Smarter Crowdsourcing for Zika

According to the World Health Organization, vectors, those living organisms that transmit diseases between humans or from animals to humans, such as mosquitos, account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases, causing more than 1 million deaths annually. Although than 2.5 billion people in over 100 countries are at risk of contracting Dengue alone, the recent linkage of the Zika virus to serious fetal brain defects — and the absence of a foolproof vaccine — has spurred global attention to the question of how to prevent infection. Global and complex public health emergencies, such as Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, and other vector-borne diseases threaten public health and well being, risk disruption to global and regional trade and economic stability, and cause widespread uncertainty and concern. People look to traditional institutions, at the local, national and international level, to act effectively and quickly eradicate problems.

But how do public officials discover the most effective and especially the most innovative actions to take to address such complex issues as Zika?

To assess what people know and what they misunderstand about Zika, typically governments conduct face-to-face or telephonic household surveys. How is a public health official to learn that mining what people post on Twitter and Facebook has been usefully done to gauge awareness of Malaria and foodborne illness in other regions?

To eliminate standing water in trash where the mosquitos that cause Zika can breed, typically governments rely on municipal trash collection services. How is a public works official in Latin America to know that in Pakistan, they introduced the use of a smart phone app to coordinate anti-Dengue measures and cases decreased from 21,000 to 258 over the one-year when the tool was introduced?

Above all, how can those responsible for managing Zika connect with those who possess the practical know how about what works, what doesn’t and how to implement innovative new approaches?

This is where Smarter Crowdsourcing comes in. The Governance Lab and the Inter-American Development Bank in partnership with the Governments of the City of Rio de Janeiro, Argentina, Colombia and Panama, are hosting a series of online conferences taking place August-October 2016 to identify those at a local and global level with relevant experience, skills, and know-how and, above all, with creative ideas for how governments and the public can fight Zika.

What is crowdsourcing?

Technology can help to accelerate communication among, and engagement with, widely dispersed experts. The process of using the Internet to solicit such help from a distributed audience or “crowd” is known as “crowdsourcing.”

Typically, crowdsourcing involves putting out an open call inviting all corners to help. Enlisting the aid of a large audience can augment the manpower and wisdom of those inside an organization and help to accomplish many tasks more quickly, such as when an organization turns to the crowd to help classify thousands of photos of space for NASA to advance our understanding of how galaxies form or to help digitize records to help a public institution quickly create a digital archive.

The open call of traditional “crowdsourcing” is not sufficient. By itself, crowdsourcing is too “hit or miss” because crowdsourcing relies on the happenstance of having the right people learn about the opportunity to participate and wanting to do so. It may not attract the people with the right know-how quickly enough. Typically, crowdsourcing works well when the need is to perform small tasks without a high degree of complexity and it almost does not matter who participates.

What is Smarter Crowdsourcing?

In the case of serious and time sensitive challenges such as mosquito borne diseases, what’s needed is to marry the agility and diversity of crowdsourcing (also called open innovation) with curation to target those with relevant know-how and bring them together in a format designed to produce effective and implementable outcomes.

This more targeted form of crowdsourcing, which quickly matches the demand for expertise to the supply of it, is what we call “smarter crowdsourcing.”

The GovLab has deep expertise with designing smarter crowdsourcing projects. We designed the first smarter crowdsourcing program for the United States Government when we convened scientific and technical experts to help the United States Patent and Trademark Office get the information it needs to make a more informed determination about pending patent applications. We married an online open call with extensive curation to attract knowledgeable participants and replicated the project in several countries, leading to a statutory change to enable citizen engagement in patent practice in the United States.

More recently, the GovLab designed and ran a smarter crowdsourcing project to help government officials in Quito, Ecuador prepare for the imminent eruption of the Cotopaxi Volcano, which was spewing ash for the first time in over a century. In that program, we worked with the municipal government and nonprofit organizations to develop a more nuanced understanding of the public health problems needing to be tackled in connection with the Volcano, including how to notify citizens without causing alarm, how to manage especially vulnerable populations and their evacuation and care, how to deal with the overwhelming demand for key health services, and how to mobilize distributed medical and other emergency personnel.

Over sixty-five experts joined two months of online discussions. In between sessions, the GovLab debriefed with government officials to discuss what we learned. This process led to the development and testing of a new citizen reporting platform as well as new mapping and sensing initiatives and an effort to create an expert network to mobilize medical personnel.

How Will Smarter Crowdsourcing: Zika Work?

This four-month initiative will target and mobilize global expertise to help governments in Latin America prepare for and respond to mosquito borne viruses and to generate innovative and implementable solutions to the challenge posed by major infectious disease outbreaks in the region, in particular those transmitted by mosquitoes. Instead of a handful of people meeting once at great expense in a conference room, we will use the Internet to make it easy for people to lend their time and know-how and deliberate with one another to identify, design and iterate upon implementable ideas that governments can use.

To participate, please request an invitation here.



Stories by The GovLab and partners on Smarter Crowdsourcing, that marries the agility and diversity of crowdsourcing with curation to target those with relevant know-how and bring them together in a format designed to produce effective and implementable outcomes.

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Beth Simone Noveck

Director @TheGovLab, Prof @NYUTandon. Former @POTUS44 US Deputy CTO White House @OpenGov Initiative. Author, Smart Citizens, Smarter State (2015).