Over the past decade, crowdsourcing has grown to significance through crowdfunding, crowd collaboration, crowd voting, and crowd labor. The idea behind crowdsourcing is simple: decentralize decision-making by utilizing large groups of people to assist with solving problems, generating ideas, funding, generating data, and making decisions. We have seen crowdsourcing used in both the private and public sectors.

Crowdsourcing in the public sector represents a more inclusive form of governance that incorporates a multi-stakeholder approach. When citizens participate in decision-making, new opportunities are created for cities and urban planners. However, despite its obvious utility, planners underutilize crowdsourcing. A key reason for this can be attributed to a lack of credibility and accountability in crowdsourcing endeavors.

Crowdsourcing credibility speaks to the capacity to trust a source and discern whether information is, indeed, true. The realities of contemporary media make it more difficult to trust crowdsourced information for decision-making. This is especially true for the public sector, where the use of inaccurate information can impact the lives of many and the trajectory of a city. As a result, there is a need to establish accountability measures to enhance crowdsourcing in urban planning.

Four Accountability Measures

Establishing a system of accountability measures makes crowdsourcing more effective. In addition to boosting credibility, building a framework of accountability measures can help urban planners clearly define their work, engage the community and obtain diverse opinions, and become more inclusive. The following four methods can be used separately or together to help establish accountability and credibility in the crowdsourcing process:

  1. Agenda setting
  2. Growing a crowdsourcing community
  3. Facilitators/subject matter experts (SME)
  4. Microtasking

1. Agenda Setting

Agenda setting in the public sector is often a controversial process that does not include the public. However, crowdsourcing is leveraged in a few different ways to increase the community’s role in this prioritization.Letting the community prioritize issues, is beneficial to credibility because this ensures this is what the people want to work on. It also fosters ongoing engagement.

For instance, administrators in Central Falls, Rhode Island, used the crowdfunding platform Citizinvestor to fund community priorities. Citizens in Central Falls selected new trashcans in the local park as neighborhood priority because trash was littered throughout the park.

2. Growing a Crowdsourcing Community

Ongoing engagement also grows the crowdsourcing community. At first, individuals that are interested in a single topic are likely to be the most frequent participants. When planners gained trust of the community members, their crowdsourcing efforts will spread amongst their families and friends. Growing a crowdsourcing community can be achieved by critically examining how well connected it is and how this can be enhanced. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you offer a two-way dialogue to receive feedback?
  • Do you have a team to advocate and ensure needs are met?

Often, cities are only “pushing” information out to the public, but they do not interact with the public. On crowdsourcing platforms, there needs to be someone available to quickly answer questions and provide feedback. This lets the community know that their work is not futile and they are working in tandem with their city officials.

3. Microtasking

Microtasking is an exciting feature of crowdsourcing because, taken together, the small actions of a few can have a big impact across networks. Essentially, microtasking is the division of one large task into several smaller tasks. Perhaps the most well-known example is Wikipedia. Wikipedia has flourished on the public’s willingness to add small bits of information to create a database of information on any and everything for the world to consume for free. Crowdsourcing platforms such as CDCology, PhillyTreeMap, and Smithsonian Transcription Center also offer opportunities for microtasking.

4. Facilitators & Experts

The most valuable aspect of microtasking is that experts can make meaningful contributions to projects with low commitment while increasing accountability and credibility. Sites often use a two- to three-step process for information submission and approval. The processes involve leveraging the time and knowledge resources of subject matter experts (SME) who vet information and train volunteers. Facilitators and SMEs can also incorporate editing and fact checking into the accountability system. This increases the likelihood that individuals will return to the platform because they will be engaged in conversations beyond their initial post.

A good example of this is Observations.be, an online crowdsourcing platform developed to monitor biodiversity in Belgium. The platform enables anyone who is registered to enter their observations of a number of species (e.g., birds, mammals, reptiles, insects). Participants enter their observations on a geospatial map that can include photos, sound files, and commentary. To strengthen the credibility of observations, the platform is structured to function through collective action whereby working groups are central to the platform’s function. Each working group has administrators (SME) that are responsible for validating each entry before it is integrated into the Observations.be database. Validation includes a three-step filter protocol that helps mitigate issues of misinformation being published.


For urban planners, crowdsourcing can be appealing because of the instant access to information. Urban planners play a major role in guiding the development of the community. Doing crowdsourcing in a credible way is not always easy. However, it is worth the effort in the long run.

If you have experience with applying any of these strategies into your crowdsourcing efforts, please leave a comment or send us a note about your experience.

Kendra L. Smith, Ph.D. is a Post-Doctoral Scholar for Public Service and Community Solutions and a research fellow at the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University. Connect with Kendra on Twitter @KendraSmithPhD.

Lindsey Collins is a Masters of Advanced Study Candidate in Geographical Information Systems in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Connect with Lindsey on Twitter @Lmcoll1 andLindseyCollins.net.

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