Anil Dash sums up the power of crowdsourcing with a simple question he put to his Twitter feed a few months back. It was time for a new cell phone, he announced. What should he get?
"Somebody I don't even really know said, 'Here's a list of the most popular handsets in America ranked by how much radiation they put out,'" Dash recalled.
Now he had an info stream he hadn't even thought to consider. And if social media could better inform his relatively small cell phone conundrum, imagine what it could do for the big-picture questions we really want to get right — the questions government answers on behalf of us all.
"We have this disconnect where, as a private citizen, I can ask for my friends' opinions on something on Twitter or Facebook," Dash said. "But yet, someone can be making decisions that affect all of us" — a government official, that is — "but not have that ability."
At least where those questions intersect with science and technology, Dash has been trying to outfit the government with that same power. He directs the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Expert Labs project, which aims to connect policymakers with the wisdom outside their institutions.
The bureaucrats, Dash has found, have been eager for the exchange, to get new ideas from beyond the usual suspects and vested interests. Surprisingly, the skepticism has come from the other side: Citizens weary of traditional government feedback loops often question if anyone will honestly weigh their input.
Generic firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail addresses tend to turn people off. And while the Obama administration has embraced "open government" on the Web, much of it has taken the form, Dash jokes, of "come to, say, the State Department website and tell us about how the State Department could run better."
"One of the things we found early on is that there's not a lot of random passerby traffic on most dot-gov sites, even whitehouse.gov," he said. "People go there for very specific reasons. They're not looking to answer a question."
Instead, Expert Labs has proposed government take its queries to where the people are already talking — on Facebook and Twitter, for starters. Expert Labs is working with an open-source application called ThinkTank that allows people to submit a question across multiple platforms and organize the responses in a single location.
On its first project, just completed last week, Expert Labs worked with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has been trying to get the public to offer up ideas for the "grand challenges" American science should tackle in the coming century.
"The next Apollo program or human genome project?" the White House asked on Twitter.
Many people took that to be a choice between two options, not an open-ended call for new ideas. Question wording, it turns out, becomes a fine art in 140 characters.
Expert Labs is trying not just to promote government crowdsourcing, but to study the best ways to make it useful. How do you craft a clear-eyed two-line prompt that will have the broadest impact? What time should you post Facebook status updates to yield the most responses? And once people have interacted, how do you filter out the noise and repeat submissions?
The abbreviated format of social media that makes it easy to mass-communicate also puts constraints on how much you can ask and how in-depth others can respond. Next time, Dash said, Expert Labs will encourage people to include links.
On a first attempt, though, the "grand challenges" exercise was pretty successful. The White House held a 48-hour social-media blitz on April 12-14, and 2,000 people responded via Facebook and Twitter with suggestions that ranged from improving early earthquake detection to designing a handheld device that could diagnose traumatic brain injury on the football or battlefield.
Expert Labs last week released all of the responses in one spreadsheet, data it's hoping open-source developers will now tinker with. Within the next month, Dash will also be releasing a second analysis detailing what Expert Labs learned from the process of collecting that data.
Later this summer, the labs will take up a second project with a government agency, and by the end of the summer, it hopes to have a refined ThinkTank application in the federal application store for any agency to use.
"People still think social networks are purely for personal use, that it's a lot of kind of relatively meaningless dialogue and conversation," Dash said. "Just educating people about the potential of these networks has been a big part of our focus."