The blog Mobiledia reported on May 6th 2011 on the announcement by the National Trust of the UK that they would be operating a real-world farm along the lines of the popular on-line game Farmville. The Trust's announcement has since been greeted with a flurry of commentary. I'll get to that in a moment, but first, a few words about the farm itself.
The National Trust has invited 10,000 participants to pony up roughly $50 each to participate in running the farm, the 2,500 acre Wimpole Estate. Decisions about crops and procedures will then be 'crowdsourced' to these 10,000 virtual 'farmers' and decisions will be made via the 'wisdom of crowds'. To assist the farmers, the National Trust will supply information through blogs and Youtube videos about various agricultural and commercial matters of relevance.
The project piggy-backs on the enomous popularity of the Farmville game.
But crowdsourcing management decisions is not entirely new. In the blog CMI, Adi Gaskell, in reporting on the announcement, noted that a similar experiment called "My Football Club" had taken place a few years ago; 32,000 fans ponied up a similar fee to participate in managing a pro football team. Unfortunately the excitement wore off quickly and participation fell rapidly to about 3,000. When the operators put the question of retaining crowdsourcing or returning the team to professional management to the surviving participants, only 132 even bothered to vote.
What then is the likely fate of the Real-world Farmville?
According to James Surowiecki, author of the book on The Wisdom of Crowds, a crowdsourcing project requires four conditions in order to be successful:
1. Diversity of opinions: participants must be drawn from diverse populations;
2. Independence: participants' decisions are not deetermined by other participants;
3. Decentralization: people can draw on specialized knowledge and local information not available to others; and
4. Aggregation: there must exist a reliable mechanism for converting the many private judgments into a collective decision.
Gaskell asks us to consider the crowdsourced farm in terms of these criteria, pointing out that even if the initial participation is diverse, the decline in popularity is likely to make the eventual crowd much less so (as it is now built from die-hards). Because the trust will supply all of the information about the farm to participants (who are also free to visit the farm in person but in most cases will not) the participants will not be independent, and will not be able to draw on their differentiated local knowledge. Something akin to groupthink is thus cooked into the operating procedure, defeating the wisdom of the crowd.
Gaskell concludes that the Trust is unlikely to produce a profitable and effective farm through crowdsourcing. (Let us grant that the Trust will succeed, and already has, in bringing a lot of attention to itself by grabbing some of the attention paid to Farmville the game).
The question remains: could a school be crowdsourced to its local community? Could state educational policy be crowdsourced to citizens. Please share your own ideas about whether this would be an interesting, a wise, a democratic or an effective way to run public education 'by the people'.