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Making Large-Scale Collaborations Effective: Lessons from “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science”

In 1999, the reigning world chess champion played against 50,000 people through the Internet. Entitled “Kasparov versus the World,” chess players (experts and amateurs) collaborated to play the black pieces while Kasparov alone played the white pieces. Anyone can suggest a move, discuss the moves, and vote on moves. Whichever move received the highest vote was then sent in response to Kasparov’s moves. Kasparov eventually won but he later claimed that it was the hardest game of chess he had ever played.

Michael Nielsen (2012), author Reinventing Discovery, uses this game as an example of the power of large-scale collaboration. He also examines other large-scale citizen science collaborations to determine what makes some collaborative projects work while others fail even though they may use similar tools and have similar goals. Nielson argues that online tools amplify collective intelligence through various ways:

1. Finding microexpertise – either due to personal interest or professional experience, there is an expert on every subject in human knowledge. The problem is fitting that expert to a problem that this person could solve better than anyone else. For example, a nonprofit organization sent out an online challenge to design a reliable solar-powered wireless router that is cheap and easy to make. The contest was won by a 31-year old amateur radio operator who had experimented with solar panels since he was a teenager (Nielsen, 2012, p. 23).
2. Designed serendipity – you may have experienced a happy accident when you discovered just what you needed when you weren’t even looking for it. Many discoveries in science occurred through serendipity such as the discovery of penicillin. What online collaboration does is increase the chances of serendipitous discoveries so that they become common and part of the problem-solving process.
3. Idea chain reactions – closely related to micro expertise and designed serendipity is how one idea triggers another idea that triggers another idea until you have a cascade of ideas leading to the eventual solution. You have seen this at work in small-group brainstorming so you can imagine how online forums with thousands of participants can greatly increase the number of idea chain reactions.

Nielsen (2012) also found three necessary conditions for successful large-scale online collaboration:

1. Praxis – in describing successful citizen science projects like the Polymath Project and the Galactic Zoo, Nielson (2012) claims that what made these collaborations successful is that the participants have a common body of knowledge – praxis – to draw upon (p. 75). With a shared praxis, people can better agree on the eventual solution. In fields without praxis (such as politics) there will often be unresolvable disagreements from the what the actual problem is to the final course of action.
2. Scaling through modularity and microcontributions – the idea is to divide up the project into modules so that participants can see how their microexpertise will best contribute to a particular task. It can be something as simple as identifying if a galaxy is a spiral galaxy or suggesting just one chess move. These microcontributions are aggregated into larger contributions up to the completed solution.
3. Feedback that coordinates expertise – there needs to be objective and measurable feedback that helps the participants determine how close they are to resolving the problem. This also helps in channeling the chain reaction of ideas into productive paths.

Even though Nielsen’s (2012) focus as on citizen science, I believe that the three conditions above are also applicable to collaborative projects between government and citizens. By building large-scale online collaborative engagements on the principles of praxis, modularity, and feedback, governments can realize the benefits of microexpertise, designed serendipity, and idea chain reactions in solving some of the most pressing public problems.

Disclaimer: All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employers or any organizations I am a member and should not be construed as such.

Nielsen, M. (2012). Reinventing discovery: The new era of networked science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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