In order to legitimately govern, municipalities seek feedback and engagement from actors and bodies beyond the state. Crowdsourced data is one of many inputs used by city governments. From parking spots to water usage, local officials rely on automation for a wide range of purposes including the transmission of payments, the monitoring of service use, the assessment of infrastructure quality, and collection of user data. Officials may also scrape external databases, or gain access to data from businesses through agreements in order to supplement the information from city-governed digital platforms. Public opinion and direct contributions to city efforts may also be crowdsourced. But what does “crowdsourcing” mean as it applies to inclusive and participatory municipal decision-making? This paper contributes to the scholarly discussion of both urban governance and data by sketching an image of crowdsourcing in the municipal context as it relates to public participation. Like other terms related to technological innovation and the city, such as “smart city,” the term crowdsourcing is often used without any consistent definition – and there is little clarity even when meanings are given.
This paper contributes to this scholarly conversation by contextualizing and situating crowdsourcing in the context of public participation. I outline participatory efforts in three recent novel initiatives in Toronto, Canada to understand participation focused on the idea generation stage in different forums. In two circumstances, efforts were made to engage with historically marginalized communities in different forums. I advance that these participatory initiatives are rightly conceptualized as inclusive, participatory crowdsourcing, whereby specific communities are engaged in idea generation in novel forums and with equity considerations in mind. The paper concludes by analyzing how crowdsourcing reimagines public participation at the local scale, assessing the implications for inclusive decision-making and democratic legitimacy.