Crowdsourcing at U.S. AID

On June 28, 2012, officials from U.S. AID met at the Wilson Center to discuss a recent experiment in using crowdsourcing to help clean up and map  data on development loans. The international aid agency had 117,000 records on private loans made possible by USAID’s Development Credit Authority, which could be mapped and made available to the public. The problem? Location data for these loans was not standard and could not be easily mapped. U.S. AID officials decided to turn to “the crowd” and recruit interested volunteers from the Standby Task Force and GISCorps to help clean the data, making it available for additional analysis.

At the event, Shadrock Roberts, Stephanie Grosser and D. Ben Swartley — all with U.S. AID — discussed the results of the project that was able to clean up the information at virtually no cost to the government, noting that they hope it will be an example for further collaboration between government and engaged volunteers.

“By leveraging partnerships, volunteers, other federal agencies, and the private sector, the entire project was completed at no cost,” the officials wrote in a recently released case study focused on the exercise. “Our hope is that the case study will provide others in government with information and guidance to move forward with their own crowdsourcing projects. Whether the intent is opening data, increased engagement, or improved services, agencies must embrace new technologies that can bring citizens closer to their government.”

While the U.S. AID exercise resulted in high-quality output, officials with the agency did provide advice for other agencies considering similar work. At the event, Grosser stressed the need to “crawl, walk, [then] run” for other organizations considering using crowdsourcing — that is, start small with a few hundred records and then expand on that as the system is refined.

But U.S. AID sees crowdsourcing becoming a key part of improving government data. “We need to be working as hard to release relevant data we already have as we are to create it,” Roberts concluded, when discussing how the U.S. AID experience could apply more generally. “The crowd is willing to do research, data mining, and data cleanup.”

Powerpoint slides from the event are available here.

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