Search the term “what is crowdsourcing” and Google will immediately cough up the following definition: “[To] obtain (information or input into a particular task or project) by enlisting the services of a number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet.” It’s a fairly straightforward idea in the end, but we found ourselves coming back to the question over and over again. We also noticed that a lot of people we talked to were unfamiliar with what exactly crowdsourcing is. (Hint, it’s not crowdfunding, but crowdfunding is an example of crowdsourcing.)
To put the word in its simplest form then, crowdsourcing is any situation in which the source of the given product (be it funding, data entry, sentiment analysis, or even something as complex as an app) is a crowd. Mostly these days, the word refers to a crowd on the Internet. That’s it. When you ask a bunch of your friends a question, you’re crowdsourcing the answer; when you ask your friends on Facebook a question, you’re doing the same thing. Similarly, Quora is simply a platform for crowdsourcing answers to questions. Another obvious example is Wikipedia. And crowdfunding? That’s just collecting funds from a crowd rather than from a bank, venture capital, or a smaller number of investors.
And as it turns out, crowdsourcing is not a new phenomenon. From the Harvard Business Review:
Crowdsourcing as a way to deal with innovation problems has existed in one form or another for centuries. Communities of innovators have helped kick-start entire industries, including aviation and personal computing. The difference today lies in technology. Over the past decade tools for development, design, and collaboration have been radically transformed; they’re getting more powerful and easier to use all the time, even as their prices plummet. At least as important, online crowdsourcing platforms have become much more sophisticated, making it ever simpler to manage, support, and mediate among distributed workers.
In the aftermath of the Nepali earthquake, crowdsourcing has been used to open-map the humanitarian effort via satellite imaging, identifying displaced people and working in tandem with Red Cross and the Nepali Army. “Before the earthquake, I had 7 to 100 volunteers a day,” said Nama Raj Budhathoki—who received a Ph.D. in crowdsourcing, open data and social and mobile media at the University of Illinois—to the New York Times of his non-profit’s relief efforts. “Now I’m coordinating about 2,400 mappers, a majority of them international, from a situation room.” All those extra volunteers helped quickly connect aid workers with emergency hospital routes and identify the hardest hit areas.
Elsewhere, education is also harnessing the power of the crowd. University of California, Berkeley is enlisting citizen volunteers to track the spread of Sudden Oak Death, an exotic forest disease that’s changing the composition of coastal forests in Northern California and Southern Oregon. At University of Washington, researchers challenged a crowd of gamers to solve the structure of a retrovirus enzyme from an AIDS-like virus whose configuration had stumped scientists for more than a decade. “We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” said Dr. Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry. The gamers solved the structure in three weeks.
Businesses are also utilizing the efficiency and versatility of the crowd now more than ever. Crowdsourcing is rapidly moving into the $2.5 trillion contingent staffing market and providing vastly more efficient alternatives to traditional staffing and fixed business process outsourcing models. Recruit Holdings, the fifth-largest staffing firm in the world, has been on a crowdsourcing-investment tear lately, including backing of crowd design agency 99 Designs, translation service Gengo, virtual assistant venture Zirtual, Japanese app-developer platform Crowdworks, and a failed $400M bid for Australian portal Freelancer.com.
CoreLogic, a publicly traded financial information and data analytics firm headquartered in Irvine, California, recently implemented an internal crowdsourcing platform to help spur innovation from the inside. “It had a transformative effect on idea generation,” Robin Gordon, senior vice president in the Solutions Management Center, told CIO Insight. “There was a change in mindset from problem-solving being a pain point to enthusiasm over generating ideas.”
In April, Apple and crowd company Appirio announced a partnership to provide “enterprises the guidance and resources they need to build high-quality iOS apps that take full advantage of Apple devices,” putting to work Appirio’s network of some 750,000 designers, developers, and data scientists. The idea is to use the crowd to power a spate of new enterprise software for iOS, giving Apple an even stronger foothold in the business sector.
The potential of crowdsourcing is still in its infancy, and the possibilities multiply every day. Businesses that want to stay ahead of the pack would do well to pay attention.