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All I want for Christmas is you clear terminology

December 19th, 2011 by

As you are all no doubt well aware, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, every song on the radio, every elevator conversation and every piece of advertising stuffed into our mailboxes must be Christmas-themed. It’s enough to ruin what should be a fun time of year. Which is why this blog post is definitely, absolutely not going to be about Christmas.

Ok, I lied. This is all about Christmas. But don’t worry, it won’t be one of those sickeningly sentimental posts, cynically exploiting the Christmas spirit to avoid doing proper research and hard-thinking.* I have real Christmas-related, crowdsourced news to report.

Crowdsourcing is all around me, and so the feeling grows
As you may recall, a year ago we wrote about how crowdsourcing was now (then) so mainstream, that you could take care of all your Christmas essentials using only crowdsourcing companies (assuming you were happy to eat only donuts and pizza, and never see the people you gave gifts to again).

One year on, and crowdsourcing seems to be truly mainstream. Now googling “crowdsource Christmas” returns multiple examples of people using the crowd to help them choose Christmas cards and presents, where to go on holiday and which bicycles are safe to buy your kids. To top it off, there is even a nauseating crowdsourced Christmas song, to compete with the Christmas song from Love Actually for best-worst Christmas song.

The problem I have with this list is that, aside from the song, all the “crowdsourcing” on it is really just using the internet to canvass peoples’ opinions. Yes, the crowdsourcing industry has grown hugely in the last couple of years, but this growth is almost becoming overshadowed by the term itself, which is now a buzzword that people apply to almost anything involving group participation.

OK, it’s Christmas, so I won’t complain too much about an issue which I have already said a fair bit about. All I ask for Christmas, is this:

Dear Santa: in 2012 may the crowdsourcing industry and public in general please agree on more precise terminology for crowdsourcing/widesourcing/distributed labor etc, before all of us become tarnished by bad Christmas songs and lazy blog posts. If you grant me this one request, I promise I won’t exploit Christmas in a blog post this time next year.*

*OK, these are also lies. Don’t tell Santa.

Microtask Takes the (Red Herring) Cake

December 14th, 2011 by

It’s official: Microtask won Red Herring’s Global 100 award for 2011. We now join the ranks of companies like Google, Skype, Baidu,, YouTube, eBay and many others who won this award and went on to change the way we live and work. Good Karma.

Here’s the proof:


Winds of change: can crowdsourcing help solve environmental problems?

December 8th, 2011 by

microtask_winds_of_changeAs regular readers of this blog will know, we here at Microtask are pretty enthusiastic when it comes to crowdsourcing initiatives that have the power to make the world a better place.

This time last year, we wrote a blog about some crowdsourcing projects designed to improve our understanding of environmental issues, including climate change. Basically, while there were some good projects, we felt that the crowd had a lot more to offer. One year later, has much changed?

I can feel it coming, in the air tonight
If you’re a user of crowdsourcing weather apps Weathermob or Weddar you’ll know that the weather in the northern hemisphere has been a little weird lately.

These location-based apps basically allow people to report on their local weather conditions (a service which is incredibly useful for those people out there who really want to know what the weather outside is like, but can’t be bothered looking out the window). Needless to say, although complaining about the weather is fun, it’s hard to imagine a more pointless use of crowd-power.

Time for a cool change?
Thankfully, the Guardian has come up with something similar, but potentially a lot more useful. It has asked people to report anything unusual about the environment in their area. From spring Coral Bells flowering in Dorset in the UK, to mosquitoes outstaying their welcome (is a mosquito ever welcome?) in Berlin, the results were compiled to create an interactive map of meteorological weirdness.

Of course the Guardian’s research has its shortcomings too. Claims can’t be verified, meaning hoaxsters (or those people who can’t be bothered looking out the window) could potentially skew the data. But if we assume that no one wants to sabotage the experiment with false sightings of wild primroses (which seems unlikely), the information collected should create a useful record for climate scientists. It won’t save the world, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Our (always biased) view is that much like the sun’s rays and the force of the wind, the power of the crowd is likely to be increasingly important in efforts to preserve our environment. But, just like alternative sources of energy, harnessing it so that it delivers reliable, useful results, can be difficult. We need some more ambitious ideas.

If you know of any crowdsourcing projects succeeding (or failing) to help the environment, please join the discussion below.

Flop Idol: another crowdsourcing contest site gets Minted

December 5th, 2011 by

microtask_mintedIf you’ve ever started your own business, you’ll know that it’s not all champagne and billion-dollar IPOs. For any number of reasons, most new businesses die slow, painful deaths (but not before sucking up every dollar in a surrounding 3 mile radius).

One month into starting her own branded-stationary company, Mariam Naficy was well aware of this. Her company, Minted, was running out of money and had yet to sell even a single unit.

Traditionally, as a founder of a stationery startup, Ms Naficy has 3 options at this point: (1) weep; (2) cut her losses and move onto something new (thankful that at least her Christmas presents are sorted for the next fifty years); or (3) become a bitter pen-hoarding recluse.

Today, it seems, there is a fourth option. As a “last ditch move” Minted decided to turn its business into a design-contest site. Instead of having a team of in-house designers, it crowdsourced them, pitching hopeful designers against each other in a kind of talent contest, with winners chosen by vote.

For Minted, crowdsourcing meant more originality in the designs and (more importantly) plenty of exposure. Oh, and $5.5m worth of investment and sales upwards of $11m.

Of course, as readers of this blog know, Minted is by no means the first contest crowdsourcing site to net big investments. Proud solvers of the world’s hardest problems Kaggle, recently netted $11m. Another $3m has just gone to Design Crowd.

If these numbers are raising your eyebrows, then you’re not alone. Whether such sites are just a passing fad, more indicative of a tech bubble than a new, sustainable business-model, only time will tell. Either way, I don’t think anyone at Minted will be weeping into their champagne this Christmas.

Faces in the crowd: how crowdsourcing can help people fit into society

November 30th, 2011 by

microtask_faces_crowdSometimes it seems there’s a lot of negativity towards the crowd. Whether it’s images of angry mobs with burning torches or hurtful terms like “mob mentality” and “tyranny of the majority”, our society often seems to favor the individual over the group.

We in the crowdsourcing industry have been working hard to dispel these myths and improve the image of the mob. Research underway at Cambridge University is doing just that, by using the crowd to help individuals who have more trouble than most fitting into society: people with autistic spectrum disorders.

Just put on a happy face
In the experiment participants are shown a number of short video snippets of people listening, talking or responding to some trigger. Their speech is garbled, so that what you hear is not what is said, but how it’s said (an important distinction, as anyone who has ever entered into a romantic relationship knows). They’re then asked to describe the emotional state of the subject with just one word.

What researchers have found is that we are remarkably good at reading people’s moods by their faces, voices and posture. So much so in fact, that we can now effectively say that for the far majority of people, X facial expression equals Y emotion (confirming what fans of Eric Conveys an Emotion have known for years.)

You read my mind
So what does this mean for autism sufferers? Quite a lot actually. Growing up, most of us learn to “read” facial expressions naturally. We just know that when a parent pulls that face, it means we’re in trouble. But to an autistic person, suffering from so called “mind blindness”, it’s not so simple. Researchers hope now it might be possible to teach autistic people facial expressions. In fact, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, has already produced The Mind Reading DVD, a comprehensive guide to reading facial expressions.

Of course we should celebrate our differences. But these developments – based on results obtained and verified by crowdsourcing – show that equally we should celebrate our similarities. After all, it’s these shared understandings that make human empathy so miraculously efficient. Even though we may be part of the crowd, we’re all still individuals.

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