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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.