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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser