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March 19, 2008

Crowdsourcing 101: Episode 4 – Concluding Thoughts

This is Part 4 of my 4 part Crowdsourcing series. Check out Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3  if you missed them.

(Thank you, Miro Slodki and Alex Orlando of InnoCentive, for your "crowdsisting")

Ah, so we’ve come to the “conclusion” part.  (If you’ve read any of the others in this series, what do you think the odds are that I will be brief… ?) 

Although it’s clear that soliciting input is not new in and of itself, the internet has broadened the scope of consultation and collaboration, and innovative companies are rapidly throwing their hat into the ring.  Great strides are being made by tapping into the collective and connecting nature of the internet.   And Crowdsourcing companies such as Cambrian House and InnoCentive are expanding (respectively) “into business, engineering and computer science, among other things” and “to accommodate projects across a broader range of industries”.)

Certainly concerns about the process are valid, but the assumption that Crowdsourcing generally involves a bunch of people collaborating to arrive at a decision is somewhat false.  Such “complete collaboration” does exist but, by and large, Crowdsourcing companies tend to apply the “public agreement” phase mostly to the voting concept (if they apply it at all).

Further, going outside the 4 walls of a company is not (necessarily) a comment on the lack of efficiency or innovativeness of the company or its employees.  No one business can have staff that possesses every possible skill.  And allowing “an outsider” to look at a problem can sometimes produce innovative solutions.  Goldcorp and Colgate-Palmolive both used Crowdsourcing to find solutions to problems they were not able to solve in-house.  They understood that someone “out there” could look at their issue from another angle.   (If you’ve ever asked anyone to proofread something you’ve read 40 times only to have them notice a glaring error you understand this situation exactly.)   Jeff Howe, in his upcoming book, “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business”, describes this concept:

"The untrained are also untainted. Their greatest asset is a fresh set of eyes, which is simply a restatement of the truism that with many eyes, all flaws become evident, and easily corrected.

Doin’ Good

Activism has always been a matter of gathering people with similar viewpoints for a cause and the Internet is ideal for bringing people with similar interests together.  Crowdsourcing allows for uniting and adds more opportunities to take action.  For instance, the National Resources Defense Council has created “Beat the Heat” which encourages people to “fight global warming – one person at a time”.  (And humanitarian organizations have also applied Crowdfunding to fund charitable ventures, e.g. Kiva).

American Express’ “The Members Project" “enables American Express® Cardmembers to come together as a community by submitting and sharing their project ideas for making a positive impact in the world.”  InnoCentive and the Rockefeller Foundation have partnered for philanthropic projects, which “will enable researchers and entrepreneurs addressing the needs of poor or vulnerable people to access the same opportunities for innovation as Fortune 500 companies.”  (Two notable examples produced from this union are: the Open Innovation Challenge posted by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and the improvement of the flashlight for SunNight Solar.)

Joe Solomon, a Social Media Consultant for non-profits and social change startups, describes the future of non-profits and the web as follows: 

"The most robust and successful nonprofits have relied on and engaged their members for fund raising, volunteers, social actions, future direction etc. long before we had a connected web.  In a sense, they've always been pushing the limits of crowdsourcing - except they've been doing it off-line.  So what we'll see in the future is more and more innovative adaption of web-based and mobile tools that encourage further collaboration for positive change.  You can see this in how MoveOn.org relied on their members' votes  before they decided to endorse and campaign for Barack Obama.  Also check out Greenpeace's past campaign to save the whales that relied on their members' ideas and their successful campaign against Apple that relied on their members' word-of-mouth.  We'll see more of this kind of stuff and we'll also continue to see grassroots nonprofits trailblazing new ways to use popular web tools for collaboration and building awareness about vital issues."

Helping Government

(Note to my fellow Canadians, I didn’t encounter any examples of our government using Crowdsourcing - yet )

Alexander Orlando, Director of Government Sectors at InnoCentive, points out that European Community Government is “embracing” Crowdsourcing and is aware that innovation is key.  Indeed, last year, the “the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office opened an online forum where citizens can contribute their thoughts on the government’s foreign policy priorities.”   

On the other hand, continues Orlando, “the US Government is 'observing' the increasing evidence of the importance of  open innovation and made aware of its benefits”.  In fact, the US Transportation Security Administration has recently begun seeking input on their surveillance video systems, asking if and how “intelligent closed-circuit television systems might be used most effectively.” States Orlando, “the video analytics arena is a complex vertical that encompasses advance mathematics and is driven by innovation. The gathering of “ideas” is a clear example of testing basic crowdsourcing”.

Fighting Crime and Corruption

From wanted posters to tiplines to “America’s Most Wanted”, the crowds have long been solicited to help capture criminals.  The FBI recently announced its new plan to “install 150 digital billboards in 20 major U.S. cities” broadcasting “fugitive mug shots, missing people and high-priority security messages from the big bureau.”   And the broad net of technology makes the system that much more efficient.  Crowdsourcing sites such as Wikisposure (related to the Perverted-Justice site) target sex offenders and ask the crowd to report their findings (e.g. locating sites operated for pedophiles). (Note, that while the public provides the information, the site is not editable by them, limiting the potential for misuse). The more eyes are involved, the better the process becomes (journalism is Crowdsourced with the same theory in mind.  See Part 3 of this series for examples). 

“Have documents the world needs to see?” - Wikileaks claims to “protect your identity while maximizing political impact”.  The site asks the crowd to send in documents that prove corruption in government or corporations.

"Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact."

Wikileaks looks like Wikipedia. Anybody can post comments to it. No technical knowledge is required. Whistleblowers can post documents anonymously and untraceably. Users can publicly discuss documents and analyze their credibility and veracity. Users can discuss the latest material, read and write explanatory articles on leaks along with background material and context. The political relevance of documents and their veracity can be revealed by a cast of thousands.” 

Improving the Web

The internet contains a great deal of information which can best be organized using community input.  dotSUB is a wonderful example, requesting viewers subtitle and translate online films.  However, my favourite (mainly because it is a concept after my own heart) has to be Stupid Filter which relies on the crowd to submit “stupid text, gleaned from user comments on public websites” which are then “ranked on a five-point scale”. When the product is released, one should be able to apply it to a site and thereby eliminate comments from those who can’t spend an extra 10 seconds to capitalize the beginning of a sentence or use vowels and instead use every possible text messaging abbreviation in their  “comments”.  (gr8 id-a cuz der is NFW i cn hndl c-ing dem much lngr! ITIGBS!) 

Games (and similar systems) are getting crowds to further categorize the internet (pictures, words, audio and much more) – to name just a few: Google Image Labeller and Phetch.  An interesting twist on this concept has been created by human computation genius Luis Von Ahn in the form of Recaptcha, a captcha whose second word:

is taken from a book scanned by the Internet Archive, a non-profit project seeking to digitize public-domain books and make them available free online. When Internet Archive's software can't decipher a word that has been scanned from a book, it goes into a recaptcha. As soon as two people solving recaptchas agree on what the word is, the problem is solved and the Internet Archive database is updated.” 

Ah, using the crowd to improve the Interweb and help a non-profit....  (OK, my cynicism is waning!)

Conclusion (no, I really mean it this time)

Any good concept is prone to misuse and/or hijacking by greed. While I understand the need for any business to profit, I am certainly wary of the exploitation of the populace and/or consumer and of the potential for misuse (including blatant self-aggrandizing/promotion). 

Moreover, people with (sometimes latent/unrecognized) talents (artistic, scientific etc.) are yearning to create and gain acceptance for their abilities. While the underground movement in certain fields has, and continues to, produce staggeringly impressive work, Crowdsourcing, in some cases, is giving individuals and communities the option of bringing their talents into the light. Is this “mainstage” ideal? That remains to be seen. The accessibility is uniquely Web 2.0 - the propensity for exploitation of the populace isn’t

This is one of the places where I get cautious about Crowdsourcing.  People (especially in artistic fields) are expected to take unpaid work to establish themselves, to gain exposure etc. – and Web 2.0 has by no means “started the fire”, it can just make it spread more quickly and exponentially.   For instance, as a writer, I have been asked to produce articles for the web at rates of 2 cents a word (80 articles would earn me my entire rent money, Yeee hah!) It may be absurd and unacceptable to me, but it is by no means a rare expectation.  Why is so low?  Because for any rate that is offered, there will be takers.  A person who is, for instance, wanting to start work again after having children, or needs a break from a uncreative job may jump at the chance to write a blurb or do a Mechanical Turk Task. Many agree to accept low rates because there comes a time where the rate (free or nearly free) becomes the standard.  And there comes a point where so many people are offering their work for free that the mindset for buyers becomes: “well, why would we bother to pay more if we don’t have to”.  (Expecting people to “climb the ladder” is one thing, expecting them to climb forever is cruel - and pointless.) 

But while I do have these concerns about exploitation and misuse, I can see that there is a general awareness that people will be more loyal and productive if they are fairly to generously compensated for their input.  My hope is that people will avoid sites where they do not feel “appreciated” and gravitate towards the ones where their contribution is more valued.

And overall the premise is inspiring.  Consumers are being consulted, participation is being requested, people are being valued for their input and, perhaps the “audience/consumer” is being viewed with more respect.   Writes Daren C. Brabham (Brabham D.C. 2008a. Crowdsourcing as a model for problem solving: An introduction and cases. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), p.84):

“Crowdsourcing can be quite empowering indeed, a hopeful reunion of worker and product in a post-industrial economy of increasing alienation of labor.  ... crowdsourcing is reconnecting workers with their work and taming the giants of big business by reviving the importance of the consumer in the design process.”   

The proof is there that this harnessing of the crowds can innovate, promote, develop and much, much more. With that in mind, perhaps good products/concepts will indeed rise to the top and bad products will fail.  [Or maybe I am simply being optimistic…]

The potential for greatness is there with Crowdsourcing.  Let’s hope it’s put to good (and ethical) use.

And that concludes this series.  Of course, the conversation doesn’t have to be over -  I’m not even sleepy yet!  Feel free to comment below or contact me.


Speaking of crowdsourcing, the power of collective action, and Wikileaks...their recent triumph over a lawsuit to shut them down is partly due to their vocal crowd of supporters. In fact, they are running a campaign to draw continued support at http://www.pledgebank.com/defend-wl. Great example of crowdsourcing at its best!

Thanks for a great exploration of crowdsourcing and its potential. You might find the latest addition to our website interesting - we've added a Clean Tech and Renewable Energy Pavilion (go to www.innocentive.com and click on Marketplace) that pulls together all the green Challenges in one place. This is a big part of what we hope to accomplish through our model in 2008.
If you ever want more info on InnoCentive I'd be happy to speak with you.

Liz Moise
Marketing Manager

Would Design by Humans or springleap.com be examples of crowdsourcing?

@HC Thanks for that. Pledgeback is also a pretty cool example of using social influence to motivate and propel a cause forward.

@Thanks, Liz.

@James - both those sites appear very similar to Threadless.com. Definitely examples of Crowdsourcing.

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