Tapping the power of crowdsourcing for good


I am not that keen on the word “crowdsourcing”, because people mean many different things when they use the term. However since it is the word most used to describe tapping the power of distributed talent, which is one of the most important emerging themes in our hyper-connected world, I will embrace it, and hopefully soon draw up my own taxonomy of what crowdsourcing means to help clarify the conversation.

I was struck by a post by Steve Kelman on The dark side of crowdsourcing?. Kelman attended a presentation by Jonathan Zittrain (esteemed scholar and author of The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It) in which Zittrain pointed to how crowdsourcing approaches could used for bad things. However Kelman came out primarily impressed with the vast potential of the field.

One of the best-known domains for crowdsourcing is getting contributions for inventors and innovators to contribute, using innovation markets such as Innocentive (which I described in Chapter 5 of Living Network on Innovation), and prizes such as the X-Prize Foundation.

An emerging domain is using large pools of people to monitor for crime:

Zittran then noted the growth of applications (this one from the U.K.) where people, for very small amounts of money, are apparently willing, from the comfort of their couches, to monitor crime surveillance cameras to look for suspicious activity and report it. Some companies are also getting people, again for micro-payments, to report in if they recognize photos of people participating in a mass marijuana smoke-in.

The downsides of these kinds of applications were then raised:

Terrorists could request help on having people develop different chemicals that could be put together to create some horrendous weapon of mass destruction, without the innovators being able to connect the dots on the little part of the project they were working on.

The Iranian government could have people match photos of protesters against huge photo rosters of the residents of Teheran.

Taking this first point from a broader perspective, we are all being given far more power than ever before. That is in the main being used to create richer possibilities. Absolutely, that power will also sometimes be used to harm people. The genie is out of the bottle, and trying to put it back in would be wasteful and destructive. We must learn how to deal better with the increased capabilities of those who would do harm.

While I would not support enhancing the Iranian government ability to identify political protestors, I’m not sure I would support the American government’s ability to identify marjiuana smokers protesting peacefully en-masse. Computer face-recognition technologies are already eroding our personal privacy at a rapid pace – the addition of crowdsourcing in the ways described could dramatically accelerate this process.

Which comes back to the increased power we all have, and how we can best use it. The fact of being a government does not mean that power is used wisely.