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Crowdsourcing: a Bay Area solution to a DC problem

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OCTOBER 11, 2013

The morning of Oct. 1, online healthcare exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act opened up around the country against the backdrop of federal agencies closing down and UC Berkeley students grudgingly accepting the reality of class despite the explosion on campus. While the launch survived Tea Party inanity, it did run into technical issues. Some of these issues — such as higher-than-expected site traffic — were unforeseen. Many, however, were known even before the exchanges launched, as The New York Times reported earlier that week. Although this seems like a Washington problem, allow me to propose a very Bay Area solution.

Economics teaches us our activities are limited by the quantity of resources we have. No doubt some of the technical issues with the health care exchanges were due to limited resources — specifically, time, money and ideas. The government could hire only a limited number of individuals to write code for its software and only had a limited amount of time before the exchanges had to be launched. But what if such limits on resources could be lifted? What if instead of just a couple hundred employees designing the exchanges, a couple hundred thousand could? What if we crowdsourced the development to the general public? We could have a nearly unbounded number of man-hours. And the outcome would surely be greater than the sum of the efforts put in by each individual due to a synergistic effect.

Crowdsourcing — taking a job usually performed by a designated agent and “outsourcing” it to a large group of people — can go beyond just the health care exchanges. Every November, we are reminded of issues with electronic voting systems, which can hinder our ability to perform perhaps the most basic of our civic duties. Instead of making voters feel uncertain about whether their vote is properly counted, government can ask for their help in making sure it is. Similarly, budgets can be crowdsourced. Instead of politicians and special interests deciding how government makes and spends money, let the citizens offer their best ideas. I can almost guarantee education would be made a higher priority, while senseless subsidies would be rolled back.

Further, crowdsourcing allows citizens to take part in government in a uniquely 21st century manner. As Newark mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker likes to say, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Being part of the democratic process is a responsibility of living in a democracy. Not everyone wants to run for office or work on a campaign, perhaps on account of the antics witnessed on C-SPAN. Yet many want to do more than cast a ballot. This gives those people a chance to take part in government in a very meaningful way. And given the fact that government touches nearly every aspect of our lives, I’m sure anyone who wants to will be able to find someway to get involved. At UC Berkeley, with our strong inclination toward public service and activism, trying to solve some of the challenges our country faces could perhaps become part of relevant classes.

Of course, there are many unintended consequences and points of concern that should be considered — cybersecurity perhaps being the most significant. With so many people having access to specifications of what government needs done, questions about data security are only natural. Before croudsourcing government activity can become a reality, a dialogue must be had over who can know what. And ideas and solutions that come out of crowdsourcing ought to be thoroughly vetted to prevent any harm. Admittedly, many activities, perhaps those dealing with national security, would remain private. But just because people cannot work on every aspect of government policy does not mean they should be prevented from doing something.

We hear a lot about government being broken. Politicians often run for election on the platform of being outsiders wanting to “fix government.” But if we really want to reform our government and minimize its inefficiencies, we have to let new ideas permeate it. These new ideas are not going to come in the form of soundbites and filibusters. They will come from all of us tinkering with the nuts and bolts of our government. And, at a time when our government can’t keep itself up and running, these new ideas are invaluable.

 Tejas Dave is a sophomore at UC Berkeley.

Editor's note: Tejas Dave is a former Daily Cal staff member.

JANUARY 16, 2014