Saturday, December 17, 2011

Crowd Science, for Improving Our Communities

“Crowd science” has entered the realms of physics, biology, classical studies, and the applied social research we do here in Saint Paul.

Crowd science? The term refers to the increasingly common practice in which people pool information which they have gathered independently, and then have access to all of the information which they and others have supplied. As a group, they can develop new understanding and produce products that they never could have produced by working in isolation. In astronomy, for example, far too many galaxies and stars exist for any one individual to observe and analyze. So, the field has shifted dramatically from individual astronomers sitting at their telescopes writing up their discoveries, to networks of astronomers who share their information in a common database which all can use.

Crowd science can involve networks comprised solely of professional scientists. It can also involve mixtures of scientists and the general public, or even just the public alone. A November 20 article in the Pioneer Press described how papyrologists (a new word for me), who had struggled for years to unlock the secrets contained in ancient papyrus documents, moved rapidly forward after devising a clever and innovative way to obtain the assistance of the public – who did not need to know classical languages – in the identification of images on the ancient texts.

Minnesota Compass illustrates these principles. No single entity can possibly gather all the data necessary for understanding communities’ quality of life with respect to health, housing, education, workforce, and other critical dimensions. However, after organizations specializing in these topics have independently gathered information, Compass can compile it and make it accessible in one common location. Moreover, Compass can and does not only summarize trends and report them in summary graphs; it also enables access to raw data, so that everyone from an academic researcher to an amateur neighborhood social scientist can play with those data from all angles and make their own discoveries.

The Minnesota Department of Health, with its Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) initiative, created a version of crowd science, in which Wilder Research energetically participated. SHIP involved the funding and development of programs throughout the state, intended to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by reducing the burden of chronic disease. The effort included creation of a system for evaluation of those programs. Information on results from each site can therefore accrete in a common data base, so that we can learn more from collaborative data sharing than we could learn from solely independent review of each site’s results. Wilder Research staff worked with a variety of sites in the metro area and in greater Minnesota, and we look forward to seeing how this crowd science endeavor can produce tangible outcomes in improving everyone’s health!

A good example of moving crowd science from information-gathering to action occurred in our recently completed planning year for the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. In that effort, we had six “solution action groups” who worked in parallel over a period of six months. Each group focused on the developmental needs of young people, in a different segment of life from birth to post secondary education. They requested and reviewed information; they brought into discussion their observations and insights based on their experience and the events in their own segments of the community. At the end of the process, we blended the independent work of the six task forces to create a cohesive whole, a community-based plan that addresses the life span of the neighborhood’s residents, from prenatal to young adulthood.

In this Information Age, knowledge constitutes power. Harnessing information to create knowledge requires bold, innovative, cost-effective approaches (just like harnessing the power of the sun to create solar power). Crowd science offers one new tool for harnessing information – enabling humans, individually and collectively, to do their part, supported by modern information technology.

In addition, crowd science offers the opportunity to reduce one type of disparity that has existed throughout history. As the Pioneer Press commentator noted, crowd science “may accomplish something else: breaking down some of the old divisions between the highly educated mandarins of the academy and the curious amateurs out in the world.” (Will the committed staff of Wilder Research – inhabitants of the arcane world of social science – lose our jobs if anyone can now draw “scientific” conclusions? Not at all. Our roles will evolve in an exhilarating way. More than ever, people who want to use information will require reliable sources of trustable information; they will need a system that makes that information easily and cheaply available (so that equal access exists and multiple perspectives can figure into interpretation of information); they will need coaching and advice on how to interpret that information; and to obtain responses to certain types of questions, they will always require help from experienced professionals.)

Crowd science: It’s modern, democratic, practical, and effective. We’re excited to play our part in many such efforts, present and future, because crowd science, coupled with collaborative action, will enable us to move our communities forward.

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