Expert Labs to Help Support Policymakers by Tapping into “Cloud Expertise”

“All of us together are smarter than any one of us alone,” social-media pioneer Anil Dash said when asked why AAAS has launched Expert Labs. An independent effort to enhance the policy-making process, Expert Labs will leverage and extend the potential of social networking—a technological realm popularized by public systems such as Facebook or Twitter.


Anil Dash

“There has been a lot of attention on how the government is using new technology to talk to citizens,” Dash added. “Expert Labs is about making technology that helps government listen to citizens.”

Such technologies have the potential to “make our government better, make our society better, advance scientific research, and make people feel more connected to those social institutions that serve them,” said Dash.

He will announce the Expert Labs project 18 November during a keynote address at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City.

Dash credited AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science, with coining the term “cloud expertise” to explain how Expert Labs will help policy-makers harness the wisdom of crowds—particularly the expertise of scientists, technologists, and other citizens with specialized knowledge on key topics.

“Opening government up to a broad array of expertise is the next logical step in improving American policy-making,” Leshner said. “The goal of the Expert Labs initiative is to help policy-makers tap into the full spectrum of insights on critical issues, using technology to encourage the broadest possible participation by citizens.”

Expert Labs—supported by a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—will be directed by Dash, who helped found the pioneering blogging-software company, Six Apart. He is the publisher of an influential blog at Dashes.com.

Dash said that the new initiative's name reflects its goal of bringing three distinct communities of experts together: “We're going to tap into the expertise of the policy community to identify what questions need to be answered,” he explained. “We're going to tap into the technology community to collaboratively build platforms that help get those questions answered, and finally, we'll tap into the science and technology communities to provide the answers themselves.”

Policy-makers could use social networking to solicit expert input on draft legislation, Dash noted, just as Internet users now routinely use technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail to poll friends before making household purchases. Ultimately, he said, Expert Labs will help to incubate new technology platforms for capturing and sharing expertise on emerging policies on almost any issue, from science and technology, to public health, and more.

Leshner described the effort as a perfect fit for the non-partisan, non-profit AAAS, which seeks to promote the effective use of science in public policy while also enhancing communication among scientists, engineers, and the public. The MacArthur Foundation provided initial project support, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has agreed to provide input on possible science and technology test cases.

Expert Labs will develop innovative solutions for sharing expertise by adapting some of the best techniques from technology startups and venture capital firms to help meet the needs of policy-makers and government agencies.

Leshner expressed enthusiasm for Dash's leadership of the new initiative. “Anil brings tremendous know-how to the Expert Labs challenge because he's such a well-recognized expert on Web technology, Web culture, and the software industry,” he said. “His reputation as an advocate for social Web technologies makes him a perfect fit for helping policy-makers connect to experts by using those same technologies.”

A recognized pioneer in blogging and social networking, Dash said that his experience shows how “technology change is also cultural change and societal change.” Key to the challenge, he said, will be successfully rallying his fellow Web innovators to contribute their creative problem-solving skills to Expert Labs. As an incentive, development grants will be available, he added.

He encouraged anyone interested in tracking Expert Labs to log onto the site at www.expertlabs.org and register for updates via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail.

“You don't have to work for the government to work for your country,” Dash said. “Technologies that make our lives richer and make it more fun to connect to our friends, like social networking, also have practical uses in solving some of the biggest challenges that face society.”


Jennifer Anderson assisted with the production of the related Skype video interview with Anil Dash