Last year I explored the idea of crowdsourcing problems.  The gist of the post was:

The crowdsourcing of problems could accelerate the time it takes businesses to identify gaps in current product or service offerings and spend more time developing better solutions to those problems for businesses and/or consumers. Of course, the danger is that we don’t just want innovators focusing on immediate problems as it may lead to unexplored paths (which, often times are the most interesting and groundbreaking). However, I would think that certain types of innovators and firms would select themselves into a more direct problem-solving approach to innovation versus a more open, exploratory exercise.

The same could easily be said about academia.  Often times the hardest part of research is determining what it is we need to solve for and which problems are (or, should be) a priority.

Related to this idea, a colleague of mine, Charlie Carpenter, points to a really interesting initiative by the Division of the Social Sciences at Harvard–determining the “hard problems” in the social sciences.  On April 10th, a number of heavy hitters from the social sciences met to discuss what these knotty problems were and how to address them.  The site collects all the discussions by the speakers (be sure to check them out).  It also asks visitors to take a poll, the purpose of which is to help determine what problems are the hardest, the most important, and what problems the speaker may have missed.  You can view and take the poll here.  The group has also set up a Facebook page to allow folks to continue the discussion.

I think this is a great initiative.  Of course, the degree to which it is helpful will be determined largely by three factors:

  • Diversity of the respondents: The more diverse the individuals responding, the more reliable the results of the poll will be.  This means not only getting people from multiple disciplines to respond, but also people from outside academia who can bring even greater diversity to the questions.
  • Independence of the respondents: The respondents should be independent from one another–that means we need to have people outside of the graduate students of the heavy hitters answering questions, since often times their perspective is heavily influenced by who they have chosen to train under.
  • Localization of the respondents: Parts of academia have often been charged with being to Euro- or US-Centric (on the latter point, the study of international relations and political economy are often charged with being too US-Centric).  The poll will work best if they manage to engage respondents from numerous disciplines as well as numerous geographies.

I do not know the extent to which they group is taking seriously the need to manage and engage the responding community in order to get the most out of the crowdsourcing effort, but of course this is also key to such an effort. Also, at present I am not so sure they have done enough to institute and promote the proper incentives for respondents, but I have to investigate more.

Either way, it is a very interesting initiative.