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 defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred