In looking at how we can use technology to further our own causes, it can be particularly useful to examine how others use it for social change. Crowdsourcing is a good example. Wikipedia has already shown us how many hands can make light work, but now other crowdsourcing efforts are emerging that are designed to solve specific problems. What can we learn from these when applying technology in our own organisations?
It can be adaptive
, a crowdsourced initiative set up to help Haitians in need after the country's devastating earthquake, formed very quickly in a bid to alleviate a pressing humanitarian crisis. People on the ground sent requests for assistance via text message to the 4636 number. These were then relayed to a crowd of volunteer workers who translated the messages from French and Creole into English. The messages were then ranked according to priority, and forwarded to humanitarian groups, complete with the senders' co-ordinates where available. It is a good example of how a crowd can be bought together quickly to solve a specific problem.
Granularity and scale are functions of speed
A task may be huge, but if the task's owner can find a way to break it into smaller tasks, then this can drastically reduce the time taken to complete that task. For example, proofreading a 600-page technical manual might take weeks. If 200 people did it, it might take a couple of days. That kind of speed is important to most companies as it is to charities and causes.
It needs organisation
Mission 4636 needed top-down organisation before bottom-up effort could help those in need. Organisations are now emerging that channel tasks from their owners to thousands of people who need them. There are already solutions for building these internal crowdsourcing structures that go far beyond the simple wiki. Innocentive
, for example, offers customisable web portals that help draw together employees in an organisation to solve complex problems, and channel rewards to those who contribute.
It doesn't have to stop at the perimeter
Companies can crowdsource solutions internally, taking advantage of employees' downtime and motivating them behind a specific goal. However, tasks can also be crowdsourced outside the organisation. Operations such as Samasource
enable companies to farm out tasks to smart but impoverished workers around the global who can handle everything from basic data services through to video transcription. The tagline? "Socially responsible outsourcing" that can help you achieve your corporate social responsibility goals while also getting work done quickly and cheaply.
Crowdsourcing needs a motivator
People don't carry out tasks - even microtasks - without some kind of reward. For those assisting with Mission 4636, the reward was simply the knowledge that they had helped a fellow human being in need. For others, monetary rewards might be appropriate. Mechanical Turk, Amazon's online labour site
, distributes tasks among thousands of people to be completed for as little as two cents. One example might be tagging photographs for a corporate multimedia library.
Lukas Biewald, the founder of crowdsourced labour site Crowdflower, says that people are often just as interested in virtual currency
(such as trees in Zynga's online game, Farmville, or weapons in Mafia Wars). Inside a corporation, such rewards could follow along similar gaming lines, or could divide monetary reward among many workers based on their individual achievements.
Yesterday, the wiki and the employee blog were the epitome of crowdsourcing. Today, the tools are more sharply honed, and the goals more clearly defined. Who would have thought that crowdsourcing 2.0 would be with us so soon?
This article was written collaboratively with my colleague, Danny Bradbury