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Every murder draws a crowd: Homicide Watch DC

November 26th, 2012 by

microtask_crimescene“Homicide Watch DC” sounds like a cop drama, and to be honest it’s got the makings of a police procedural (especially for those of us familiar with the 5th season of The Wire). Instead Homicide Watch is a crowdfunded, crowdsourced reporting project, covering every homicide in the District of Colombia.

This claim is so bold as to almost be suspect. More than a hundred people are murdered in the US capital every year. That’s a huge number of stories, requiring an awful lot of information.

This information is partly official reports and court documents, but much of it comes from the crowd. Using social media and the help of the friends, families and neighbors of victims (and suspects), Homicide Watch puts together a lucid portrait of every homicide.

A database for the dead

Homicide Watch isn’t organized like a typical newspaper. Instead, the site is more like a database or wiki. Each victim is assigned their own page, where information related to their case is collated. This includes, crucially, a memorial and comments section where the community can contribute to the database and remember the dead.

The site’s popularity is evident from the $40,000 it recently raised in a Kickstarter campaign. This means at least for now, it has enough money to carry on (before the campaign they came dangerously close to disappearing).

Homicide Watch definitely contributes to homicide investigations, but it would be naive to hope for Hollywood results. Homicide Watch won’t be premiering on CBS anytime soon, although considering how glamorous CSI managed to make laboratory work, I wouldn’t put it past them. In fact, the website isn’t really about fighting crime (that’s for professionals, and Batman), but more about commenting on it, remembering it and making it accessible to the public.

A new beat for journalism

What makes Homicide Watch significant (aside from its motives, which are unquestionable) is what it might mean for journalism. Editor Laura Amico has described Homicide Watch as data-driven beat reporting built on a framework. This model – gathering data from the crowd into a database and then using it to construct ongoing journalism – is important for two distinct reasons.

First, the idea could be far-reaching in terms of applicability. Amico has suggested applying the approach to other issues, such as medical journalism. If Homicide Watch turns out to be an enduring success, who know how many different areas could benefit from it?

Secondly, it makes up for the deficiencies and biases that have long been evident in reporting. Commenting on Homicide Watch, American writer Clay Shirky points out that “The old saying for New York papers was not to bother covering murders north of 96th street, where the victims were almost certainly black… news organizations aren’t generally in the business of introducing their readers to the realities of life elsewhere in their town.”

Homicide Watch covers everything, without favor. Journalism on this scale – and with this level of inclusiveness – has rarely been attempted, especially in an age where traditional beat journalism is fading, as physical media struggles to increase readership.

In this respect, Homicide Watch does more than fight crime and provide a memorial to victims. It’s also keeping local beat reporting alive. Actually, when you put it like that, maybe there is a TV show in there after all.

Will 3D printing and crowdsourcing bring the industrial revolution home?

November 9th, 2012 by

microtask_makerbotIn Europe and the US right now, almost no issue commands more air time than persistently high unemployment rates (other than what Kate Middleton is wearing, of course). But beyond the depressing jobless figures, new trends may be changing labor markets, and the economy as a whole.

Crowdsourcing was one of 2011’s buzzwords, but its potential is still largely unrealized. 3D printing looks set to digitize manufacturing. Old people – many of whom can now turn on computers – may not be able to retire as soon as we thought. These converging trends may change the way we work for the better – if managed properly.

The factory moves out, and then comes home again

Since the industrial revolution, the concept of a job hasn’t changed too much. Most people spend weeks searching job ads for a new boss, then the next forty years trying to avoid him (usually he’s still a him). The assembly line was born and then left home to see the world, taking manufacturing jobs with it. Technology has made workplaces more efficient (and made slacking off on company time more fun), but robots haven’t really taken over workplaces like we thought they would. Indeed, most of our colleagues are still frustratingly human.

But the concept of a job is changing rapidly. Crowdsourcing platforms like Freelancer mean millions of people don’t have to deal with a boss or colleagues anymore. Retirees and stay-at-home moms can rejoin the workforce, from the comfort of their homes.

3D printing will soon allow us to produce much of what we need locally. Rather than sending away to China for a spare part, companies like Ponoko will allow us to download its design and print it at home. Overseas factories will still exist where they are more efficient, but as Ponoko’s founder, Dave ten Have said “we are going to see a rebalancing – a considered move away from the mass centralization we’ve experienced in the last 30 years.” Products will have greater cultural relevance and intimacy.

The power of the people

Like 3D printing, the potential of crowdsourcing is enormous. Almost every day new applications for it pop up, from composing ringtones to curing AIDS.

Currently, many of these solutions are more gimmicky than great. If any of you clicked on the ringtone crowdsourced above (and didn’t smash your computer trying to make it shut up) you’ll know what I mean. But the industry is still in its infancy. As it matures, and its strengths are understood and applied more effectively, we can expect the co-operation and efficiency it facilitates to deliver increasingly powerful results.

For those of us in the crowdsourcing industry, the simultaneous rise of 3D printing is particularly exciting because it gives more power to the individuals in our crowds. This opens the door for new forms of crowdsourcing, especially in manufacturing, which is predicted to be a major area of growth. Add crowdfunding to the mix and suddenly any product that appeals to a niche is possible.

As with any major disruptive shifts, these changes will create winners and losers. Like any industry, 3D printing and crowdsourcing will need careful regulation. We want people printing money from home, not guns. But those governments who also encourage innovation and growth in these industries will be most likely to benefit from them. Their depressing conversations about local unemployment rates may soon become uplifting success stories.

Of Maps and Men: is Apple relying on us to fix the iPhone 5?

September 27th, 2012 by

microtask_iphone5As a long-time Apple Fanboy, I’ve done my fair share of preaching from the book of Jobs. But since He passed away/ascended into heaven, many people have been wondering if Apple can continue to delight the world with groundbreaking products. The iPhone 5 was a crucial test for the new leaders of the world’s most valuable company. So far the results have been less than brilliant.

Is Apple as lost as we are?

The main criticism levelled at the new phone is that the changes are only incremental. Bigger, lighter, faster, but where’s the wow-factor?

Just as damning, perhaps, is the substitution of one of the most useful apps – Google Maps – with a half-baked Apple version. All over the world stories are emerging of problems with the service, including woefully incorrect directions to destinations, confusion over place names, plus the absence of public transport information. Not since Deep Impact have so many landmarks been found underwater. (Check the Amazing IOS6 Maps Tumblr for screenshots of some absurd results from here in Helsinki.)

That’s possibly where we, the devoted crowds of Apple worshippers, come in. Like when Siri was released, it seems Apple Maps is Apple’s version of a minimum viable product: released well before it was perfected, on the basis that the feedback we give Apple when using the service will allow it to improve it.

Trudy Muller, of Apple, told AllThingsD “as Maps is a crowd-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get.” This led PandoDaily to proclaim: “In essence, every iPhone 5 user becomes part of a massive crowdsourcing experiment.”

What are we supposed to be doing?

But exactly how the crowd is set to improve the service remains unclear. Apple sources data from the crowdsourced OpenStreetMaps initiative, which means it does rely on some crowd-based information. Its maps also crowdsource traffic data. But, unlike Google’s Map Maker, there is no collaborative mapping tool.

But neither of these crowd-based solutions will address the problems with Apple Maps. My Google searching did not shed any light on this issue, although it did reveal that I’m not the only one scratching my head over it.

Right now l’m wondering if the only way we can help is to simply log errors, and wait for ex-Google Maps staff to fix them.

If this is Apple’s solution, then perhaps a more effective crowd-based solution would be to use the crowd-based app Waze. That or go directly to the former Google Maps staff by using Google maps on your iPhone’s web browser. Somehow I don’t think this is what Apple intended.

If you can help shed some light on this issue, I’m all ears!

It’s finally here. But does it live up to expectations?

September 17th, 2012 by

On Wednesday last week, after two years of increasingly feverish rumors and speculation, the wait was finally over. All over the world, people stopped what they were doing and tuned in to find out whether it could possibly live up to the hype.

The answer, my friends, is an emphatic “yes.”

Slim enough to fit in your bag, visually stunning and packing a real punch under the cover, the original hardcopy version of Short Stories About Tiny Tasks made a real splash when we released it last year (at least when it fell in the bath).

But on Wednesday, the future became reality. Now, thanks to, Short Stories About Tiny Tasks, a collection of our favorite Microtask blogs, is also available as an ebook from the Amazon Kindle Store and iBooks (see sidebar for more links).

As expected, pricing starts at $199 for the… OK, actually, there are some pricing issues. We wanted the book to be free. However, due to the territorial policies of Amazon, you might see it with a price tag of 0,89€ or more, depending on which URL and account you use to access the Kindle Store. Rest assured that this charge is not fundraising for the island or zeppelin-mounted death ray I’ve been saving for. It’s just that in some countries we can’t price it at zero.

Alternatively, you can also still download a free ePub or PDF version or read it online. Whether you choose to read it on a Kindle, PC, or your shiny new iPhone 5, we hope you enjoy it.

Designed intelligence: how experts can help the crowd

September 12th, 2012 by

What is wisdom? It seems like a simple question, but as any Dungeons and Dragons player knows, there is a difference between wisdom and intelligence. Legendary D&D creator (and awesomely named dude) Gary Gygax explained the distinction: Intelligence is noticing that it’s raining. Wisdom is putting up an umbrella.

The wisdom of crowds effect has been on a turbulent journey over the last decade, graduating from a statistical curiosity to a key part of a global industry. The concept has been at the heart of some incredible achievements, from the creation of Wikipedia to helping data analysts win chocolate (although we won’t mention the lack of wisdom the crowd has shown in watching, let alone voting in, the X Factor).

Experts witless?

But despite the growing pile of crowd-based success stories, some people contend that the crowd’s wisdom has been overstated. As the CIA turns to crowdsourcing to predict global events, some of its own experts are questioning whether this is a good idea. Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA and State Department analyst, provides a snappy argument to me and my fellow crowd-evangelists: “Crowds produce riots. Experts produce wisdom.”

The CIA’s project uses a modified version of the wisdom of crowds effect called Aggregative Contingent Estimation. While this may sound like a classic CIA euphemism the process is actually a carefully designed way to create a crowd of experts and pool a broad range of analysis and opinion.

It’s too early to tell if the CIA’s crowd of experts will be successful in predicting the next major global event. (For the record, I predict that 2013 will be the year of Finnish global supremacy, but I’m not an expert). While we await the results of this experiment, it’s worth considering the important role that individual experts can play in the evolution of crowd wisdom. After all, they are the experts.

A word from the wise

Coming back to the wise words of Gary Gygax, it is experts who can supply the crowd with the intelligence that gives them a better chance of attaining wisdom. So instead of asking them to compete with the crowd, we could use their expert knowledge to provide deeper context and
allow the crowd to make better informed decisions.

The best known recent example of a catastrophic failure of crowd intelligence is the attempt to predict the price of Facebook’s IPO before its disastrous launch (check out on the subject for the grisly details). It seems it was the presence of experts in the crowd that drove the predictions, replacing the crowd’s wisdom with blind optimism.

But what would have happened if the experts had shared their specialist knowledge with the crowd instead of their (mistaken) conclusions? If wisdom lies in forming the correct conclusion, then intelligence lies in realizing the true nature of the problem. In short, if we don’t know it’s raining, why would we put up an umbrella? Traditionally, the point of an expert is to provide the right answers. But, at least when it comes to the wisdom of crowds, what we may actually need from them is the right questions.

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