Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Crowdsourcing: Living in the Age of the Crowd

Jeff Howe coined the term crowdsourcing in a Wired article in 2006. Since then, crowdsourcing has been hyped as the star way to raise funds, develop new products, and gather knowledge in a process driven by public engagement. Once called the wave of the future, crowdsourcing is now ubiquitous, with new technology assisting us as we draw on the resources of our communities in novel ways.

Today, we have the ability to collectively build knowledge on Wikipedia, map crises with Ushahidi, fund creative projects on Kickstarter, take freeclasses online using Open Source software, provide loans through Kiva, rate businesses on Yelp, support environmental projects with ioby, design solutions for social good with OpenIDEO, subsidize social entrepreneurs through StartSomeGood, improve neighborhoods with Neighborland, along with countless other opportunities taking form every day.
LADD used the Ushahidi platform to map the Gulf Oil Spill

As with many concepts, the idea of leveraging the power of community has been around long before it was a buzzword. Your local bagel shop’s funky suggestion box and the old art of panhandling on the street rely on creating an opening for a “crowd” to have impact by generating ideas/knowledge or by providing many small amounts of money to make a large amount. 

For impressive crowdsourcing feats, Crowdsourcing.org (mecca for all things crowdsourced) has a hall of fame of seminal moments in crowdsourcing, both before and after the term’s creation. 

We can see in many of these examples that by opening doors for contributions and collaboration, crowdsourcing has become an important tool for public good. 

Scientific and technological advancements are being made, government bodies work to address public concerns through open government platforms, and urban planning is evolving to incorporate the community more. For example, the 2012 TED prize is sponsoring TheCity2.org, a crowdsourcing platform to help citizens engage in reshaping their cities.

"I am the City 2.0. Dream me. Build me. Make me real."

The value of the crowdsourcing approach is, quite obviously, in the crowd. I won’t take Joe Schmoes’s cock-eyed, ALL CAPS rant about a restaurant in a Yelp review seriously without knowing if he’s a credible source. However, I am more inclined to steer clear of that restaurant if I see 400 people have collectively scored it low. I refer to Wikipedia to quickly settle bar bets because of the expectation that enough people have looked at the entry on which I’m relying that any errors will have been removed. Open IDEO, an online platform that poses challenges to find potential answers to social problems, relies on having a large base of ideas from which the crowd can refine and retool and evaluate solutions.

A challenge on OpenIDEO

In crowdsourcing, without quantity, quality can suffer. So, the key question in accessing the power of crowdsourcing is:  "How can we build a community that is engaged, that cares, that participates?" 

And that, my friends, is an age old question. 

How would you answer it? Let us know in the comments below. 

*For more information on crowdsourcing, check out these resources:

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