There is a proliferation of technology that helps us match talent with need. If privacy is protected in the process, this development could have a high impact
Reprinted from The Guardian (Dec. 29, 2015)
Everyday, millions of people use apps like Tinder to find a romantic match. What if governments used similar technology to match the skills of citizens with the most pressing challenges of our time?
The federal government already turns to the public for help online.Challenge.gov, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this fall, showcases requests by government agencies to the public to tackle hard problems in exchange for cash prizes and other incentives. The initiative capitalizes on the simple idea that knowledge is widely dispersed in society and more people will share their innovative insights if asked.
Since its inception in 2010, federal agencies have run more than 450 challenges, turning to the public to help ameliorate problems such as decreasing the “word gap” between children from high-and low-income families or increasing the speed at which saltwater can be turned into fresh water for farming in developing economies.
Yet as appealing as such an open call might be for tapping into the ideas of smart and willing citizens, it will never transform how we govern. That’s because this typical crowdsourcing method fails to use what dating websites have long done: match individuals to what matters to them or, in this case, match people to problems based on what they can do.
Luckily, there are more systematic ways to use matching technology to help identify skills among the general public. Tools, such as LinkedIn, which make knowhow more searchable, are becoming increasingly prevalent. Such tools do more than catalog credentials. The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise so that the person who has taken courses on an online learning platform like Coursera or Udacity can showcase those credentials with a digital badge.
The person who has answered thousands of questions on a question-and-answer website like Stack Exchange or Quora can demonstrate their practical ability and willingness to help. Ratings by other users further attest to the usefulness of their contributions.
Increasingly, these technologies of expertise are making it possible for the individual to make searchable lived experience. The New York police department, for example, maintains a database of employee skills. As the social service agency of last resort, the department needs to be able to pinpoint quickly who within the organization has the know how to wrangle a runaway beehive in Brooklyn or sing the national anthem in Queens in Chinese.
In public institutions, especially, it is all too common for individual knowhow to be masked by vague titles like “manager” and “director”. Using software to give organizations insights about the aptitude of employees has the potential to improve effectiveness and efficiency for public good.
Already an accelerating practice in the private sector, where managers want granular evidence of hard skills not readily apparent from transcripts, this year the World Bank created its own expert network called SkillFinder to index the talents of its 27,000 employees, consultants and alumni. With the launch of SkillFinder, the bank is just beginning to explore how to use the tool to better organize its human capital to achieve the bank’s mission of eradicating poverty.
Giving people outside as well as inside institutions opportunities to share their knowledge could save time, financial resources and even lives. Take the example of PulsePoint, a smartphone app created by the fire department of San Ramon, California. Now used by 1400 communities across the United States, PulsePoint matches those with a specific skill, namely CPR training, with dramatic results.
By tapping into a feed of the 911 calls, PulsePoint sends a text message “CPR Needed!” to those registered members of the public – off-duty doctors, nurses, police and trained amateurs – near the victim. Effective bystander CPR immediately administered can potentially double or triple the victim’s chance of survival. By augmenting traditional government first response, Pulsepoint’s matching has already helped over 7,000 victims.
Employers can accelerate this process by going beyond merely asking employees for HR information and, instead, begin to catalog systematically the unique skills of the individuals within their organization. Many employers are anyway turning to new technology to match employees (and would-be employees) with the right skills to available jobs. How easily they could develop and share databases with public information about who has what experience while at the same time protecting the privacy of personal information.
More tech companies also need to build a wider variety of matching tools to tap talent reliably in the public interest. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, committed to support the creation of a global database of citizen skills.
The most important first step to match people to public service intelligently is for government to take citizen expertise seriously and ask for help. Only then does participation have the potential to become robust and commonplace – and citizenship have the potential to become more active and meaningful.