Never ask the Internet to name something. The ‘wisdom of crowds’ isn’t always plain sailing.

I didn’t choose Tug Life, the Tug Life chose me. Toot toot!
Developing the nautical theme, I’m guessing you’ll be familiar with the Boaty McBoatface saga? The 2016 online poll to name the UK Government’s £200 million Arctic Research Ship? It actually ended up being called Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough (sigh…), despite Boaty McBoatface clearly winning the poll with over 124,000 votes! It’s explained in this Guardian article, ‘tyrants have crushed the people’s will’. I wanted number 4 (10,000+ votes) to win, ‘RSS It’s Bloody Cold Here’, just imagine the Coastguard calling that over VHF Channel 16…

“What about democracy?” I hear you cry… surely the people should get what the people voted for. Well that’s great if the people (the crowd) have made a wise decision. The Boaty McBoatface saga neatly illustrates that large groups of people (crowds) don’t always make good (wise) decisions, and if you add the Internet into the mix you can get some very peculiar outcomes.

If you want some more evidence of peculiarity have a look at 15 Polls Hijacked by the Internet. You might actually agree that the Internet got it absolutely right in voting for Canadian popster Justin Bieber to be sent to North Korea. However naming a new flavour of the beverage Mountain Dew, “Hitler did nothing wrong” is an astonishingly bad result in anyone’s book.

Participatory Budgeting and the Wisdom of Crowds. What this post is actually about is participatory budgeting. I’m running the international maritime ‘U’ flag up the pole. ‘Full steam ahead’ into participatory budgeting waters (using online methods) could lead to all sorts of unintended outcomes, like Boaty McBoatface. So, it’s worth paying attention to the ‘U’ flag and beware of ‘running into danger’. That said, it’s not a reason to go full astern; more like proceed with caution.

img_7731Participation in decision making is a good thing. Just to set the record straight, there are many good things about participatory budgeting, and a lot has been written about it (believe me, I look this stuff so you don’t have to).

A little while ago Nesta published ‘unlocking the potential of participatory budgeting’ and in Wales, the Public Policy Institute have recently updated things in Participatory Budgeting, An Evidence Review.  What is common to the mountains of analysis and reviews are descriptions of the benefits of participatory budgeting, basically:

  • Improved Engagement – citizens will be more engaged in the decisions made on their behalf through being involved in the actual process,
  • Better Understanding – between different groups in a community through the process of thinking about other people’s requirements during the decision making process,
  • Increased Confidence – of citizens as they become skilled at understanding and deciding what to do, and
  • Greater Respect and Understanding of Public Services – as citizens get to understand the difficult and valuable work they do through engagement in the process.

These are all very good reasons for participatory budgeting, but I do quite often struggle to find the following statement written anywhere… “You Will Get Better Decisions”. 

When does a crowd make wise decisions? As with participatory budgeting there is plenty that has been written about the ‘Wisdom of The Crowd’ and the opposite phenomenon, ‘The Tyranny or Stupidity of the Herd’. I did write about ‘The Wisdom of Crowds, Flappy Birds, Tulip Mania and The Tyranny of Herds’ a while back. If you fancy something a bit more grown up I’d recommend this blog by Julie Simon from Nesta, ‘When is the crowd wise, or can people ever be trusted?’

This is a really good explanation of a complex challenge and it also opened my eyes to the work of Austrian Friedrich Hayek and his 1945 work ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’. A key point for me is how Julie Simon summarises it; “there is wisdom within crowds – it’s just that it’s domain specific, unevenly distributed and quite hard to transfer”.

Is the Crowd Wise? Getting back to this question…..the short answer is, ‘it depends’. There are some very specific circumstances that are needed to extract a ‘wise’ decision from a crowd. These are summarised in James Surowiecki’s book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ and the Wikipedia article Wisdom of the crowd. I had to include the Wikipedia link as apparently Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia founder) was greatly influenced by the work of Friedrich Hayek on knowledge in society (crowds).  For completeness, here are some the criteria necessary to extract a ‘wise’ decision from a crowd.

  • Competency in the subject – you need to know something about what’s going on. Complete ignorance isn’t likely to be helpful.
  • Independent ‘voting’ – people need to express an opinion or vote without seeing what others have done. If you see what others have done there is a tendency to ‘anchor’ your response to theirs (going higher or lower).
  • Diversity of views – a greater difference in what people think overall will generate a better result
  • Numeric or clearly defined issues seem to work better than asking the crowd to decide on something complex or an ambiguous challenge.

Trainy McTrainface. Finally there is one other ‘rule’ to follow.  If you are going to ask the crowd for their opinion, be prepared to act upon what they say (or don’t bother).

There was a fair bit of backlash against Boaty McBoatface being overruled with Sir David Attenborough. You run the risk of creating a more disengaged crowd than when you started. I know that if I’ve been asked for my option and ignored, I’m unlikely to be as willing to contribute a second time… why should I trust you to listen?

The Swedish rail company certainly listened, and have ended up with Trainy McTrainface for their troubles. And the moral of the story is….

So, Whats the PONT?

  1. There is wisdom within crowds. Extracting it isn’t straightforward though. There are things you need to do to make sure you get to the wisdom (and not something else).
  2. There are may benefits to participatory budgeting, but be cautions, learn lessons from the wisdom of crowds experiences.
  3. Never ask the internet to name anything – unless you plan to live by the results.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

1 Response

  1. Another cracker Mr Bolton and you’ve hit the nail on the head highlighting the criteria for WoC. Interestingly we’re actively using the concept in the development of the NHS response to the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016.

    We’re asking an insightful audience of nurses, to independently assess the needs of patients using a simple numerical summary. We then create a visualisation of that data alongside flow and staffing information in the same shape and they interpret the results. The core assessment uses an old school model we’ve talked about before, a successive limited comparison, but I’m taken by Gary Klein’s more contemporary way of describing “how to see what others don’t” and the conditions for insight to emerge.

    Individual clinical decision making works like a murmuration, everyone follows the rules, but nobody knows what they are. Collective decision making is slightly different and we’ve highjacked the WoC criteria, to make it a little more explicit:

    1. A trigger to notice that a decision is needed
    2. Just enough information to guide the decision
    3. And people who can draw on experience of both the subject and the context

    That last bit is crucial to increase the chances of a wise crowd. You got to understand the clinical presentation (subject) and how that clinical environment functions (context).

    To coin your own phrase, what’s my point: wisdom of crowds can be incredibly powerful, whether that’s good or bad is down to how and when it’s deployed. In which case, perhaps the issue is not to be concerned with the Stupidity of the Herd, but more like questioning the Wisdom of the Shepherd.

    Resisted Welsh joke about knowing the difference between Ewes and Rams!

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