Saturday, June 8, 2013

Crowdsourcing and Criminal Justice

Crowdsourcing and the criminal justice system have obvious but usually overlooked links.  To a degree that is because crowdsourcing has been seamlessly integrated into police investigation for so long that it is invisible. But for the practicing  lawyer modern crowdsourcing techniques allow for insights and legal precedents rapidly and inexpensively; the wisdom of crowds can have great value.  

First, however, we need to define what is meant by crowdsourcing. Jeff Howe, who coined the term (with Mark Robinson) says:

"Simply defined, crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers." (
Howe, Jeff (June 2, 2006)."Crowdsourcing: A Definition". Crowdsourcing Blog. Retrieved January 2, 2013.)

The term is new but the concept is not. In 1881 Percy Lefroy Mapleton, wanted for the murder of a coin dealer on a train from London,  was captured after police posted a composite picture of him in a wanted poster reproduced in newspapers across the United Kingdom.  The case generated enormous public interest, and many many false leads but ultimately Mr Mapleton was arrested. Of course in North America the wanted poster was a staple of Victorian era law enforcement. 

Since the Nineteen Century police customarily have relied upon the public to locate suspects as an ordinary part of policing. When the photographs of the Boston Bombing suspects were released - leading rapidly to their apprehension - the police were using both crowdsourcing and traditional police work. 

The release of the Boston Bombing suspects photographs on the Internet does not change the traditional nature of the police work. 

Crowdsourcing is related to the wisdom of crowds. Conceptually the wisdom of crowds assumes that a group of people, acting collectively, will have knowledge and expertise that are superior to that of a single  person no matter how expert. The most obvious modern example of the wisdom of crowds is Wikipedia - a surprising accurate source of information written by no one in particular. 

In the justice system, trial by jury is an example of the wisdom of the crowds, especially when compared to the alternative, trial by a judge, a single expert.  While the crowd - twelve people in a criminal case - is small the concept of truth through multiple viewpoints is the very essence of the wisdom of crowds. 

Of course, the value of crowdsourcing and wisdom of crowds depends on the crowds itself. Social influence can cause the crowd to be less than accurate.  Technical legal issues are unlikely to be answered by a crowd of non-experts.  A crowd of middle-aged white males is unlikely to have helpful knowledge of the challenges faced by aboriginal women (which is one reason why jury selection matters). 

The need to have a crowd with the right background and knowledge leads to the great value of listserves. A listserve is a computer based list where posts made by one person go to hundreds or thousands of other each of whom can reply. The members of the listserve are generally specially qualified - say lawyers practicing criminal law. As a result the dangers of the ignorant answer tend to be limited. 

The main criminal law list serve in Canada links hundreds of criminal defence lawyers across Canada. Questions posted to the listserve get answered rapidly by two or three or ten fellow practitioners. Sometimes the answers are wrong but the global sense is often very helpful. Of course, any use of a listserve must be made with care not to breach privilege. 

Typical questions put to a listserve would be "I have a sexual assault trial tomorrow in front of Justice May Ying; what do people know about her" or "the Crown has filed a notice for enhanced penalty based on 13 year old offences that were pardoned; is the notice valid". 

The answers need to be fact-checked. Maybe the reply is from Justice May Ying's old boyfriend or perhaps there are two judges with that name. Similarly lawyers may make legal mistakes so statutory or case law references need to be reviewed before they are relied on. That said, as a resource listserve  information is tremendously helpful. 


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Anonymous said...

Really interesting James, thanks ​!
​Given your interest, I think that you (and the other readers here) would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across about crowds and such similar phenomena.​ ​
It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here if you’re interested:
In my view it provides a powerful, yet simple model, getting to the heart of the matter. Enjoy!