By Christina Crawley — March 7, 2014.
Yesterday, the World Bank hosted a panel session on Maximizing the Impact of Mapping and Crowdsourcing with experts from across the globe at both the civil society and government level. As expected, everyone agreed that while citizen engagement is absolutely essential to international development efforts – whether it is to monitor local elections in Nairobi, or to decide where to build 2,000 new public toilets in Chennai – they also agreed that the challenges to effectively include this engagement are substantial.
Rob Baker, Ushahidi’s Director of Operations, kicked off the session by reminding us that crowdsourcing has in fact been around for centuries, so it’s nothing new. However, as the discussion progressed, I found it interesting that its interpretation and understanding often varies, especially as it relates to citizen engagement. If we crowdsource the water points in a slum in India, is this citizen engagement? Yes. Is this in itself enough to say citizens are involved in positive change? As Mikel Maron, co-founder of GroundTruth Initiative and president of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, pointed out: the answer is no.
This distinction may lay very closely to the challenges that institutions face as they attempt to engage citizens. As open data advocates often say, open data is not an end in itself; it is what is then done with the data that makes the difference. The same applies to crowdsourcing: while citizens proactively contribute to mapping issues areas in their communities, the need to loop back to them is essential for their contributions to be relevant. For some communities, this may be in the form of published online results that invite citizens to give further feedback. For others, where access to technology is far from a given, this may be (and as Mikel suggested) in the form of low to no-tech initiatives, such as printed maps and local face-to-face meetings that invite further discussion.
While institutions are more often than not working on large-scale projects, with very particular objectives, an additional community connector objective may be the key to rounding off the engagement loop. While engagement is certainly essential at the beginning, today’s session made me realize more than ever that it needs to continue throughout every step of the process so that it can be meaningful and relevant for institutional initiatives, and most importantly for citizens affected by them.
[Yesterday’s session was the first of a series on “How Can Technology Accelerate Citizen Engagement.” The next one is set to take place on April 9, 2014 at the World Bank in Washington, DC. Live streaming will be available. ]
Photo Credit: Map Kibera