3 November 2019

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Gamification, Crowdsourcing and Civic Tech

Gamification, “crowdsourcing” and “civic technology” share some features. The post discusses these similarities in order to understand the innovative potential of gamified governance.

by Gianluca Sgueo

When Gartner acknowledged gamification in public governance for the first time in 2012, it forecasted that, within the next two years, more than 70% of the top 2,000 public organizations worldwide would have at least one gamified application in place. Since 2013, the company has included gamification among their top-ranking prospects in the “Digital Government Hype Cycle” – a cycle that identifies promising technologies for future social innovations.

In order to understand what type of innovation is produced by gamification in public governance, one should look at the similarities between gamification, “crowdsourcing” and “civic technology”. A recent term, crowdsourcing describes a model of distributed problem solving and production that leverages the collective efforts of online communities for specific purposes set forth by a crowdsourcing organization, being it public or private. The primary general goals of crowdsourcing are cost-savings and efficiency.

Put it simply: crowdsourcing helps organisations to handle tasks that would be difficult to perform without collective support. With specific regard to the use of crowdsourcing in the public sector, existing studies describe four different types of crowdsourcing, each corresponding to the function that is crowd-sourced. The first is information generation; the second is service coproduction, like in the case of “Peer to Patent”, an initiative aimed at involving stakeholders in the research and review of patent applications in the United States; the third type of crowdsourcing goes as “creation”, and it is exemplified by initiatives like Challenge.gov; the fourth type of crowdsourcing is known as “policy-making”. Examples of the latter include “Future Melbourne” in Australia and the “e-Rulemaking Initiative” in the United States. Future Melbourne” was launched in 2008 by the City of Melbourne with the aim of outlining the city’s values and goals on the long term. In 2015 the City Council decided to refresh the plan, taking into account the changes and developments that had happened since 2008. An extensive community engagement process started in 2016. The process was divided in three phases (sharing ideas, bringing ideas together, deliberation) and concluded with the decision of a citizens’ jury. The “eRulemaking Initiative” was developed by Cornell University to create an online public participation platform, named “Regulation Room”, to offer citizens selected an area for policy discussion. The aim was to foster citizens’ participation in decision-making processes.

Both gamification and crowdsourcing combine a bottom-up, open, creative process with top-down organizational goals. Public institutions that experiment in crowdsourcing, as well as those experimenting in gamification, rely on the incentives that collective participation can produce. Interestingly, gamified crowdsourcing systems are increasing, as an attempt to redirect the motivations of crowd-sourcees from rational gain-seeking to self-purposeful and intrinsically motivating.

With regard to civic technology, bearing in mind that the usage and meaning of this term can vary, it is most frequently defined as the whole of technologies that are implemented by social designers and technologists to empower citizens to develop public goods and to share resources, or more generally to help to make public institutions more accessible and effective. Terminological variations, however, exist. The United States Government, for instance, uses the broader definition “open innovation” to characterize efforts by agencies and public bodies to use technologies to access the skills and contributions of citizens and other external stakeholders.

A proto-civic-tech organization is “MySociety”, a non-profit organization aimed at building online technologies to foster participation in public decision-making. Thousands of experiments focused on campaigning, petitioning or monitoring the actions of parliamentarians, or on crowdsourcing solutions to produce social change now exist all over the world. Notable examples of civic-tech include the petitioning platform “Change.org”, “Socrata” (a company aimed at promoting government data availability and transparency), “Localocracy” and “SeeClickFix” (online tools aimed at encouraging civic participation in local decision-making).

A well-known classification of civic tech experiments distinguishes between “conformist”, “reformist” and “transformist” projects. Conformist projects conform to existing power dynamics, and simply digitize the existing world. Civic tech projects that improve the status quo may be considered reformists. Finally, a transformist civic tech project is the one that helps shifting power relationships from the few to the many. Experiments in gamification by public administrators may be included in the second category, and occasionally in the third one. Public powers may be interested in reforming existing procedures, and will therefore introduce gamified elements to such aim; or may be concerned with enhancing participation into policy-making, and will consequently attempt to use gamified elements to attract participants and gather their knowledge and expertise.

Another categorization of civic tech was made in a 2016 report published by the philanthropic firm Omidyar Networ. The report identified three types of civic tech.

The first is “Citizen to Citizen” and concerns technologies aimed at improving citizen mobilization or improving connections between citizens. A well-known example of this category is ‘vTaiwan’. Ideated and developed by a group of activists in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement of 2014, it consists of a mix of online and offline activities aimed at encouraging participants to reach consensus on specific issues. The second is “Citizen to Government” and includes technologies aimed at improving the frequency or quality of interaction between citizens and government. For example, ‘Parlement et Citoyens’, launched in 2013 by the French civil society organization Cap Collectif, and aimed at bringing together representatives and citizens to discuss policy issues and crowd-source legislation. The third is “Government Technology” and labels all innovative technology solutions that make governments more efficient and effective at service delivery. Current gamification strategies implemented by governments may fall within the second and third categories ideated by the Omidyar Network. Gamification, in fact, is aimed at offering citizens the opportunity to become co-producers of public policies.

* Gianluca Sgueo is Global Media Seminar Professor at New York University Florence, and Chief  Editor of The Good Lobby Blog (Sgueo@nyu.edy / Twitter: @GianlucaSgueo / Instagram: @gianlucasgueo) 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Good Lobby.