Sunday, 10 May 2015

The power of the crowd

Crowdsourcing is a process that utilises a large number of people to collect input, solve a problem or perform a task. It can take many different forms but it is commonly facilitated by a suitable internet platform.
'The crowd' by Matt Karp
under a CC licesne

Crowdsourcing has been successfully used in a wide variety of projects and functions ranging from astronomy, where people have been helping scientists classify galaxies, politics and policy development, legislation, where people are consulted on laws in preparation, etc. Specific problems can be helped by crowdsourcing techniques provided they can be broken down into small chunks in a form suitable to be presented and processed by an individual. For instance, the Foldit game helped scientists solve protein folding configuration problems and get ideas on how to refine their corresponding algorithms.

Beyond its huge potential in problem solving, crowdsourcing is considered to be a low-cost alternative. However, there are several limitations that need to be thought of before one reaches to such means.
Firstly, the problem must be presented in a way that may be addressed by the public. That means that the crowdsourcing beneficiary may have to describe the problem and the objectives using simple, layman terms or may have to divide the problem into smaller, more easy-to-understand parts, or find a completely different way to gather data or feedback.

Then the beneficiary should be aware of the impact of the quality and quantity of the input onto the the objectives specified. The beneficiary should work under the hypothesis that the contributing individuals may or may not be having specific in-depth knowledge on the subject matter of the problem. The number of volunteering indicividuals, the time and the geographic origin of the feedback may be hard to accurately predict.

Having robust methods to extract useful (and unbiased) data from the total crowd input is critical to the success of crowdsourcing for any particular objective. Additionally, the contributors will have the expectation to see the results of their efforts. Thus, the beneficiary should be in a position to publicly describe the (positive) outcome of the crowdsourcing effort. Failure to do so may impact negatively the participation in future such attempts of the same beneficiary.

Crowdsourcing is normally used in complex or data-demanding projects of scientific or non-profit nature, often towards objectives that will benefit the public. To some extent, similar tools have been used towards for-profit objectives, such as new product development, selections of products to market, (e.g., Steam Greenlight), etc.

Ethical considerations do exist around crowdsourcing, both regarding the fact that participants are normally not reimbursed for their work (and, in some cases, the resources they devote, such as processing power, time, etc.) and its effect on market competition.

Clearly, crowdsourcing is a promising approach. With fast internet getting increasingly present in our lives and with smartphones being increasingly common, crowdsourcing seems to be up for a great future. The contribution of the crowds, however, won't be given unconditionally for ever. It needs to be asked for and used with care. After all, it is a precious resource!

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