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Can we use the wisdom of the crowd to build resilience?

Posted by Dante Dalabajan BINDS Project Manager

24th Oct 2013

David a fisherman and a member of the Agta-Dumagat indigenous community, Philippines. Credit: Simon Rawles/Oxfam

In the first in a series of blog posts Dante Dalabajan,  project manager of an Oxfam GB adaptation programme in the Philippines, reflects on the importance of consulting local communities. The series is based on an email exchange between Dante, and Daniel Morchain, our global adviser on resilience.

Can we use the wisdom of the crowd to build resilience? I'm going to push the boat out and say that in my view you can. But don't stop reading here, there's more. Participatory capacity and vulnerability assessment (PCVA) is a particularly useful tool for understanding geological, meteorological, and social risks from the perspective of the community.  But it must also go hand in hand with other data gathering tools to arrive at a fairly accurate assessment of the risks involved, the probabilities of occurrence, the duration and degree of impact, and therefore the range of options to deal with the risks.  PCVA should not supplant but rather complement other analytical tools.  I'll elaborate on this shortly, but first, let me delve into the PCVA's theoretical underpinnings and why it makes sense.

Do we really need the accurate measurement to the last millilitre of how fast the water rises with x amount of rainfall to build an appropriate flood early warning system?Critics of participatory research methods, including the PCVA, argue that these methods lack scientific rigour with which to base critical nay life-saving decisions.  The way development practitioners have responded to this critique is to deflect the question away from 'method' and to focus instead on 'participation' by saying that participation is both a process (of empowering local communities to decide for themselves) and the outcome (ownership of people of both the process and the result).  Does this riposte settle the question of the empirical problem at hand i.e. if two PCVAs are administered in two exactly similar subjects using the same set of questions, will exactly the same result come out?  Any development practitioner worth his salt will say, no, it doesn't. 

However, the questions of validity and replicability do not invalidate the PCVA result entirely as a tool for analysis and planning.  The reason lies in the relative importance of precision. Do we really need the accurate measurement to the last millilitre of how fast the water rises with x amount of rainfall to build an appropriate flood early warning system?

In fact participatory research methods like PCVA will pass the test of intellectual rigour if practitioners abide by certain standards.  I know this from practical experience. When we looked at 30 year weather data on rainfall and temperature from the Philippine weather bureau, I wasn't surprised to find out that the highest temperature and rainfall on record 'almost' perfectly matched with the responses of the communities on extreme flooding, drought and extent of damage and losses from disasters. The observations by ordinary villagers allowed us to imagine what an appropriate early warning system should look like, with some allowances on the higher threat potential based on predicted changes.

The wisdom of the crowd

How the wisdom of the crowd arrives at a fairly accurate measure remains to be a subject of academic speculations but the reality is that its usage now reaches far and wide from social science research, to development planning, to monitoring and impact evaluation and similar other activities that require quantitative measurements so much so that it is pitted against rigid analytics within the Newtonian tradition. 

Download the PCVAThe Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, one of the leading contemporary thinkers, and a sceptic on intuitive thinking has lectured on the fact that experiments after experiments have proven that, in making predictions,  pundits and experts (and if I may add, the HIPPOs or the highest paid persons' opinions) are no better than ordinary people who read the New York Times.  Anybody who doubts this should only ask whether any pundit ever predicted the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, a year before they happened.  I'm digressing, yes, but you can see the drift. 

By saying these, I do not mean to disparage science at all only to say that ordinary people could also offer invaluable insights to a problem and how to solve it. 

There are a number of projects that taps into the enormous power of the collective.  Amazon.com reviews, ebay buyer and seller satisfaction ratings all base their algorithms largely on the wisdom of the crowd.  Google's Flu Trends, which aims to anticipate where the next epidemic will hit taps into the wisdom of the crowd by tracking the frequency and locations of searches for flu-related terms, and is now seen to be the cutting edge of developing an epidemics early warning system. 

These are just some of the reasons why we should have more faith in participatory processes.

Read more

Main picture: David a fisherman and a member of the Agta-Dumagat indigenous community, Philippines. Credit: Simon Rawles/Oxfam


Blog post written by Dante Dalabajan

BINDS Project Manager

More by Dante Dalabajan

Dante Dalajaban