Crowdsourcing—Plugging into the wisdom of the crowd

Crowdsourcing is not a new phenomenon, but thanks to advances in technology, it has never been easier to reach people and solicit their ideas. 

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Crowdsourcing is an approach to harnessing the power of individuals to work to solve problems in a decentralized way.

How do you feed a hungry army of over 600,000 battle-hardened troops scattered across a continent? Though Napoleon may have been the dominant force in Europe in 1810, the fate of his expanding empire depended on solving this national dilemma. In the face of food shortages and transportation challenges that left food scarce and at risk of spoilage, Napoleon recognized the urgency of this issue and called upon the French public to help by offering a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could produce a viable solution for preserving perishables. A Parisian chef rose to the challenge and developed a method that helped satisfy the Grand Army’s appetite.1 This invention sparked the modern canning movement, though unfortunately for the French, the can opener was not invented until 40 years later—by an Englishman, no less.2

Tapping into the wisdom of the masses, or crowdsourcing, finds solutions to complex problems by engaging the aid of a multitude of individuals. It is not a new phenomenon, but thanks to advances in technology, it has never been easier to reach people and solicit their ideas. Recognizing the inherent opportunities in using the crowd, including low costs, public engagement, and innovation, the White House has encouraged federal agencies to use challenges and prizes to crowdsource new ideas for government.3 But while some agencies have had great success with their efforts, others have yet to effectively tap into the energy of the crowd.

To bear success, crowdsourcing activities should align with an organization’s strategy, its internal requirements, and the crowd’s capabilities in order to help solve complex problems in a decentralized way. Implementing this approach depends on the effective execution of the following three steps:

Define the objective.Clearly defining the objective of a crowdsourcing activity and the problem it is intended to solve is a prerequisite to adequately meeting the organization’s needs. This process includes establishing the parameters of the crowdsourcing activity itself, including its duration, evaluation criteria, and budget.

Identify the crowd. Crowds can be internal to an organization or open to the general public. Beyond this, the crowdsourcing initiative’s objective can help guide organizations toward an appropriate crowd for the effort’s desired outcomes. It is important to recruit the crowd from a population that contains the skills necessary to solve the problem at hand. Organizations can further “curate” the composition of a crowd to target specific skills or expertise by establishing eligibility requirements for participation. To encourage participation, organizations should carefully consider the level of effort required to participate and the corresponding incentives that the organization will offer.

Select the right model. Once leaders have clearly defined the objective and identified an appropriate crowd, they can then select and design a crowdsourcing activity. To do this, an organization can draw on five basic crowdsourcing models, with the choice depending on the crowdsourcing effort’s objective and the incentives necessary to drive participation:

  • Crowd competition: Crowd competition refers to the hosting of contests in which participants work individually or in groups to come up with a solution to a given problem. The outputs may include many viable ideas or solutions.
  • Crowd collaboration: Crowd collaboration requests the input of decentralized individuals to develop, aggregate, and share knowledge and information across a pool of contributors, generally through a loosely controlled web-based platform. The typical outputs of a crowd collaboration effort are collective concepts with shared buy-in.
  • Crowdfunding: Crowdfunding is the process of funding projects through small contributions from a large group of participants. Crowdfunding activities are typically hosted through web-based platforms.
  • Crowd voting: Crowd voting is the process of turning to the crowd to reach a decision. This practice typically involves inviting participants to help make a decision based on pre-defined options.
  • Crowd labor: Crowd labor refers to the engagement of a distributed labor pool to accelerate the completion of large-scale projects by splitting up a task into components that require little creativity or coordination but that cannot be automated.

Harnessing the potential of the crowd has already begun to change the way federal, state, and local government agencies solve complex problems and engage the public. In the US federal government, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a crowdsourced competition in 2012 to find an efficient way to monitor emerging health trends using social media data.4 A group of entrepreneurs responded to the challenge by founding Social Health Insights LLC—a start-up focused on using data analytics to improve public health.5 This nimble start-up went on to win the competition by developing an innovative app called MappyHealth that analyzes tweets in real time to predict and monitor disease trends.6 After the HHS competition ended, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention incorporated MappyHealth data with other real-time health data to better track and predict the spread of disease.7

HHS had many choices for engaging the crowd. By thoughtfully designing this successful crowdsourcing initiative, the agency demonstrated that public sector organizations can improve the impact of their efforts by plugging into the crowd. With an assortment of crowdsourcing models that can be used to enlist diverse crowds to help pursue a broad spectrum of government objectives, the possibilities are endless and the potential is immense.