City Crowdsourcing

City leaders have an opportunity to harness the power of crowdsourcing to cultivate resident-centered cities. If done correctly, this can help them boost civic engagement, improve infrastructure, and make their operations more efficient.

08/03/2021
5 minutes
Zuzana Pison

Every now and then,  an old concept takes on a new name and suddenly regains popularity as the new ‘hot thing’. This is also the case of crowdsourcing.

The use of crowdsourcing has been around for centuries, most likely even longer. In its ancient form, crowdsourcing exercises were run as contests. For example, the 1714 Longitude Prize organized by the British government offered a financial prize to whoever discovered a way to determine a ship’s longitude at sea.

Two centuries later, Planters Peanuts offered the first recorded logo crowdsourcing for its famous Mr. Peanut Mascot. The winner was 14-year old Antonio Gentile, proving one of the main tenets of the method – you never know where the best ideas come from.

At the moment, the approach is mainly used in the digital sector. However, it is quickly expanding into areas such as city planning to cultivate resident-centered cities.

Why Crowdsourcing Makes Sense for Cities

Crowdsourcing is the practice of getting ideas or help on a project from a large number of people, usually through the internet. The aim is to find a better or at least a cheaper solution by reaching out to more people.

Since the main municipal goal should be to serve the general public, crowdsourcing presents a useful problem-solving strategy when cities plan various initiatives. These can range from designing green urban areas to improving road infrastructure.

A key element of crowdsourcing is that it occurs at a very early stage of projects. Such an approach is not necessarily intuitive for many municipalities, considering that cities typically solicit feedback from their residents through public hearings at later stages of planning processes.

What are then the benefits of getting the residents onboard early on through crowdsourcing? If citizens get a chance to contribute to a new venture from the very beginning, this can help reduce costs for potential fixes in the future. These are often needed if the activity doesn’t reflect the needs of the local community.

Crowdsourcing enables cities to tap into the expertise of residents, helps save costs, and can even help with fundraising.

Thanks to crowdsourcing, cities can also receive extra funding. Engaging residents usually generates a lot of buzz around the new initiative. Corporate foundations or non-profits tend to be keen to support ideas backed by the locals and might therefore be willing to provide funding.

Last but not least, transparent and effective project delivery that reflects residents’ needs will enhance the city’s attractiveness as a place to live, work, and visit. This will have a positive impact on the city treasury,  benefiting from tax and fee incomes.

The Boston Case

Over the past couple of years, Boston has relied on the power of crowdsourcing for several endeavors. One of the notable efforts on this front is the BOS:311 app, launched in 2009 as the country’s first 311 app. The platform crowdsources complaints to enhance public works, with residents being able to report non-emergency issues like potholes and graffiti. The selection of services includes those issues that the city administration can fix quickly and efficiently.

To improve the quality of pavements and roads, Boston launched the Street Bump app. While driving, residents can use the platform by collecting data on road conditions. Boston then collects this information to provide the decision-makers with real-time information, which allows them to repair short-term problems and schedule future expenditures.

Boston has also asked residents directly for new project ideas through Public Space Invitational, a civic design competition launched in 2014. The contest seeks ideas to reimagine and enhance Boston’s public spaces. Ever since it started, the city has implemented 18 out of 218 designs gathered through crowdsourcing.

Making the Most of Crowdsourcing

At a basic level, gathering data from a wide sample of residents through an online survey in an early phase of a venture can be considered crowdsourcing. At a more advanced level, crowdsourcing can involve mobile applications and other advanced technologies to gather feedback from local populations.

Cities need to improve the quality of data without swamping citizens with too many applications.

Crowdsourcing enables cities to tap into the expertise of residents, helps save costs, and can even help with fundraising. However, there is a set of challenges cities need to face to reach the full potential of crowdsourcing:

  1. Cities must connect data to decision-making processes in the City Hall. Data from crowdsourcing applications should be able to help the city management make decisions about hiring, capital expenditure, and emergency preparedness decisions.
  2. Cities need to improve the quality of data without swamping citizens with too many applications. Online solutions that integrate several communication channels and tools could help solve this issue.
  3. Cities should ensure that investments in new technology are built upon one another. They should also fit within the existing practices and communication channels

If cities embrace the digital revolution, this can help them boost civic engagement, improve infrastructure, and make their operations more efficient. When used properly, crowdsourcing methods can become an integral part of this progress.

Our team at Simplicity is working on a new app feature allowing residents to send suggestions to their city hall for improvements. The others will be able to vote for the idea they like the most.  Stay tuned!