Friday, 5 October 2012

Crowd sourcing and consumer rights — a powerful combination

Julianna Smith, Policy Advocate for Consumer Focus in the UK, looks at the possibilities of crowd-sourced maps for the consumer movement.

Last year a web map appeared that displayed real time reports of people in India who were experiencing a power cut. It came about after Twitter users – fed up with the unreliable power supply during the summer – began a discussion with the hashtag #powercutindia

They used it to report details such as the location and duration of the power outage and whether it was planned or not. Given the high response rate, some of the tweeters took the initiative to feed the tweets into an infographic that collected and mapped this information, thereby highlighting the need for investment.

The map has since expanded to include many other methods of reporting and has helped to develop a better understanding of electricity demand by exposing areas where there is a need for investment in power production and distribution. 

The map creators also aimed to use the map to draw more attention to the rural areas of India which they say have been previously neglected in public discussions. This type of interactive map is often referred to as a ‘crowd-sourced map’.
The power cuts in India map is one of many examples that demonstrate how crowd sourcing supports empowerment and helps consumer representatives better understand and respond to emerging issues. 

 Other recent examples include the London Borough of Hackney’s Citizens Advice Bureau’s housing benefit map showing the effects of the changes in legislation to housing benefits and BBC’s 3G mobile data network crowd-sourcing map which challenges the availability rates that had originally been suggested. 

A new world of opportunity

Further exploration of cases like these can be found in our new report Putting problems on the map

It illustrates how data collected in this manner can complement and enhance traditional forms of intelligence gathering.

Interactive maps offer the opportunity for consumers to report their experiences. The geographical element means these maps can work as powerful visibility tools. Common features, such as the clusters of ‘flagged’ reports and the ability to filter reports according to the map’s key (for example, by company), mean that displaying data in this way paints clear pictures of emerging problems or hubs of activity.

This type of tool also produces real-time data. Not only can this result in a powerful early warning system, but it visualises the changes in consumer sentiment and the prevalence of an issue over time. 

Generated data can also be stored and re-used for further analysis. For instance, other data sets can be plotted on the same map in the form of additional layers as a way of investigating possible correlations. Maptube is a good example of a tool designed for this process.

With these online maps, organisations can communicate among themselves as well as directly with consumers to capture information on the specifics of a consumer issue – be it a roll-out, a collective buying initiative or customer service related issues. 

For example, bodies such as Trading Standards could use this type of tool to help address interregional problems and determine how to co-ordinate responses in each of the affected regions. This is valuable as many issues surrounding consumer detriment spread across local authority boundaries.

For other users, this service would function as a valuable tool to raise awareness of matters affecting their local area. Importantly, all of this can be achieved through user-friendly services that in some instances are more straightforward, convenient and powerful than conventional channels.

Since several of our own policy areas would benefit from mapped consumer-contributed data, we are in the process of trialling this technology with the hope of using it in future projects. Issues we have in mind include: collaborative buying of renewable technologies, community or area-based roll-outs of new policy initiatives and mis-selling.

There appear to be many advantages to consumer crowd-sourced maps. They can amplify consumer voices and present the opportunity for co-operation between consumers and the various bodies that work on their behalf. 

The intelligence that these maps capture can help bring greater transparency and scrutiny to provider performances; and can support consumers in collaborating on peer-led responses. In doing so, they form part of wider trends in the new and powerful forms of consumer empowerment initiatives that are driven by social technologies.

Build your own map

If you are interested in setting up your own map, you can go to Crowdmap.  Crowdmap is designed and built by the people behind Ushahidi, a platform that was originally built to crowd-source crisis information. 

Crowdmap allows you to set up your own map of Ushahidi without having to install it on your own web server. It is fast, free and easy to use; you sign up, choose a location and start plotting reports, information and other data right away.

mySociety , an organisation whose mission is to help people become more powerful in the civic and democratic parts of their lives through digital means, are also helping those in other countries to set up new web applications. They have developed free and open-source software for individuals and organisations who want to build copies of the sites they build.

FixMyStreet and MapIt are now available for people around the world to use, making it easier than ever to reuse code and set up new sites that help people fix things that matter to them.

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