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The Crowd Knows Best — Sometimes

Aug. 10, 2012 - 04:00PM   |  
By MICHAEL PECK   |   Comments
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When you need a surgeon, you want a professional, not someone who learned medicine from watching “General Hospital.” When you need an electrician, you want someone who has been trained in household wiring, and not your neighbor who read a do-it-yourself book.

But should military tactics be the exclusive preserve of professional soldiers? Or does the general public have something to contribute? The question of military professionals vs. amateurs has been around since the ancient Greeks, but recently, the U.S. military has begun experimenting with crowdsourcing, the tactic of gathering ideas from the general public.

First there was the Naval Postgraduate School’s MMOWGLI (Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet), where the public could participate in an online game that involved watching background videos on piracy, then proposing short solutions.

This generated fresh ideas for the Navy while giving the public a taste of strategic issues. Public interest and registrations for the game were so high that the Office of Naval Research had to delay the launch in early 2011.

MMOWGLI reached out to the public again in May, when it encouraged collaboration to solve the ever-present issues of energy efficiency and supplying troops with alternative energy.

James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, said he hoped people from academia, government, non-governmental organizations, the military and industry would all contribute.

The Defense Department also is working with milSuite to crowdsource ideas from within the military on the NIPRNET.

Eureka is an addition to the collection of military-only tools that mirror popular sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia, and it allows contractors and members of the military to submit and upvote ideas that can, in theory, increase efficiency and solve problems in the DoD. Users can also edit the milWiki pages and contribute on-the-ground knowledge that may someday be incorporated into doctrine.

Last month, the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College crowdsourced a proposal for a computer simulation of stability operations, but the difference in approach was interesting. Where MMOWGLI was advertised to the general public, CGSC put its proposal out on Paxsims, a blog run Rex Brynen, a McGill University political science professor who studies military simulations and strategy games. Thus, the feedback mostly came from those with knowledge of defense issues and simulations. Call it targeted crowdsourcing.

Which approach works better depends on how expert the ideas need to be. A wider audience means more potential contributors who bring outside experiences and are likely to think outside the box. Yet reading the comments for online articles shows that the general public — or at least the ones who post online — can be extremely ignorant, not to mention racist, obscene and insane.

What’s important is that the Pentagon is tapping into the collective wisdom. The interesting question is how far this will go. As a means of soliciting solutions that the professional military and the big defense contractors wouldn’t think of, either because of insular mindsets or because new ideas threaten the defense-dollar gravy train, then crowdsourcing works. If it becomes a cheap substitute for solid research and analysis, then the Pentagon will get what it pays for.

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