Posts Tagged ‘crowdsourcing’
This is a Vanguard publication put together by some of our colleagues. This time around, the topic is on crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing: Mining the Masses
Faced with the evaporation of credit during a recession, the struggling entrepreneur is forced to look to more enterprising models of business to generate revenue. To be sure, the popularity of traditional businesses, with high overheads and large sunk costs, has certainly waned in a risk-averse economy. Many organizations are either retrenching staff or have ceased hiring to minimize cost.
What is fast gaining popularity among companies and institutions is crowdsourcing; functions once performed by employees are outsourced to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. Just as Wikipedia taps the spare processing power of millions of human brains to create a comprehensive online encyclopedia, innovative companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television are discovering ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor is not always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees.
In this issue of Vanguard, we take a closer look at crowdsourcing and the implications this growing phenomenon has on business, education, the media, government and society.
The New Business Model: Between Opensourcing and Outsourcing
Crowdsourcing appears to be a panacea for those who complain that manufacturers have been imperfect at understanding people’s wants. A business trend enabled by information technology, crowdsourcing allows consumers to design products, create content and even take on R & D problems in their spare time. In this arrangement, customers not only define their needs but actively participate in the development of products or enhancements that meet them.
But unlike outsourcing where ad-hoc online communities develop open source software like the computer operating system Linux and internet web browser Mozilla Firefox, crowdsourced work is usually managed or owned by a single company that sells the results for profit. More risk reduction than commercial revolution, crowdsourcing communities are new hybrid hobby/work spaces where real money can be made by both manufacturer and customer in aligning consumer demand to industrial production.
Learning en masse
While crowdsourcing has proven its worth in generating profit, some have hopes for crowdsourcing as a far-reaching problem-solving model that can harness the intelligence of the crowd to spur academic discovery. As smart as computers may seem today, they cannot quite match humans in certain tasks: describing the contents of an image, rating the quality of web searches or transcribing and translating text from another language come to mind.
A case in point is Stardust@Home – a project started since 2006 that recruits online volunteers to find interstellar dust samples by inspecting 3D images captured by NASA spacecrafts. As an incentive for volunteers, Stardust@home will allow the first individual to discover a particular interstellar dust particle to name it. Also, the discoverer will appear as a co-author on any scientific paper announcing the discovery of the particle.
Another example is the online computer game foldit, which challenges the volunteer-player to decipher how proteins fold to hasten the design of new life-saving vaccines. Players who make breakthroughs will be accredited for their contribution and could even find themselves allotted a share in the Nobel Prize.
In journalism, crowdsourcing is the use of a large group of readers to report a news story. Crowdsourcing is not conceptually alien to journalism and has its precedents in the “tipline”, where a news organization solicits phone suggestions for stories, or in the open call for readers to send in photos of happenings in their community. However, unlike traditional reporting, the information is not gathered manually but uploaded to an automated agent such as a website where online applications enable the collection, analysis and publication of reader-contributed news material in real time. As modern crowdsourcing requires little manual labour to sift through submitted material, it appears to be more efficient than traditional news reporting.
Local media portal STOMP (Straits Times Online Mobile Print) is a good example of how traditional newspapers are leveraging on new media technologies to interact and engage their readers. Armed with mobile phone cameras or other types of recording gizmos, STOMP readers tackle investigations that, for varied reasons, the mainstream press is less eager to address. Whether it be a celebrity sighting in the heartlands, a pet in distress or a gang fight in school, all events receive coverage so long as they resonate with readers. At bottom, a fundamental shift is occurring in the way people think about news. They see media as a vehicle for live discussion in which the public deserves a voice equal to that of an editor.
Crowdsourcing the Establishment
Crowdsourcing also has potential to be a problem-solving mechanism for government. The UK Government recently launched a crowdsourcing competition, called “Show Us a Better Way”, with the hope that innovative teams and individuals will suggest better methods for using and analyzing open-source data. Winners of this competition stand to win a £20,000 prize fund to develop their ideas into government policies for improving the way public information is communicated.
Adopting a similar tack, President Obama’s administration began the “Citizen’s Briefing Book” project to enable everyday Americans to share their expertise and insight with the President on policy issues. As part of this initiative, the administration has appointed Google executive Katie Stanton as “Director of Citizen Participation” with the aim of using Web tools to enable citizens to participate in policy decisions.
On the security front, crowdsourcing might well prove to be better than the Secret Service when it comes to collecting intelligence on the ground. Using Photosynth technology to organise and reposition a collection of crowdsourced photos, Microsoft was able to construct a navigable 3-D model of the landscape where the 2009 Presidential Inauguration took place. Photosynth is just one of several surveillance technologies that the government can capitalize on for security purposes.
As sources and producers of information become increasingly diverse, governments around the world are going to find it increasingly difficult to police and regulate the flow of information. British and American approaches to this greater plurality of perspectives appear to veer away from having government stymie the flow of information. Instead, government becomes an enabler and promoter of many disparate viewpoints for the sake of surfacing truly elegant ideas. Taken together, the examples above suggest that one method with which the state can respond astutely and efficiently to new challenges in governance is for government to be an aggregator and facilitator of ideas that organically emerge from society.
Daren C. Brabham. (2008). “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving: An Introduction and Cases”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), pp. 75-90.
Daren C. Brabham. (in press). “Crowdsourcing the Public Participation Process for Planning Projects”, Planning Theory.
For the People by the People?
It stands to reason that crowdsourcing would be the perfect vehicle for grassroots organization and civic action since crowdsourcing, as a model of problem-solving, subscribes to the notion that the many have the power to solve their own problems themselves. True enough, non-profit organizations, like Oxfam Novib, have launched crowdsourcing initiatives to support its campaigning activities to eradicate poverty worldwide.
Likewise, the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization, has teamed up with a private web-based service provider to connect “seekers” of solutions to social problems, such as poverty and gender discrimination, to a global community of engineers, technologists, scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. A “problem-solver” is paid an award only if the undertaken problem is solved successfully. Not only will the Foundation fund these awards, but it also pays for the access, posting and service fees related to the usage of this network of “problem-solvers” on behalf of poor “seekers”.
Ostensibly, the use of crowdsourcing for humanitarian causes, by NGOs and philanthropic organizations, lowers the overheads of campaigning activities and diminishes the barriers of entry to civic participation. At the fundamental level, advocates of civic crowdsourcing surmise that an increase in the number of participants results in a proportionate improvement in the level of civic representation and ingenuity of ideas. They also believe that the internet is the perfect technology to aggregate and harness the wisdom of the masses to produce solutions superior to those of solo geniuses or experts; since a larger aggregate of ideas presumably has the diversity of perspectives vital to the output of better ideas.
Barriers of entry to the creative process of solution-generation might have been lowered but another question emerges: are they low enough to raise the level of intellectual diversity essential to the development of effective solutions? The “digital divide” in society, between individuals who have access to the technology to participate in crowdsourcing and those who do not, leads to the corollary that the “crowd” to be sourced is likely to come from a certain socio-economic demographic: literate, highly-educated, leisurely and able to afford home high-speed internet connections.
Users of crowdsourcing, therefore, need to be conscious of digital divisions in society and how homogenous crowds might not generate the diversity of viewpoints that imbues “wisdom” in what is perceived to be an accessible, democratic and co-creative process.