Policymakers warned that a lack of transparency over data use could alienate citizens

Governments wanting to make better use of data must be completely open about their plans and invest in training so staff have the right skills to run projects effectively, innovation agency Nesta has said.

Nesta has said governments need to be open about their use of data – Photo credit: Flickr, MIKI Yoshihito, CC BY 2.0

In a report published today, Nesta researcher Tom Saunders and chief executive Geoff Mulgan set out eight ways in which policymakers can use digital tools to make the most of collective intelligence, which refers to the idea that the combined knowledge of large groups allows them to act more intelligently than individuals.

Nesta’s paper, Governing with Collective Intelligence, argued that governments can use new technologies and the growing appetite for democratic participation to generate new solutions to public problems through better data collection and analysis.

For instance, mobile phone location data can be used in urban planning or traffic modelling, while platforms that encourage citizens to suggest ideas for new initiatives will generate different ideas to public policy problems.

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There are numerous benefits to using collective intelligence projects to make policy decisions, Nesta said, including gaining a better understanding of citizen’s experiences and generating innovative ideas from a different group of people.

Nesta also emphasised the potential to create more open and transparent governments, with many collective intelligence projects focusing on monitoring corruption and involving citizens in the policymaking process.

Indeed, Nesta added that governments wanting to use new digital tools at their disposal “should be prepared to be fully transparent about what data they are collecting and what they are doing with it”.

It said: “If they get this wrong there is a danger that people will feel alienated and start to call for the ability to opt out of data collection activities, setting the whole agenda back by a decade.”

Nesta also warned that the sheer volume of both new technologies and the data they produce could make it hard for governments to “categorise what is going on, or to understand which [technologies] are truly useful”.

It added: “It has become clear that [data] supply that outstripped demand and organisations that hold this data are struggling to come up with ideas for its use.”

Another problem is that there is a “paucity of data science skills among public servants and a lack of creative thinking around the use of this data for government planning purposes”.

As such, governments wishing to make use of collective intelligence should also set aside resources for in-house capacity building in information and data analytics – without this, Nesta said, there is the risk that data will be misinterpreted.

But the paper also said that too many projects focus too much on developing a new platform and “too little attention to the problem that the platform is trying to solve” – instead, it said, government should consider reusing and building on existing platforms and expertise.

In addition, Nesta said that governments should start with small-scale pilots to get some “quick wins” and build support for the approach.

They should also take their time to choose the right group of people to involve in the work, for instance some problems – like flooding – won’t be relevant to everyone and governments need to take this into account when planning where to conduct a consultation or data gathering exercise.

Nesta also said that policymakers must “remember that there is a world beyond the internet”, noting in particular that many of the problems governments need to find solutions to affect those who are under-served by technologies, which could skew results.


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