Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Crowdsourcing: Not just a cost saver

Whenever I am discussing crowdsourcing, people tend to ask about the "killer app" for crowdsourcing. In my mind, a new technology is being used first for cost reduction, then due to the afforded flexibility, and finally to achieve tasks that were previously infeasible.

As with many technologies (e.g., VoIP), the first applications of crowdsourcing tend to focus on cost reduction. Label images, moderate comments, verify addresses, collect emails... All tasks that were traditionally done by low-paid interns, are now crowdsourced, for significant cost savings. Although these applications tend to be useful, it is hard to see applications focused on cost cutting to be the ones that will drive the wide adoption of crowdsourcing. In any case, if someone has big tasks like that, they can always contact an outsourcing shop in a developing country, and achieve similar rates.

So, flexibility of deployment tends to be another angle that tends to drive the adoption of crowdsourcing. Pretty much as in the case of cloud computing, crowdsourcing can come pretty handy for companies that need significant resources for just a small period of time. LiveOps was a pioneer of this model, applying "crowdsourcing" before the terms was invented, to dynamically staff call centers for telemarketing companies, handling sudden spikes in demand, and so on.

However, the really interesting applications are those that are truly being enabled by such technology. One such idea was given to me by Amanda Michel of Propublica, last September after a Mechanical Turk Meetup: Propublica wanted to monitor the spending of stimulus money, and examine if the projects assigned to different contractors were being completed properly. By analyzing the collected data, it would be possible to identify systematic problems or outright corruption.

Of course, collecting such data would have been impossible for a journalist, or even for a team of journalists. However, using crowdsourcing it would be pretty easy for local residents to check if a bridge has been fixed, if a road was properly paved, and so on. I loved the idea! It was a clear demonstration of how to take an infeasible task, and use crowdsourcing to make it feasible. Even better: it was encouraging the involvement of citizens and their active collaboration with the government. A win-win project!

Interestingly enough, a recent article on BusinessWeek, indicates that the Obama administration is also employing crowdsourcing for the same task! From the article: "It's the surest way to prevent, say, a convicted contractor from reincorporating a new company under his wife's name and applying for stimulus money, explains Earl Devaney, the special inspector general who oversees stimulus spending. "Only local folks can connect those kinds of dots," he says.

Indeed! If only we had such ideas in Greece...