Innovations Pre-Granting: Prioritizing Bottom-Up Participation

Using Distributed Participants to Improve Agility and Impact

This is the third of three posts in a series focusing on innovations pre-granting. Other series in the publication look at specific types of innovations during and after the awarding process. Our introduction to the publication explains the importance of open grantmaking innovations and why they matter for improving the legitimacy and effectiveness of grant-based public investments. Head back to the table of contents for an at-a-glance look at the whole publication.

Summary: From environmental monitoring to collaborative art spaces, social innovation projects are increasingly harnessing the power and creativity of bottom-up participation. In order to break out of the traditional top-down approach to solving public problems, government agencies may consider making bottom-up participation (e.g. a scientist engaging non-professionals in data gathering) a condition of funding in some instances.

As economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in 1945, “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form.”[v] Networks enable institutions of all types to quickly and efficiently access the wealth of knowledge, creativity, insight, and enthusiasm that is out there in the wider society. This is perhaps nowhere more evidenced than when researchers find ways to tap into broad networks of non-professional contributors.

There are estimated to be one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe, each containing billions of stars. For many years, deep-view telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope have recorded images of the Milky Way and other galaxies to help us understand how galaxies form. The volume of data that has resulted is enormous. After more than 20 years in orbit, Hubble alone has recorded over one million data points. In 2007, to begin to translate this raw information into useful scientific knowledge, the scientists at NASA launched Zooniverse, turning to “citizen scientists” — volunteer hobbyists, amateur science buffs, and space enthusiasts — to classify the images according to their shape: elliptical, spiral, lenticular, irregular. This information, in turn, illuminates the age of the galaxy.

In contrast to Zooniverse, where amateurs assist professional scientists, Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) dubs itself a “Civic Science” project. Public Lab views citizens not as mere amanuenses, but as field scientists fully capable in their own right. In one project, it provides tools to help people make maps and aerial images of environmental conditions using balloons and kites. These sorts of “grassroots mapping” projects have been used to contest official maps. In 2010, for instance, members of an informal settlement in Lima, Peru, developed maps of their community as evidence of their habitation. On the Gulf Coast of the United States, locally-produced maps of oil spillage are being used to document damage that is underreported by company or government officials.

Similarly, Ureport, an SMS reporting tool, mobilized 300,000 volunteers across Uganda to spot the problem of banana bacterial wilt, a scourge affecting the country’s most important crop. Within five days of the first text message going out, 190,000 Ugandans had gotten notice of the disease and how to save bananas on their farms. In recognition of the potential of this sort of approach, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has also experimented with awarding grants for citizen science projects such as community-led air and water monitoring initiatives.

The integration of community participation into grantees’ work product has not been limited to scientific research. Through its Exploring Engagement Fund, the California-based James Irvine Foundation awards funds to community arts initiatives that “aim to engage new and diverse populations by adding active participation opportunities for participants and/or incorporating the use of nontraditional arts spaces.” This fund provides an example of how specific project criteria can help grant dollars go beyond the scope of a given project or organization, helping build both capacity and community that could outlast the grant itself.

These examples suggest not only a future in which more grants might be awarded to non-professionals, but also the possibility of changing grant policy to require engagement with citizen-amateurs as a condition of funding. It is conceivable to imagine making citizen engagement — including involving citizens in measuring, monitoring, and policing on-the-ground conditions such as environmental indicators, prices, or when and where services have or have not been delivered — a precondition or at least a plus point for successful proposals in a variety of contexts. Using amateur participants to engage in distributed “sensing” of conditions is already improving feedback loops in scientific context, and could very well be fruitfully incorporated into grantmaking more systematically.

Why Do It:

  • Ear to the ground: Bottom-up participation creates an important channel for people to stay in close touch with needs, ideas, and views of the communities they serve. This, in turn, makes it less likely that publicly-funded projects will be received as white elephants.
  • Efficiency: For projects requiring monitoring or mapping over a vast expanse of space or long period of time, tight government budgets can severely limit the amount of ground that can be covered. Making crowds an integral part of grantee work (e.g. citizen scientists helping to spot an invasive species or signs of a plant disease) can maximize the bang for the buck that government projects generate.

Why Not Do It:

  • Expertise: Highly-technical projects requiring all participants to have a particular skill-set may not be amenable to widespread bottom-up participation.
  • Community-building is hard: The skills needed to achieve the goals of the grant might not be commensurate with the skills needed to organize and maintain a community of participants.

The next post, which begins our series on innovations in the judging and awarding of grants, will be available on Thursday, January 14th. Head back to the table of contents for an at-a-glance look at the whole publication.