Democracy might be the original crowdsourcing platform. But modern governments are responsible for far more than just holding elections; they must understand and be responsive to conditions on the ground that are often difficult to see from the center of the bureaucracy. As a result, crowdsourcing is increasingly becoming a standard tool for governments far beyond the ballot box—to understand their constituents, engage with citizens, and solve problems.
Some government crowdsourcing projects draw on volunteers, such as the Mapaton project in Mexico City which used a gamified Android app for participants to show their movements on the city’s unregulated bus routes. Others rely on crowdsourcing as a way to show engagement, like the recent NYC Ferry naming contest among students, which sought to avoid some of the pitfalls that Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council faced when its crowdsourced naming effort produced the winner “Boaty McBoatface.”
Premise, a startup with backing from Google Ventures, Andreesen Horowitz, and Social Capital, uses crowd sourcing to turn diffuse data points into valuable information and solve problems. The company uses a paid community of contributors to gather information about their communities—from taking photos of buildings to completing surveys about certain issues—in response to challenges from governments, NGOs, and companies. The company then applies machine learning and data science techniques to process and understand that data.
For example, Premise’s Food Staples Index in Brazil uses crowd-sourced data on local prices to understand market conditions, enabling the company to get a more granular view of inflation up to 25 days ahead of official reports. The company publishes similar indices for five countries via the Bloomberg terminal, speeding the market’s access to reliable consumer financial data on the ground in both emerging and developed markets.
By paying users 8 to 10 cents a picture, Premise solves one of the core problems of many crowdsourcing platforms—building and maintaining user interest. With over 80,000 users in 30 countries, there is significant interest. The company adds value in its survey design, aggregation, analysis, and packaging of the data, so it can command subscription prices from its clients of $1,500 to $15,000 per month, more than covering the cost of the payments to contributors. This model works particularly well in regions where the payments can presumably be the lowest such as the company’s efforts with the World Bank in developing countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria to create usable data that expand upon official government sources.
As Premise seeks to expand its work with governments, it will have to grapple with the increasing debate over data privacy, as well as the more publicly accountable nature of working with governments than the private sector. What will happen when the government is accused of sending spies into local businesses to photograph their goods? How will citizens react when they find that their neighbors are being paid by the government to rate local services, but they are not? How can modern data science approaches interact with the sometimes arcane approaches codified in law? Fairness and security, as well as the many obscure bits of red tape that can hamper government efficiency, are not necessarily prime concerns for companies, but will play a role in Premise’s ability to grow its work with government.
 Katie Rogers, “Boaty McBoatface: What You Get When You Let the Internet Decide,” New York Times, March 21, 2016, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/europe/boaty-mcboatface-what-you-get-when-you-let-the-internet-decide.html
 Jason Shueh, “Under new CEO, Premise brings crowdsourced research to government,” State Scoop, Feb 7, 2018, accessed March 26, 2018, https://statescoop.com/under-new-ceo-premise-brings-crowdsourced-research-to-government
 Premise, “Pioneering a Set of Alternative Economic Indicators in Global Markets,” accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.premise.com/case-study-brazil/
 Quentin Hardy, “Big Data’s Little Brother,” New York Times, Nov 10, 2013, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/11/technology/gathering-more-data-faster-to-produce-more-up-to-date-information.html
 Michael J. de la Merced, “Lawrence Summers to Join Board of ‘Hyperdata’ Start-Up,” New York Times, July 15, 2015, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/16/business/dealbook/lawrence-summers-to-join-board-of-hyperdata-start-up.html