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Lessons in Mass Collaboration

Recent experience with government-convened hackathons has generated insights into the methods and instruments used to design effective mass collaboration efforts.

Significant advances in technology in the last two decades have opened possibilities to engage the masses in ways impossible to imagine centuries ago. Beyond coordination, today's technological capability permits organizations to leverage and focus public interest, talent, and energy through mass collaborative engagement to better understand and solve today's challenges. And given the rising public awareness of a variety of social, economic, and environmental problems, organizations have seized the opportunity to leverage and lead mass collaborations in the form of hackathons.

Hackathons emerged in the mid-2000s as a popular approach to leverage the expertise of large numbers of individuals to address social issues, often through the creation of online technological solutions. Having led hundreds of mass collaboration initiatives for organizations around the world in diverse cultural contexts, we at SecondMuse offer the following lessons as a starting point for others interested in engaging the masses, as well as challenges others’ may face.

What Mass Collaboration Looks Like

An early example of a mass collaborative endeavor was Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), which formed in 2009. RHoK was initially developed in collaboration with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA, the World Bank, and later, HP as a volunteer mobilization effort; it aimed to build technology that would enable communities to respond better to crises such as natural disasters. In 2012, nearly 1,000 participants attended 30 events around the world to address 176 well-defined problems.

In 2013, NASA and SecondMuse led the International Space Apps Challenge, which engaged six US federal agencies, 400 partner institutions, and 9,000 global citizens through a variety of local and global team configurations; it aimed to address 58 different challenges to improve life on Earth and in space. In Athens, Greece, for example, in direct response to the challenge of creating a space-deployable greenhouse, a team developed a modular spinach greenhouse designed to survive the harsh Martian climate. Two months later, 11,000 citizens across 95 events participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking in 83 different US cities, ultimately contributing about 150,000 person-hours and addressing 31 federal and several state and local challenges over a single weekend. One result was Keep Austin Fed from Austin, Texas, which leveraged local data to coordinate food donations for those in need.

Strong interest on the part of institutions and an enthusiastic international community has paved the way for follow-up events in 2014.

Benefits of Mass Collaboration

The benefits of this approach to problem-solving are many, including:

  • Incentivizing the use of government data. As institutions push to make data available to the public, mass collaboration can increase the usefulness of that data by creating products from it, as well as inform and streamline future data collection processes.
  • Increasing transparency. Engaging citizens in the process of addressing public concerns educates them about the work that institutions do and advances efforts to meet public expectations of transparency.
  • Increasing outcome ownership. When people engage in a collaborative process of problem solving, they naturally have a greater stake in the outcome. Put simply, the more people who participate in the process, the greater the sense of community ownership. Also, when spearheading new policies or initiatives, the support of a knowledgeable community can be important to long-term success.
  • Increasing awareness. Engaging the populace in addressing challenges of public concern increases awareness of issues and helps develop an active citizenry. As a result, improved public perception and license to operate bolster governmental and non-governmental efforts to address challenges.
  • Saving money. By providing data and structures to the public, and allowing them to build and iterate on plans and prototypes, mass collaboration gives agencies a chance to harness the power of open innovation with minimal time and funds.
  • Harnessing cognitive surplus. The advent of online tools allowing for distributed collaboration enables citizens to use their free time incrementally toward collective endeavors that benefit local communities and the nation.

Challenges of Mass Collaboration

Although the benefits can be significant, agencies planning to lead mass collaborations should be aware of several challenges:

  • Investing time and effort. A mass collaboration is most effective when it is not a one-time event. The up-front investment in building a collaboration of supporting partner organizations, creating a robust framework for action, developing the necessary tools and defining the challenges, and investing in implementation and scaling of the most promising results all require substantial time to secure long-term commitment and strong relationships.
  • Forging an institution-community relationship. Throughout the course of most engagements, the power dynamic between the organization providing the frameworks and challenges and the groupings of individuals responding to the call to action can shift dramatically as the community incorporates the endeavor into their collective identity. Everyone involved should embrace this as they lay the foundation for self-sustaining mass collaboration communities. Once participants develop a firmly entrenched collective identity and sense of ownership, the convening organization can fully tap into its collective genius, as they can work together based on trust and shared vision. Without community ownership, organizers need to allot more time, energy, and resources to keep their initiative moving forward, and to battle against volunteer fatigue, diminished productivity, and substandard output.
  • Focusing follow-up. Turning a massive infusion of creative ideas, concepts, and prototypes into concrete solutions requires a process of focused follow-up. Identifying and nurturing the most promising seeds to fruition requires time, discrete skills, insight, and—depending on the solutions you scale—support from a variety of external organizations.
  • Understanding ROI. Any resource-intensive endeavor where only a few of numerous resulting products ever see the light of day demands deep consideration of what constitutes a reasonable return on investment. For mass collaborations, this means having an initial understanding of the potential tangible and intangible outcomes, and making a frank assessment of whether those outcomes meet the needs of the collaborators.

Technological developments in the last century have enabled relationships between individuals and institutions to blossom into a rich and complex tapestry. Advances in crowdsourcing have enabled multitudes of individuals to coordinate their efforts to contribute to a common goal. Advances in mass collaboration via hackathons have demonstrated that these same multitudes can not only contribute, but also co-create solutions to advance a general aim. Yet we still haven’t fully tapped the co-creative potential of the human race to address its complex challenges. In the years to come, only an iterative process of learning will allow institutions to foster communities where individuals feel empowered to collaborate toward the creation of a better world.

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