In this age of crowd-sourcing, it is indeed surprising that development policy making has not attracted the attention of the global commons. Surely addressing development problems like, say, preparation of Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) and Master Plans, is both more important and more challenging and more satisfying than solving mathematical puzzles!
Is it a case of questions not being appropriately formulated and raised in the most inclusive forums? In other words, a classic case of supply and demand not matching due to the considerable search and co-ordination costs faced by all sides.
There is no shortage of development problems, both specific (to an area or sector) and generic. There are also the expanding numbers of non-profit organizations and even individuals (who see it as a hobby) in search of such problems and with a deep urge to explore solutions to them. Further, the internet (and the different media of communication that utilize it) offers an excellent platform that can facilitate the matching of supply and demand. In fact, even the most daunting of development problems, if appropriately packaged, can potentially attract the sharpest of minds to work on it. And all that for free!
Here is one example of how this supply-demand matching can be achieved. Consider the challenge faced by a backward state (or even a district) that wants to develop a perspective plan for developing a connecting road network with the resources that would be available under the Prime Minister's Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) for the next three years. The task here is to choose from among the multiplicity of possible road network routes, so as to optimize on overall development outcomes.
The objective of any newly formed road network would be to maximize linkages with population centers and areas which are both established or also have potential for new industrial and other economic activity. In other words, the aims is to identify road alignments, the completion of which generates the greatest net economic return.
The single biggest constraint faced by the road planner is scarcity of resources, given the numerous competing and similarly important claims. Other constraints include land acquisition costs, availability of vacant government lands (for laying roads) etc. The most optimal road network route is also a function of variables like coverage of the largest numbers of population centers, potential industrial (or resource rich areas) areas, and linkages with institutions like tertiary hospitals, colleges/universities, government offices and so on.
In many respects, stripped off all its contextual needs, this is remarkably similar to standard optimization problems with certain pre-defined constraints and variables. And given the complexity of these socio-economic contexts - they can be among the most challenging of such problems - it is only natural that they become irresistible attractions for the breed of mathematicians for whom solving such problems is a hobby.
I agree that it would be impossible to accurately capture all the intangible development imperatives and related variables in any such quantitative model. But then, they form a surely better standard (than prevailing ones) for evaluating from among competing alternative routes. In fact, there is a much greater likelihood of a more socio-politically efficient outcome, if these choices (and not those picked randomly without any objective basis) are then subjected to the ultimate political test before the final choice is exercised.
The aforementioned is only an illustrative example. There are numerous other issues and problems facing development administrators at the cutting edge, which can be more efficiently addressed by a crowd-sourced approach. They range from the simplest like financial, material, and manpower requirements to awareness creation (say development of posters and other campaign material) on public issues, help in introducing new technology interventions, partnership on implementation of specific solutions to development problems, and so on.
In the circumstances, for those non-profit organizations searching for an idea to fund, how about development of a portal that provides a platform for matching sellers (say, government organizations and officials) of development problems and buyers (geeks and experts and non-profit organizations) with an interest/hobby in solving them?