School Safety Review. It’s one of several cloud-based applications that utilize our crowd-sourcing technology, a technology we’ve invested several years and lots of time ideating, validating, and executing.

However, it’s not all about the dollars. We are committed to school safety for two important reasons. Reason #1: At our small company, we have a total of 38 children that make up the great families of our employees. We think about their safety every day. Reason #2: If schools are not safe places to learn, work, and play, our other K12 products will have limited value. We decided as a company that this product would be an ideal first offering for the K12 market.

We’re proud of the fact that the School Safety Review has been endorsed by the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) and the AASA (The School Superintendents Association). These organizations have seen our technology and our commitment to bringing innovative products to the K12 arena. They’re great partners.

As one superintendent said of the School Safety Review at the AASA’s annual meeting in Phoenix last month, “This may be the safest decision I could make today.”

I couldn’t agree more.