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Shifting the spotlight: understanding crowdsourcing intermediaries in transparency and accountability initiatives

Date added: February 22, 2017

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This report highlights the ideas and practices that underlie the work of crowdsourcing intermediaries: actors who collect and analyse citizen feedback using digital platforms, and use it to support positive change. Most studies of crowdsourcing initiatives in the transparency and accountability field are primarily concerned with representation (whose voice is being heard?) and impact (what kind of change is being supported?). By contrast, this study shifts the spotlight onto crowdsourcing intermediaries themselves, their motives, and their theories of change and action.

The research used an original conceptual framework that combines ideas from the governance and social accountability fields with networked gatekeeping theory. According to this framework, crowdsourcing intermediaries are gatekeepers of citizen voice who can shape and therefore control many different aspects of the flow of information generated by contributors.

The picture that emerges from the research, which combined content analysis of website text with qualitative case studies, reveals a great deal of fluidity and experimentation in the way that crowdsourcing is defined and used as part of the political strategies of crowdsourcing intermediaries. Equally varied were the roles and relationships that crowdsourcing intermediaries engaged in as collectors and analysts of citizen feedback.

A key finding is that in crowdsourcing initiatives, it is difficult to distinguish between the interpretive aspects of intermediation, which comprise the collection and analysis of citizen feedback, and political aspects of intermediation, which involve using the collected information to support positive change. Put more simply, crowdsourced information is inherently political.

The analysis of website content also highlighted privacy concerns, and challenges about how transparent and accountable crowdsourcing intermediaries are to their participants on the basis of the information they make available on their websites. Only 10 out of the 20 websites studied included a privacy policy; six did not explain the sequence of actions that were triggered by submitted reports; and only two made the information they collected available in a format suitable for further analysis. These and other findings suggest that there is much to be done to ensure that those who seek accountability on behalf of others are equally accountable to them.

Key themes in this paper are:

  • the role of crowdsourcing intermediaries as gatekeepers of citizen-generated data
  • the accountability of crowdsourcing intermediaries to citizens who contribute data, especially in terms of data policies
  • the factors that influence the pathways of individual crowdsourcing intermediaries.
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