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Driven by public demand for more civic involvement and government accountability, and fueled by the growth and availability of smartphones and the internet, city governments are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing and open innovation to tap into the collective knowledge, experience, and creativity of their citizens. Cities are filled with passionate, talented people from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives eager to participate and willing to help city leaders tackle tough problems to make their community safer and more livable. Crowdsourcing, a sourcing model for obtaining goods and services, including ideas and finances, from a large group of internet users, can help city governments engage the power of the crowd and ensures their constituents are invested in the community.

The Federal Government has a long history of crowdsourcing. From volunteers across the country submitting weather observations to the National Weather Service via telegraph over 150 years ago to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where citizen input helped guide recovery efforts with information such as which gas stations had fuel and power from backup generators, crowdsourcing has played a vital role providing data that helps federal agencies deliver services and maintain public safety. Cities can apply the same crowdsourcing techniques and tools used by the federal government on a smaller scale to achieve the same benefits. Crowdsourcing at the local level enables citizens to get more involved in the decision-making process, share information on issues that impact their daily lives, volunteer their time and expertise, and help fund the projects and causes they care about most.

Civic Engagement

Crowdsourcing engages the community and inspires citizens to contribute their knowledge, ideas, and opinions to the policymaking process. It keeps the public informed, encourages input, helps build consensus, and motivates the community to participate more actively in municipal governance. Digital crowdsourcing platforms enable citizens to brainstorm collectively and offer creative solutions to specific problems. Crowdsourcing allows city leaders to have back and forth conversations that let their constituents know their ideas are being heard and their opinions matter. Whether collecting data from online services or capturing organic social media data, community feedback provides policymakers with access to an abundance of rich data they can use to reach better-informed decisions.

One example of a municipality using crowdsourcing techniques to shape policies and improve public services is the City of Palo Alto California. City leaders in Palo Alto crowdsourced feedback from residents for its Comprehensive City Plan (CCP) update. The CCP was Palo Alto’s urban planning blueprint, covering transportation, housing, and growth management strategies. First, the city asked the residents to share their ideas on topics, including transportation, urban growth management, and housing reform, using an online platform called Open City Hall. The Open City Hall input was analyzed and synthesized into a comprehensive plan and published on a platform called Digital Commenter. Then residents were invited to comment on the proposed plan using Digital Commenter to annotate the draft, submit their ideas, and comment on input contributed by other users. The crowdsourced input from the Digital Commenter was used to drill down on specific aspects of the plan and solicit more feedback from the public before the City Council made final decisions on CCP policies. Palo Alto is just one example of cities involving the community in policy making decisions and demonstrated that individual citizens are willing to spend their own time to share ideas and engage with city leaders to accomplish policy reform.

Crowdsourcing Data Collection

Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool that city leaders can use to get a better understanding of the conditions in their community and take a more proactive approach to addressing issues directly impacting their lives of their citizens. Thanks to ubiquitous connectivity provided by the rise smartphones and wireless internet access, the public can easily share information in real time about road conditions, graffiti, broken streetlights, and other non-emergency issues.

Many cities, including my home town, Spokane, Washington use crowdsourcing to help expose road maintenance issues. Spokane residents are encouraged to report potholes that need repair by calling the City’s Pothole Hotline or using an online application to add a photo or drop a pin to mark the location of potholes on an interactive map. Spokane city crews use the information to prioritize pothole repairs based on size and location, repairing the largest potholes on the busiest streets first.

Other cities, such as Boston, take it one step further and offer their residents a smartphone app that automatically reports information about road conditions. Before starting out on a trip, Boston drivers can fire up the StreetBump app and place their smartphone on the dashboard of the car. The app leverages the smartphone’s accelerometer and motion detection technology to determine when the car hits a bump and reports the location back to a central database. When enough reports of a problem at a specific location are recorded, city engineers are sent to investigate. Boston city planners rely on StreetBump data to address short-term problems and help them develop plans for long-term investments in road infrastructure.


Microtasking is an effective crowdsourcing tactic used by city governments to urge residents to collectively contribute their ideas, time, or expertise to a project or cause. Breaking down a large job into a series of small tasks and asking people to contribute a small amount of effort enables cities to harness the talents of the community to achieve big objectives. Knowledge bases, such as Wikipedia, and translation projects, like Duolingo, are good examples of the value cities can realize from microtasking projects.

One interesting example of government microtasking is taking place in Finland, where the national library launched a program called Digitalkoot to help digitize its archives. The Finnish national library has millions of pages of valuable historical content online. Searching through the archives using optical character recognition can be problematic, and manual correction is often needed to weed out the mistakes and make pages machine readable. Digitalkoot is a video game that crowdsources the repetitive task of verifying digital records to ensure they are accurate. Players review scanned images of words and then type the words out to help a cartoon character cross a bridge. Digitalkoot players have completed millions of microtasks, turning scanned images into searchable text, vastly improving the accuracy of searching the archives.

In an era when city governments are being asked to do more with less, crowdsourcing microtasks can be an inexpensive method expanding the city’s workforce and farming out repetitive tasks that require a human touch. Microtasking can be used to address a wide range of projects including translation and transcription, research, classification, resizing images, and adding captions to videos.

Innovation and Design Competitions

Innovation and design competitions are popular approaches for incentivizing participation in crowdsourcing projects. A typical crowdsourced innovation contest invites contestants to submit their ideas for addressing a specific challenge and awards a prize for the winning idea. Examples of crowdsourcing contests include the Netflix Challenge, which offered a million dollars for a collaborative filtering algorithm that was 10% more efficient than the Netflix algorithm, and Frito-Lay offering a million-dollar prize for dreaming up a new potato chip flavor.

Crowdsourcing competitions can be directed toward specific groups such as software developers and graphic designers as was the case with the Netflix competition, or open to the entire community like the Frito Lay contest. Either way, these contests can benefit both sides. The contest winner receives the prize while the contest proposer generally owns the rights to all of the contest submissions. Additionally, the competitions enhance brand recognition and create buzz by engaging consumers in a fun and interactive way.

Whether technical or creative, crowdsourcing contests can help cities mobilize citizens with varied skills, experience, and diverse perspectives to foster innovation. They offer cities a cost-effective alternative to hiring consultants, research teams, and designers to collaborate on solutions for the tough challenges facing their community. Competitions that focus on specific needs, ease participation, and emphasize the value of the contest, not just the results, can yield valuable results in return for small stipend, inexpensive prize, or public recognition.

Crowdfunding Civic Projects

Crowdfunding, a type of crowdsourcing, is an effective mechanism for cities to fund local civic projects that fall outside of their budget. Crowdfunding projects or ventures by raising small contributions from a large number of people, typically via the Internet, offers residents the opportunity to vote with their pocketbook and donate to projects impacting their lives. More than just a useful strategy for raising funds for everything from public parks to social programs, crowdfunding is also an effective strategy for getting the community involved in city projects.

Crowdfunding civic projects is not a new concept. In 1885, when government agencies refused to pay for the cost of erecting The Statue of Liberty and fundraising efforts were lagging, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, launched a fundraising drive to raise the needed $100,000. Pulitzer pledged to print the name of every contributor in his paper, regardless of the amount given. Spurred by the heartwarming stories Pulitzer published of children, the elderly, and less fortunate making small donations, the drive soon surpassed the $100,000 required to complete the project. In less than six months over $102,000 was raised from over 160,000 donors, the majority of whom donated less than one dollar.

This same crowdfunding concept has proven successful funding projects across the country, for example:

  • In Denver, a crowdfunding campaign raised money to complete a protected bike lane through the heart of the city.
  • A Kansas City bike share program leveraged $20,000 in online donations to garner $50,000 more in private grants from funders impressed with the level of community commitment.
  • The Summer Heatwave program in Gainesville, FL raises money to fund a teen center where young people can participate in coed athletic activities, pool parties, and life skills classes.
  • Central Falls, RI used crowdfunding to commission public art that doubles as trash receptacles to encourage recycling and keep their parks clean.
  • In New York crowdfunding is being used to raise money for the Marion Street Park Block Association Music Fest to help promote community spirit and well-being.
  • Over $80,000 was raised to help build the Holiday Park dog park in Fort Lauderdale, FL through crowdfunding.


Civic crowdfunding strategies have proven to be successful, not just raising money, but also rallying support for local infrastructure projects. Civic crowdfunding platforms provide cities with tools to track and report the progress of a project and provides citizens with opportunities to comment or ask questions as a project progresses. Civic crowdfunding platforms help build public support by making processes more transparent and project leaders more accountable; leading many experts to contend that the buy-in from the community provided by crowdfunding is often more valuable than the money it can raise.

Crowdsourcing Technology

Digital crowdsourcing platforms offer cities a proven, cost-effective framework for developing innovation strategies, encouraging social collaboration, managing workflow, and analyzing and measuring community data. These platforms leverage advanced technology and abundant connectivity to make it easy for cities to employ crowdsourcing strategies on a grand scale. Sophisticated crowdsourcing platforms make it easy for citizens to collectively contribute their ideas, time, expertise, or funds to a project or cause, and provide the AI and data analytic tools cities can use to draw valuable insights from the data they collect.

Many cities have seen benefits from investing in technology for engaging with their residents to drive change. From empowering low-income citizens with internet access and providing wireless access in public spaces to sustainable, secure, robust, and reliable IT infrastructure that enables consistent user experiences, cities are using crowdsourcing technology to harness the power of ordinary citizens.

Effective crowdsourcing requires a unified network featuring both wired and wireless access that meets citizen demands for collaboration beyond traditional borders, backed by reliable, secure infrastructure for capturing and processing community data. Is your city ready to start realizing the benefits of crowdsourcing? Cerium Networks can help. Before you begin, give us a call to get an assessment of your city’s readiness for achieving your crowdsourcing objectives.

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