Can we crowdsource the planet better?

December 2nd, 2010 by

Australia 2 - climate change canvas by Oxfam International @ FlickrOn the surface, crowdsourcing and the environmental movement seem like a perfect match. By mobilizing the masses and directing their collective skills towards a problem, crowdsourcing should be a powerful weapon in the fight against threats such as global warming (or, for those who live in recently freezing Helsinki, the challenge to speed global warming up). So why does it sometimes feel – when it comes to distributed work in particular – like the green machine is still a bit of a wallflower?

Over the past year or so, we’ve all been dazzled by the spectacular partnerships between distributed work platforms and the developing world. But, while organizations such as Samasource and Txteagle have been busy making poverty history, what’s been going on when it comes to saving the planet?

Green Shoots
Answer: quite a lot, but still not quite as much as you might hope for…

Okay, for starters, there are sites that call on the crowd to donate spare processing power to the climate change cause (though surely this leads to the dilemma of whether to (a) leave the laptop running and donate, or (b) turn it off to reduce your carbon footprint). World community grid research a range of topics, from clean energy to disease prevention. Weatherathome meanwhile, is more strictly climate focused, using PC power to run ever more refined climate models.

Trying to get a little more out of the crowd is MIT’s Climate CoLab. The “Lab” runs crowdsourcing competitions where contestants submit proposals addressing specific environmental issues. While in theory anyone can enter, this is MIT so it’s definitely not “ideas on the back of an envelope” stuff, more like “ideas on the back of your doctoral thesis”, in fact.

Much closer to the idea of distributed work is IBM’s new iPhone app Creek Watch. Creek enthusiasts provide photos and info on the health of their local waterways; data is uploaded, mapped and shared with climate groups. Over in the UK, Oxford University has come up with Old Weather, an ingenious citizen-science project which gets online volunteers trawling through early 20th century naval records in search of climate data. Apparently, sailors used to record the weather on ship every four hours – not quite the tales of adventure on the high seas you’d hope to find in a captain’s log, but still…

An underdeveloped truth
Maybe it’s the sheer size and complexity of climate change but, while these projects are clearly well-intentioned, they do seem slightly lacking in serious ambition. There are some much bigger environmental players online such as Greenpeace and WWF but (other than some interesting crowd-campaigning from, as far as I know, they don’t seem to have taken very much creative action towards working with their crowd online.

Even so, I’m confident that in the next few years, someone – an inspirational individual, a charity, a group of charities – will harness the potential of the crowd to tackle the major environmental issues.

The green movement isn’t just a bunch of trained scientists, hippies and Al Gore; there’s also a huge amount of untapped, potential support. I’m thinking of younger people, confident online, who casually support climate change action. They’d probably be happy to spend a couple of minutes on a task to help the environment, but they wouldn’t necessarily go looking for one. To get them involved, the hardcore greens will have to reach out and integrate better online, particularly with social networks.

When it comes to saving the planet, the crowd is out there; the only trouble is figuring out how to put them to work.