The world is (still) a mess. Can collective intelligence sort it?
That was the provocative question guiding a panel discussion at Nesta’s 21st Century Common Sense series last week. My short answer to that question is “It depends” and “Not on its own.”
The more serious and longer version of the answer draws on my past experience at the Rockefeller Foundation, where my team and I were tasked with producing research to help the foundation decide where to allocate grant money. This work included answering questions such as: How many children are suffering from micronutrient deficiencies? Where are these children located? What type of food could help address this problem?
In trying to come up with responses we encountered three problems:
- The available information was old, sometimes dating back 10 years. The average age was probably 5 years.
- The information was incomplete and/or not representative, i.e. only covered a small sample of the population. We often relied on case studies that covered different aspects of the problem, with findings that were not necessarily comparable. We also found that statistics for urban areas were often nothing more than disaggregated national data by capita, masking important differences between urban and rural areas.
- The information simply didn’t exist.
At the same time as we were conducting these research projects, I remember reading an article in the Economist on the hard liquor market in East Africa and being truly frustrated because we obviously had more information on the consumption of moonshine and the potential to sell branded whiskey than we had on the nutritional deficits of children.
That experience and others like it are why two years ago, I took on my current role as the head of the Cloudera Foundation, a foundation whose mission is to enable the use of data, data analytics and machine learning to have a positive impact on people’s lives and the planet.
I believe in the increasing availability of data and our improving analytical capabilities not as a simple solution to complex societal problems, but as a powerful tool that can help us make headway on longstanding challenges. And I am encouraged by the use of unconventional sources to accelerate this progress, such as how:
- IoT helps us monitor the status of critical water pump stations in arid areas,
- Mobile phone data can update and fill gaps in census information, and
- Satellite information provides insights on whether development interventions were successful in conflict zones.
Use case like these are beginning to address my three aforementioned problems with information — outdated, incomplete, nonexistent.
You may have noticed that so far I have used the term “data” — not the term “collective intelligence.” To realize the potential of data we humans need to determine the purpose of use, i.e. what question do we want to answer, how and why.
The use of data and taking action on the resulting insights requires our collective intelligence to reflect our values, adhere to ethical frameworks and lead to positive action.
Which brings me to my last point. I want to invite and encourage more funders to support practical work in the collective intelligence / data space. It is important that we work on mitigating the risks of using data for everyone and in particular for vulnerable populations. However, there is also a risk if we don’t use all the tools available to us — and data is one of them — in light of the problems that we are facing. This space needs funders who can provide access to data, funders who can provide practical help with tech and data science, and traditional grantmakers. A good policy brief doesn’t make good policies. We need to provide end-to-end support for collective intelligence projects with the ultimate objective to achieve better and more equitable decision-making that leads to action.
Special thanks to Gina Lucarelli with the Accelerator Lab Network at UNDP and Maesy Angelina with Pulse Lab Jakarta for leading this conversation together at the Nesta conference, 21st Century Common Sense: Using collective intelligence to tackle complex social challenges.