Crowdsourcing: an ancient Finnish tradition?

June 13th, 2011 by

microtask_talkoot_crowdsourcingCrowdsourcing is generally considered to be a modern invention. Like many people, I first came across the term in Jeff Howe’s 2006 article The Rise of Crowdsourcing. I was impressed by Jeff’s ideas, but reading the article I began to think: “somehow this concept sounds very familiar”.

Then I realized why. Crowdsourcing is really just a new name for a very old Finnish idea: talkoot.
Talkoot is a form of collective voluntary work that’s been practiced in Finland for over 1300 years. The concept dates back to when people first began to build log houses. Because houses had to be completed before winter (and because it’s hard to lift a ridge-pole all on your own) people called on their (often very distant) friends and neighbors to help with construction. By definition, talkoot is unpaid. Reimbursement is usually food, shelter and, of course, the satisfaction of doing a good deed.

Talkoot through the ages
Here are some more recent examples of talkoot in action:

The Finnish Cultural Foundation is a private trust that was founded in the 1930s to promote arts and science. Like most idealistic young people, the Foundation’s organizers had strong principles but very little money. To solve this problem they turned to talkoot. Between 1937 and 1939 Foundation volunteers visited thousands of Finnish homes asking for small contributions. This early “crowdfunding” project raised over 10 million markka (about €1.7 million) mostly in small individual donations. Today the Cultural Foundation is Finland’s largest private supporter of the arts and sciences.

In the 1980s I returned to Finland after many years of living abroad. As a scientist, I quickly realized there was a serious lack of public support and funding for science. I wanted to do something, but I was just an ordinary citizen – not a government minister or millionaire. Then I remembered the story of the Cultural Foundation and talkoot. Working with two colleagues, Tapio Markkanen and Heikki Oja, I appealed to Finnish scientists to help us create the first ever Finnish Science center. Thousands of researchers, lecturers and teachers responded. The Heureka Center opened in the spring of 1989. It was a huge success and Heureka is now one of the world’s most respected science centers. Another demonstration of the power of talkoot.

The future of tradition
Technology is often accused of destroying old traditions. However in my opinion, the internet is actually a great environment for the talkoot-spirit. A striking recent example is Bird Atlas, an online project to map Finland’s nesting bird population. Finland is a large country: 337,000 square kilometers in total. It would be impossible for a single team of researchers (however dedicated) to produce a complete map. Instead, in the best talkoot/ crowdsourcing-style, project organizers appealed to the country’s bird-watchers for help. Amateur ornithologists responded enthusiastically, sending in data and observations from all over the country. Thanks to their hard work, the latest, most complete edition of Bird Atlas has just been published.

Finally of course, there’s Microtask’s own Digitalkoot project. This initiative, using online volunteers to digitize Finland’s national archive, is a wonderful example of what can be achieved by combining cutting edge technology with the talkoot tradition. The tremendous power of the internet means Digitalkoot could potentially help preserve thousands of archives and libraries – a global talkoot!

For 1300 years, the concept of joint voluntary work has helped to build and strengthen Finnish society. Crowdsourcing companies like Microtask are now redeveloping this fine tradition for the internet age. Thanks to them, I’m hopeful that the world will continue to benefit from the talkoot-spirit for many more years to come.

  • Tuija Aalto

    I wholeheartedly agree. Talkoot is something finns found useful long time ago! Peter “Mighty Eagle” Vesterbacka too has suggested “talkoot” for the next finnish word to enter global dictionary, heres the video interview

  • Brian R. Gumm

    Some may be familiar with the agrarian Amish in North America (originally from Switzerland) and their practice of “barn raising.” When a new barn needed to be built, the entire community would (and still does, this happens in my home state of Iowa) show up and build an entire barn in a matter of days. And these barns are works of fine craftsmanship! Not nearly as old as talkoot, as you describe, but another example of time-tested traditions of crowdsourcing!