Crowdsourcing the unemployment rate

What's inflation going to be? Wanna bet?

"Wisdom of the crowds" is a pretty solid phenomenon. Ask a thousand people to guess the number of sweets in a jar, and the average (mean) of their guesses tends to be damn close to the actual number.

What's more interesting is whether the same idea works, not just to guesses, but to forecasts. Specifically, economic forecasts. If you ask a thousand people to guess what the unemployment rate will be in two years time, how will they do?

There are certainly reasons to be hopeful. Information is widely distributed, with little advantage accruing to experts; and in fact, unlike with simply counting sweets, there's likely to be a fair few people with "inside" information (hiring plans, perhaps, or a feel for how their sector is moving), which they may use to inform their guesses. Mix together enough guesses, and you could generate insight.

That's what the Adam Smith Institute and Paddy Power are hoping; the two have teamed up to offer markets in key UK economic statistics. You'll be able to bet on what the rate of inflation and unemployment will be in June 2015; the ASI's Sam Bowman writes that:

By combining the local knowledge of thousands of people, betting markets can outpredict any panel of experts. If these markets catch on, the government should consider outsourcing all of its forecasts to prediction markets instead of expert forecasters.

But there may still be some problems, both with the idea and its implementation.

Betting markets are indeed a theoretically great way of harnessing the wisdom of the crowds. As Bowman writes, the fact that people put money on their predictions means that more confident predictions are weighted higher, and vice versa. But the necessity of teaming up with a bookmaker to launch the idea means that there is a major distortion: the odds the bookie has set. Punters can get 7/2 that inflation will be greater than 5 per cent, and just 5/2 that it will be between 4.01 per cent and 5 per cent. That means that someone who thinks that inflation is most likely to be around 4.75 per cent may take advantage of the higher odds offered if they guess slightly higher. It also means that what Paddy Power think is most likely will skew the guesses.

A better version of the same idea would be to create a prediction market. The difference between the two is that in a market, the crowd takes the role of bookmaker as well as punter. The odds themselves get set procedurally, based purely on where people are betting, and so there's no chance of a bad guess on the bookies' part skewing the predictions.

But even if the market was designed to perfectly get the true thoughts of everyone in the crowd, there's still reasons to doubt that it can be that good at forecasting economic data.

There's quite a specific set of conditions which are required for crowdsourcing to work. James Surowiecki, who coined the phrase "wisdom of crowds", describes four: Diversity of opinion, independence of opinion, decentralisation of action, and aggregation of information. Of those, the one which is the most problematic in this case is independence. People's guesses aren't secret, and they affect others. That means you could end up seeing a circular mill, where everyone reinforces everyone else's beliefs to the extent that the crowdsourcing breaks down. Think: do you hold your beliefs about what might happen to the unemployment rate based on investigation of the primary data, or based on collation of expert analysis? If it's the latter, you'd be a net harm to the crowdsourcing, contributing largely to the flocking problem.

It would still be nice to get more financial bets. But that's mostly so that I could join in my sportier friends in having something where I feel like my expertise could win me a bit of cash; when it comes to actually trying to work out what will happen, we might have to stick with older methods.

Mark Carney. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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John McDonnell's seminars are restoring Labour's economic credibility

The Shadow Chancellor's embrace of new economics backed by clear plans will see Labour profit at the polls, argues Liam Young.

It’s the economy, stupid. Perhaps ‘it’s the economy that lost Labour the last two elections, stupid’ is more accurate. But I don’t see Bill Clinton winning an election on that one.

Campaign slogan theft aside it is a phrase Labour supporters are all too familiar with. Whatever part of the ‘broad church’ you belong to it is something we are faced with on a regular basis. How can Labour be trusted with the economy after they crashed it into the ground? It is still unpopular to try and reason with people. ‘It was a global crisis’ you say as eyes roll. ‘Gordon Brown actually made things better’ you say as they laugh. It’s not an easy life.

On Saturday, the Labour party took serious steps towards regaining its economic credibility. In January a member of John McDonnell’s economic advisory committee argued that “opposing austerity is not enough”. Writing for the New Statesman, David Blanchflower stated that he would assist the leadership alongside others in putting together “credible economic policies.” We have started to see this plan emerge. Those who accuse the Labour leadership of simply shouting anti-austerity rhetoric have been forced to listen to the economic alternative.

It seems like a good time to have done so. Recent polls suggest that the economy has emerged as the most important issue for the EU referendum with a double-digit lead. Public confidence in the government’s handling of the economy continues to fall. Faith in Cameron and Osborne is heading in the same direction. As public confidence continues to plummet many have questioned whether another crash is close. It is wise of the Labour leadership to offer an alternative vision of the economy at a time in which people are eager to listen to a way by which things may be done better.

Far from rhetoric we were offered clear plans. McDonnell announced on Saturday that he wants councils to offer cheap, local-authority backed mortgages so that first-time buyers may actually have a chance of stepping on the housing ladder. We also heard of a real plan to introduce rent regulations in major cities to ease excessive charges and to offer support to those putting the rent on the overdraft. The plans go much further than the Tory right-to-buy scheme and rather than forcing local authorities to sell off their council housing stock, it will be protected and increased.

It is of course important that the new economics rhetoric is matched with actual policy. But let’s not forget how important the rhetoric actually is. The Tory handling of the economy over the last six years has been dismal. But at the last election they were seen as the safer bet. Ed Miliband failed to convince the British public that his economic plan could lead to growth. The branding of the new economics is simple but effective. It does the job of distancing from the past while also putting a positive spin on what is to come. As long as actual policy continues to flow from this initiative the Labour leadership can be confident of people paying attention. And as economic concerns continue to grow ever more pessimistic the British public will be more likely to hear the Labour party’s alternative plan.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.