I recently wrote that citizen intelligence is growing, and that if it gets big enough it may have important implications for traditional intelligence organisations (see here).

What would it take for citizen intelligence to really shape the landscape of intelligence provision? I mentioned that a convergence of five new conditions have made today’s level of citizen intelligence possible (information, search, networks, collaboration platforms, and analytical tools), but added that a sixth is needed for citizen intelligence to become a real force. 

That sixth ingredient is a marketplace. 

Think back about ten years, before Airbnb.  Peer-to-peer short-stay accommodation was growing as people advertised spare rooms and empty apartments on internet forums like Craigslist. Then Airbnb came along and transformed this space, not by providing rooms, but by providing a marketplace – a way in which those seeking short-stay accommodation could find suppliers, and safely transact with them to mutual advantage.

Importantly, Airbnb didn’t merely connect existing seekers with existing owners.  Once Airbnb was working well, many more people realised they could start making money – or more money – by entering the short-stay market.  This increased supply drove more demand, and vice versa.   In short, a good marketplace powers a growing market.  

Currently, there is an intelligence market, of sorts. A great deal of intelligence is purchased from private organisations.  These known and trusted providers are like the premium hotel chains, delivering familiar services at hefty prices. 

However there is no market for citizen intelligence. There are currently no buyers, and no sellers.  Citizen intelligence is being produced, but there is no practical way for organisations to task or commission citizens to furnish intelligence products, and there’s no way for citizens to sell their wares.  Citizen intelligence hasn’t yet found it’s Airbnb.  

Marketplaces come in many shapes and forms.  Many, like Airbnb and farmers’ markets, enable sellers to bring and display already-produced wares available for immediate sale.  However intelligence generally consists of up-to-date information and insights about a changing world, focused on addressing the interest and situation of the buyer.  A citizen intelligence marketplace would have to give priority to what the buyers want, not what the sellers already have. 

A good model here may be StackOverflow, the website where programmers pose technical questions and other programmers – “citizen developers” – post responses.  The questioner can nominate the response which best answers their question. Also, the crowd can vote responses up or down, and so collectively rank the responses for quality. 

StackOverflow has been very successful, with vast numbers of technical questions being posed and answered day in, day out.  The extent of knowledge generation and sharing that has taken place over the decade or so of its existence is impressive, though some have been arguing that it has lost much of its mojo. While (I think) not as large as Wikipedia, the comparison can at least be made seriously

A critical difference between the sites is that Wikipedia is supply-driven; “suppliers” (editors) determine what is available on the site.  StackOverflow is demand-driven; people with questions drive the conversation, and often get answers very quickly. 

StackOverflow is finely tuned to a particular type of citizen knowledge generation and sharing (programmer’s technical issues).  The StackOverflow model and architecture would not work for a citizen intelligence marketplace. Indeed StackExchange does apply the model and architecture in many different domains; notably, many of these (e.g., philosophy) are disappointing. 

So how would a successful citizen intelligence marketplace be designed? I’ll be taking that up following posts, and address some of the many challenges such a marketplace would face.     

Bazaar image from here.

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