Saturday, October 9, 2010

Crowd-sourcing on development problems?

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?


Niranjan Boora said...

GHMC(Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) should institute internships for MBA or statistics students every year (by paying good stipend)to tackle some of its intricate problems. Based on the outcome of it , fine tune that solutions and make it public for crowd-sourcing to get more optimal solution.
This idea may work or not, don't know, but I feel good solutions can be seen. Right?

Jayan said...

Crowdsourcing is much more complex than traditional outsourcing. It requires much more detailed project management. lists some negative/not-so-positive aspect of crowdsourcing. The problem here is project management. How many projects do we have with clear goals, mandate and timelines?

Building MMTS lines for Hyderabad is a not crowd sourcing project. Not analysing the benefits of selecting particular route. The best we can do here is collecting feedback in a more detailed way, from a wider audience. Any serious study should be done by competent authorities and subject matter experts. Crowd can put in its opinion.

Nowadays, most of the draft proposals invite feedback from public. I am not clear how the feedback is consolidated and a decision is taken.

(On Niranjan's comment - GHMC does not have money to repair bad road or broken toilet in public school.. You probably meant "the gove".. We are spending quite lot of money on IIT/IIM etc, and it is time they take up useful projects.. instead of analysing how to improve queue system in Tirumala/Guruvayoor temples)

gulzar said...

couple of things that can be developed on crowd-sourcing basis that comes to mind immediately

1. designing of awareness creation campaign materials for various social issues.

2. tender documents for innovative activities - say competitive bidding to select a consultant for accessing carbon credits or third party assessment of learning outcomes.