The RAND Corporation has developed a new system for obtaining and analyzing opinions from a large number of respondents by systematically integrating online and social media technology with traditional research methods.

The new system, ExpertLens, under development for more than three years, incorporates the best of face-to-face meetings, questionnaires and crowdsourcing for predictive purposes. According to RAND, ExpertLens can be applied to research areas such as public policy, health care, finance and other subjects where panels are valued as an important research tool. In particular, ExpertLens allows researchers to access a broader sample of stockholders more easily and allows for more dynamic discussions among people with varying degrees of knowledge of the subject matter.

“Expert panels have long been used to pursue research across a broad area of policy,” said Siddhartha Dalal, the study’s lead author and chief technology officer at RAND, in a released statement. “This new system allows expert panels to be done online in a robust way that resembles fact-to-face meetings, but with lower costs and easier analysis of the information gathered.”

According to RAND, there is a three-step process to ExpertLens that allows for results to be quickly compiled and analyzed. First, participants answer a series of questions. That is followed by participants reviewing the group’s responses in an online discussion forum. In the final phase, participants re-answer the initial questions after having digested what they learned in phase two.

RAND is making ExpertLens available to clients and intends to remain involved in all stages of its deployment to maintain the system’s integrity, said Dmitry Khodyakov, ExpertLens developer and RAND researcher.

ExpertLens has been tested in multiple studies, including an analysis of potential litigation stemming from a hypothetical terrorist bombing of a hotel and to evaluate the federal response to the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. RAND researchers say they are continuing to refine the system, seeking to better understand, among other things, group size, participant diversity and the impact of the methods used for group discussions.