Crowdsourcing the Climate: Evolving Media, Policy, and Science Practice

Imagine one-seventh of the world’s population — a billion people — contributing to identifying solutions to global climate change, doing something their political leaders may not be able to do on their own. Does ‘crowdsourcing’ … show the way?

Imagine for a moment the principles of crowdsourcing applied fully to the problem of climate change … and taken to a logical, perhaps utopian, extreme:

  • A billion people, representing some large slice of every country, register together on a single Internet-based platform and begin communicating;
  • They document seasonal changes and sea level rise;
  • They share emerging clean technologies;
  • They monitor the carbon pollution patterns of multinational corporations and governments; and
  • They search for policy solutions.
Crowd of climate change activists. Source: flickr/350.org.

In such a networked space, the traditional lines separating media, governance, activism and citizenship blur and fade. Millions of stories and ideas pour in; through Internet voting, the most promising ideas rise to the top. Evidence supporting ideas and votes for them are checked and monitored using a structure similar to that governing Wikipedia. Finally, through round after round of refinement and further voting a core policy rule set is settled on. And the global community speaks.

Meanwhile, in a parallel future world, the policymakers attached to the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization/IPCC — all of whom operate according to the interests of the current regimes in their home countries — make some modest political breakthroughs. And produce their own, more tepid draft agreement. The agents of authority thus have their say.

Who Is ‘Right’? Who Has More Legitimacy?

But the draft agreement the bureaucrats hammer out must compete against the voices of a billion people who have, through more direct participatory democracy, constructed what they want.

Which agreement is then “right”? Which has more legitimacy? How would the two interface? What if the crowdsourced agreement begins finding its way into the rules and norms of towns and cities and regional governing bodies — with coal factories being zoned out and carbon targets being established at a grassroots level?

Which agreement, then, ultimately prevails?

Professional/Amateur Production Blur in ‘Historical Eyeblink’

For sure, the answer may be that, were such a utopian experiment to flourish, the crowd’s wishes may just be ignored or undermined. And a cynic may indeed doubt whether such a project could ever get off the ground.

But as a social networking platform such as Facebook approaches a billion users, as Twitter aims to break the same user number threshold globally, and as transnational, multilingual projects such as Wikipedia continue to grow and succeed, the potential power of vast, networked crowds looms larger by the day. And thus for those trying to solve one of the world’s only truly global challenges — that of risks posed by human-induced climate change — the question becomes how they might harness the potential of the Web 2.0 technologies that help overcome traditional barriers to collective action.

Of course, as the power of Internet-enabled communities rises, larger questions about authority, legitimacy, and even definition — for governments, the media, and institutions of all kinds — are coming into focus. With this, the traditional channels of policy, news, and science also may further blend.


Visualization of routes within the Internet, from the Opte Project. Source: Wikimedia.

“Our media environment (that is to say our connective tissue) has shifted,” writes New York University professor and leading digital theorist Clay Shirky in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. “In a historical eyeblink, we have gone from a world with two different models of media — public broadcasts by professionals and private conversations between pairs of people — to a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.”

The term “crowdsourcing” has a certain porous nature in popular discourse, and can be applied to labor, knowledge and funding projects alike; it also can apply to a spectrum of crowds — from loose-knit communities to more curated networks. Defined by the concept’s original popularizer, the writer Jeff Howe, as the “act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call,” crowdsourcing has been leveraged with success in some specific climate-related projects.

However, the green shoots of such broad, networked engagement around climate change remain somewhat sparse; they are visible mostly in smaller-bore initiatives.

For example, crowdsourcing is being used to help mine old weather data from ship’s logs; and it’s being employed to record seasonal phenological data to compare how natural patterns of flora and fauna are shifting. Climate “skeptic” Anthony Watts coordinated crowdsourcing relating to the siting of surface temperature stations used for data collection by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. And officials in the Maldives have recently decided to seek ideas for their energy policy through an Internet crowdsourcing effort.

Global Expertise, Unusual Places … and ‘Too Much Information’

Moreover, the ideas of citizen science and “open science” generally have been very much in the air in recent years; crowd-sourced science has both advocates and detractors, the latter of whom see it as just so much hype.

A recent feature in the Boston Globe, “How Crowdsourcing is Changing Science,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Garreth Cook, notes “One reason for the sudden turn to crowd science is that it offers an imaginative answer to a central problem of 21st-century science: too much information … [S]cientists are themselves creating floods of data that they simply don’t have the hours to interpret … [I]n many other fields — from high energy physics to environmental science — researchers are puzzling over how to handle the sudden embarrassment of riches.” It’s a trend captured, as well, in physicist Michael Nielsen’s new book, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

Thomas W. Malone, director of MIT’s Climate CoLab.

Another project that some observers point to (see the Times’ Dotearth last year and Scientific American this year) as a potential model and forerunner is MIT’s Climate CoLab, now in its third year of operation. The initiative, overseen by Professor Thomas W. Malone, solicits policy proposals from across the world and runs an online voting process. A round of winners for the 2011 contest was just named in November.

The platform now has about 3,500 registered users, Malone told The Yale Forum in a recent telephone interview. Because climate change presents “unusually difficult problems,” he said, a novel approach is required:

Unlike many problems where only one kind of expertise is needed, here’s a problem where many different kinds of expertise are needed. So crowdsourcing makes it possible to engage many different people with many different kinds of expertise. So for that reason we think this is a good approach for climate change. Another reason is that — and this is true for many other problems as well — there’s a feeling among many people that the global conversation about climate change is stuck somehow. One of the potentials of crowdsourcing here is that it allows some new ideas into the mix — ideas coming from unusual places and people who aren’t now part of the conversation but whose ideas could be very useful.

A theorist of networked knowledge and director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, Malone has written about how “hyperspecialization” will allow many knowledge and information tasks to be divided up among diverse groups around the world, much as physical work such as factory labor has traditionally been broken into discrete tasks.

“So what we’re planning to do in the Climate CoLab,” he said, “is to provide more support in the platform and in the community for having different people working on different parts of the problem, potentially some working on very specialized little pieces and then others working on how to combine those pieces to provide solutions to the overall problem.”

Media Organization and Their Crowds

For news organizations of all kinds, the concept of “crowdsourcing” has now been embraced by so many, and to such a degree, that it’s debatable whether the term has much power anymore. The idea of soliciting sources and fact-checking claims from vast, anonymous audiences on Twitter or Facebook is nearly ubiquitous, and many newsrooms have held workshops and brought in some scruffy new media guru to preach the virtues of expanding one’s rolodex from a solid 100 to a loose 100,000.


Screenshot of Twitter search feature.

But lest the scruffy digital native crowd think it invented the concept just last year, it should be said that crowdsourcing didn’t begin with the advent of Twitter, and it has a surprisingly deep history in the news business. Going back decades, talk radio and call-in formats harnessed crowd participation in the creation of media; in the 1990s, the Philadelphia Inquirer crowdsourced police data with its readers; in 2003, Public Insight Network, a crowdsourcing tool developed by Minnesota Public Radio, was created; in 2007, Wired‘s citizen-focused Assignment Zero project was launched in partnership with NYU media critic Jay Rosen; for more than five years now, notable efforts by news blog sites such as “Talking Points Memo” have checked and vetted documents and solicited tips from their communities; and in 2009, the Guardian conducted a well-publicized experiment asking for help checking expense reports of Members of Parliament.

And those are just a few examples. Another exceptional current project in the global news arena is Al Jazeera’s “The Stream,” a daily show that aggregates voices and discussions from within the social media space.

(For a 30,000-foot perspective on overall media progress, see Rosen’s 2011 speech on such “pro-am” journalism efforts. His grade overall for the news business? A C-. And for a more granular discussion of the virtues and problems of crowdsourced journalism, check out this segment of NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” from public radio station WBUR in Boston.)

As for climate-specific news efforts, though, it is still hard to assess just how far such principles can be taken. The sticking point is, to some degree, a discipline-specific one: the climate story is largely a slow-moving, science-based narrative, heavily dependent on painstaking peer review and interminable technical policy sessions at all levels. That is to say that much of climate science reporting remains a matter of “elite sourcing,” rather than the surfing of crowds. Crowdsourcing often proves most dazzlingly effective when, as the company Ushahidi‘s projects underscore, it is focused on large-scale, fast-moving events such as the Haiti earthquake or the BP Gulf oil spill. Likewise, NPR’s Andy Carvin has received universal praise for covering the Arab Spring on Twitter, operating as something of an “anchor” for the global activist and media crowds.

Journalism as Process?

Certainly, some climate observers and commentators, such as Andy Revkin of Dotearth, Joe Romm of Climate Progress, and David Roberts of Grist.org, attract large followings, and the quasi-”Greek Chorus” that attends their posts stands as a form of crowdsourcing. Document dumps such as the hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia can most quickly be picked-through by crowds, though that obviously has problematic aspects.

Perhaps what crowdsourcing and its energies ultimately have to teach climate change reporting, however, relates to the deeper, perhaps less flashy and more academic notion of “journalism as process.” This means, as University of Wisconsin Professor Sue Robinson notes in a recent paper for Journalism & Communication Monographs, conceiving of the media’s new, primary role as facilitating conversation, stimulating user-generated content and participatory involvement on the part of news consumers.

“Briefly, ‘process’ journalism begins when a reporter (or blogger or commenter) writes an article or blogs a news tip,” Robinson writes, “at which point the news story comprises not only the reporter’s work, but also all the comments, blogs and follow-up comments sparked as a result of that original tidbit.” Among other things, this transition within the news industry requires a more engaged, civic-minded audience to make it successful. In the case of climate change, such engagement is certainly a welcome prospect for many. And there are few topics that seem to so instantly provoke passionate conversation than the future of Earth — awe, befuddlement, argument, worry, hope, grief.

Still, there are business dynamics in play — and big worries on the part of defenders of journalistic integrity — that remain on the minds of many. Views vary on these questions; but an emerging consensus is that there’s no going back.

“We can guess the production of news has irrevocably changed from being institution-based to a hybrid of institution/crowd,” writes David Glance, of the University of Western Australia, in a recent blog post titled, “The Future of News: Crowdsourced and Connected,” for the Australian online scholarly news site The Conversation. “We don’t know the business models that will support this and we can guess about the organizations that are most likely to succeed and fail. We can also guess there is no reason that the quality of news reporting both from an immediacy aspect through to in-depth coverage should change — if anything, there is reason to believe it will improve.”

Robinson concludes in her paper, “Any journalistic ‘product’ must itself be a vehicle for the citizen that will fulfill people’s transportive and transactional desires, adding to their knowledge while also bringing them somewhere worthwhile, relevant, and credible.”

Fulfillment and desire; knowledge and credibility. In balancing this ancient tension between giving an audience what it wants and what is important for a society, crowdsourcing — and the deeper principle of mass participation — will play a perpetually tenuous, but now inevitable, part.

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to The Yale Forum, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: johnwihbey@gmail.com, Twitter: @wihbey)
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8 Responses to Crowdsourcing the Climate: Evolving Media, Policy, and Science Practice

  1. Thank you for this very interesting piece. I wanted to add another climate-relevant crowdsourcing project. In an opinion piece on this forum entitled Putting Candidates and Others on the Spot, I described a project through which we could collectively build a knowledgebase of some key questions-and-answers related to the environment. Specifically, I suggested that this project should piggy back on the up-and-coming Q&A site, Quora. In part due to substantial feedback on this forum, I believe it is wise to step back and, first, deal with some basics of the carbon cycle. For those interested, I recently posted Bringing the Carbon Cycle to Quora on the Dialogue Earth site. For anyone from this forum interested in participating, the first question–and a very straightforward one at that–is up: What are the compartments in which carbon is stored on Earth? Should you find the world of Quora daunting, you might be interested in a short tutorial and infographic I prepared for newcomers who are interested in answering questions. Any and all feedback welcome.

  2. John Wihbey says:

    Thanks, Kent, for the feedback — and for reminding me of this fascinating idea. I agree that presenting information on the carbon cycle would be helpful. I also understand that there is a basic tension between the principles of crowdsourcing — the distributed, non-hierarchical nature of it — and the establishment of “definitive” or authoritative answers to questions. It will be interesting to see how your idea plays out over time, but in any case, I give you a vote of support!

  3. Anna Haynes says:

    To post about crowdsourcing on climate change and not address the threat/allure of co-optation(?) by industry stooges and how to avert it, is like putting your PC on the internet without a firewall or antivirus software. Most of us wouldn’t do this, at least not more than once.

    What’s going on, over in New Haven? (whatever it is, it seems to have infected YCMF now too, not just E360.)

  4. Anna Haynes says:

    (Actually, upon revisiting e360 it looks pretty good. And apologies for cranky tone of my earlier comment, particularly if you’re still a student.)

  5. Anna Haynes says:

    Hidden Industry Dupes Social Media Users
    Paying people to influence discussions in social media is big business in China and the U.S.
    http://www.technologyreview.com/computing/39304/
    “The report’s authors, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also found evidence that crowdsourcing sites in the U.S. are similarly dominated by ethically questionable jobs. They conclude that the rapid growth of this way of making money will make paid shills a serious security problem for websites and those who use them around the world. ”

    John, can you think of any solutions for this?

    • John Wihbey says:

      Anna – This is a very good point that you make about the susceptibility of such efforts to manipulation. I particularly like the study that you point to (direct link here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.5654 ), which looks at malicious “crowdturfing” systems and their patterns, particularly in China. I was obviously much more focused in the above article with the general concept of crowdsourcing as it relates to climate change media than the technical execution of such (or problems therein). But I thank you for raising this important issue and continuing the conversation, in truly crowdsourced fashion, on this thread. -John

  6. Thanks for the great post here. I wanted to bring to your attention a project that I work on, Planet Forward that crowdsources ideas to solve climate, energy and environmental problems and puts the best on TV. We’ve been exploring a lot of what you’re talking about in our work and I think there’s one important key that you’re missing: motivation. We’ve found that we don’t get the best ideas just from people sharing out of the goodness of their heart–the most interesting people want to see that their ideas will be amplified and/or presented to people who can make a difference. That’s what’s going to bring out the researchers, entrepreneurs and great thinkers. Thanks again and I hope to continue this valuable discussion!

  7. John Wihbey says:

    Susanna – Thanks for your note and for alerting us to Planet Forward. I think you are absolutely right that motivation is a key element, and something I neglected here. Much gratitude for raising it. I hope you’ll keep the Forum posted on your project’s progress. Let us know over at Twitter, @yalemediaforum, when new and noteworthy things surface related to climate change. -John