Crowdsourcing debt identification

Last updated on June 16th, 2021 at 01:53 pm

I have often expressed the view that the people of the organization know where much of their technical debt is, or they can find it fairly quickly. To exploit this resource, what’s needed is a systematic method for gathering what they know to produce a database that can serve as a starting point for further investigation. We might call this part of the debt identification process “crowdsourcing debt identification.”

A crowd
A crowd. Crowds are powerful when they coordinate their actions.

When an organization first undertakes to manage its technical debt, one of the many initial tasks is identifying its existing technical debt. There are tools for executing some of this task, at least for software assets, and they are useful. But because they’re in an early stage of development, and because many non-software assets also carry technical debt, human assistance is required. And that’s the place where crowdsourcing can help.

For example, if you ask engineers for examples of technical debt in the assets they work on regularly, they can rattle off a few examples without hesitation. But a few days later, while working on whatever task has focus that day, they’ll realize that they could have mentioned another painful item. And they’ll want to report it. Gathering that kind of information is very helpful to the debt identification effort. That’s crowdsourcing in action.

But investment is required for crowdsourcing to be effective. We must educate the people who will be doing the reporting, and we must give them tools to make reporting quick and easy.

Reporting issues

Crowdsourcing debt identification will produce a stream of “incident reports” by Debt Reporters (DRs) that must be interpreted by people we might call Debt Report Administrators (DRAs), who then recast the reports for later investigation by experts in the assets involved. Common difficulties that add to workload of DRAs include:

Inconsistent definitions of technical debt

Lack of uniformity in understanding what technical debt is and isn’t can cause DRs to report as potential debt items some artifacts that aren’t manifestations of technical debt, or worse, they might fail to report items that are.

Only education of the DRs about the organizational definition of technical debt can enhance consistency.

Repeated reporting of previously reported debt items

Unaware that an item has been previously reported, DRs might file reports unnecessarily. Some of these duplications are easily identified, but if the language used in the report is different enough, identifying duplicates can take time.

We can reduce duplication by making available descriptions of previously reported items in multiple forms.

Inconsistent descriptions of debt items

DRA must be able to recognize when two different DRs use different language to describe the same debt item. If they do not, then the debt report database will contain an unrecognized duplication.

The asset expert must then address this situation.

Failure to report known debt items

Some people, pressed by the urgency of their “own work,” might not report debt items they know about, or might hurriedly file low-quality reports. A high incidence of this behavior is an indicator of a deeper organizational issue: namely, that some people do not regard technical debt management as a worthy activity.

Tracking report quality and report frequency is one way to determine how much regard the people of the organization have for the debt management effort.

Report format and content

The act of reporting a potential technical debt item must not be burdensome—it must be easy. A Web-based form is a minimum. Users must be able to prefill some fields common to all their reports, and save the result as a template. Fields they might want to prefill include their personal identity and the asset identity. DRs might need several templates, depending upon the number of assets with which they interact. Switching from one template to another must also be easy.

Several authors have proposed report templates, Below is one due to Foganholi, et al.[Foganholi 2015]. (TD is technical debt)

IDTD identification number
DateDate of TD identification
ResponsiblePerson or role who should fix this TD item
TypeDesign, documentation, defect, testing, or other type of debt
ProjectName of project or software application
LocationList of files/classes/methods or documents/pages involved
DescriptionDescribes the anomaly and possible impacts on future maintenance
Estimated principalHow much work is required to pay off this TD item on a three-point scale: High/Medium/Low
Estimated interest amountHow much extra work will need to be performed in the future if this TD item is not paid off now on a three-point scale: High/Medium/Low
Estimated interest probabilityHow likely is it that this item, if not paid off, will cause extra work to be necessary in the future on a three-point scale: High/Medium/Low
IntentionalYes/No/Don’t Know
Fixed byPerson or role who really fix this TD item
Fixed dateDate of TD conclusion
Realized principalHow much work was required to pay off this TD item on a three-point scale: High/Medium/Low
Realized interest amountHow much extra work was needed to be performed if this TD item was not paid off at moment of detection, on a three-point scale: High/Medium/Low

While this template might be useful for tracking the technical debt item, it contains fields that aren’t needed for crowdsourcing debt identification. A simplified template for crowdsourcing debt identification might look like this:

Identifying Report TitleYour identifier for this report
DateDate of report (prefilled)
TypeDrop down menu of debt types, including “other”
ProjectName of the project sponsoring the work which led to your observation of the debt item
Location of debt itemList of assets involved, including specific location within complex assets
DescriptionDescribe the debt item including
  • Whether your current effort has created it and if so, how

  • Possible impact on present or future maintenance or enhancement efforts

  • Whether it has led to, or is a result of, contagion

  • How it’s affecting your work
IntentionalYes/No/Don’t Know
Asset experts then receive these reports and take one or more of the following actions:
  • Seek further information from the DR.
  • Reject the report as not involving technical debt. (Rejection data is used to assess the effectiveness of the education program)
  • Attach the report to a new or existing debt item, incorporating relevant information from the report into the debt item’s data.

What the asset experts produce, which contains information like that suggested by Foganholi, et al. will be the basis of further analysis and eventual retirement of the debt item.

Last words

Investment in ease-of-use for the reporting process is essential for at least three reasons:
  • The reporting responsibility might  be seen as an addition burden beyond the current workload.
  • In many organizations, reporting on technical debt might be seen as a secondary responsibility.
  • Unless technical debt retirements rapidly become common occurrences, reporting might be seen as a waste of effort. The reporting itself must therefore be easy.

These phenomena all exert negative pressure on report quality and tend to suppress report frequency. Ease-of-use can mitigate these effects.


[Foganholi 2015] Lucas Borante Foganholi, Rogério Eduardo Garcia, Danilo Medeiros Eler, Ronaldo Celso Messias Correia, and Celso Olivete Junior. “Supporting technical debt cataloging with TD-Tracker tool,” Advances in Software Engineering 2015, 4.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 7, 2018

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