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Crowdsourcing the slums: a breath of fresh air?

November 24th, 2011 by

microtask_breath_fresh_airWhen we consider humanity’s great achievements, the humble toilet does not usually rate a mention (unless to describe where the greatest failures ended up).

Yet in terms of making our lives better, sanitation – and the way it eradicated annoying things like the plague – is actually pretty important (don’t get me wrong, it’s no iPad or anything).

Which is why it stinks that so many people in the world do not have access to it.

Intrepid PhD student Mark Iliffe has been doing his best to do something about this in the slums of Kenya and Tanzania, using – you guessed it – crowdsourcing.

How do you say “where’s the WC?”
Mark’s scheme, The Tandale Mapping Project, aims to map sanitation services in the fast-growing, chronically under-resourced urban slums of Dar es Salaam. Armed only with integrity, an OpenStreetMap interface and (presumably) a really good Swahili dictionary, Mark’s team crowdsourced geo-located data from Tandale residents and students. As well as tapping into local knowledge, Mark claims that this approach” allows the community themselves to take ownership of the project”.

Results so far are impressive. In just a few weeks, residents have produced detailed maps of toilets and water access points across Tandale. The interface (clearly inspired by the famous Ushahidi platform) also allows residents to report sanitation problems via SMS and web forms. I guess now it’s up to governments and NGOs to actually do something with all that data.

My only issue with the (obviously worthy) Tandale project is what happens after the well-funded Western PhD student has packed-up his GPS and gone home? In other words, is the project sustainable?

Mark tackled this criticism in a recent blog post. He argues that by working with locals right from the start he’s created a “small nucleus of highly engaged people” who will “infect the community from the inside.” Let’s hope so because I’ve got a feeling that Mark Iliffe’s vision and enthusiasm has the potential to spread the civic crowdsourcing bug a whole lot further.

Microtask Selected to Rule the Globe

November 21st, 2011 by

microtask_redherring_global_2011Well, almost… Red Herring picked Microtask as a finalist in their 2011 Top 100 Global award. I got the call from Alex Vieux himself a couple of days ago. We edged out close to 1000 companies from 40 different countries who submitted nominations, and we were invited to present our winning crowdsourcing strategy at the Red Herring Global forum in Los Angeles next month.

The official word from Red Herring is this:

“Technology companies are becoming the bright spot in the economic outlook based on their increasing role within macro-economic environments.“ Stated Alex Vieux, Chairman of Red Herring. “2011 has confirmed the sector’s vibrant activity and its resilience to widespread economic problems. An unprecedented number of entrepreneurs are attempting to jump ahead of the competition and aspire to make a difference. Breakthroughs obsolete each other faster than ever before. Microtask has performed exceptionally in its field and strongly deserves to be singled out as one of the Red Herring Global Finalists. At this stage, we are left with the daunting task to select the best qualified companies for the 2011 Top 100 Global Award.”

Hatforce: your friendly crowd of hackers

November 17th, 2011 by

microtask_hatforceHackers: ruthless cyber-villains out to steal and defraud, or virtual heroes fearlessly battling the security systems of evil corporations? Love them or hate them, hackers have always been around. They’re an inevitable online hazard – like trolls, 404 pages and inappropriate Nazi analogies.

Take the international “hactivism” group Anonymous (these guys are like WikiLeaks’ crazy kid brother). Back in April, Anonymous successfully obtained the credit card numbers of over 70 million Playstation users, exposing major security flaws at Sony. Just a few days ago, the same thing happened to gaming distribution platform Steam. Details are still emerging but Gabe Newell, Steam co-founder and beloved guru of the gaming industry, gave this not-very-reassuring advice: “watch your credit card.”

Clearly, the gaming industry has serious security issues. So, will we gamers soon be forced to abandon our consoles and (shock horror) face reality? Luckily, there may be a less drastic solution. Question: what’s the best way to make your system hack-proof? Answer: get a crowd of hackers to test it out, of course.

Top hats
Welcome to Hatforce a “crowdsourcing security testing service” complete with its own crowd of expert hackers. Just to be clear, these guys are white hats – good hackers (as opposed to the “bad” black hats like Anonymous).

As Hatforce CEO Arthur Gervais (who is still just 24 years old) explained to me: “we want to answer the question: how’s your security?”. The idea is simple. Clients set the Hatforce testers challenges and rewards – say €80 for every security vulnerability found in a system. To take part, wannabe testers have to register and sign an NDA. Legal stuff completed, the official hacking begins. All testing is done on a “no bugs no fee” basis (so if your system is secure, you get to save money and be smug).

A black and white issue?
So, I asked, surely the big question for Hatforce is: how do you make sure that the (1000s of) testers have good intentions? “There’s no guarantee,” Arthur says, “but we are running black box tests, which means no tester has the source code of the website at his or her disposal. Effectively, we don’t need to trust the hackers. Why would malicious hackers bother to sign a contract and NDA if they could attack you right away?

According to Arthur, the real issue is people’s perception (let’s face it, hackers do have a bit of an image problem). To reassure clients, Hatforce is now offering a “Trusted Tester” service, where smaller groups of Hatforce testers are handpicked and have their identities verified. But, Arthur insists, while this might feel more secure, it’s actually “illogical to let fewer testers test your product, because the probability of finding flaws is smaller. So we want to keep the main idea: the crowd is the best tester for finding flaws in your application.”

Hatforce is a smart crowdsourced re-imagining of online security testing. Can the rest of the world be persuaded that the hacking crowd is actually a force for good? For the sake of Sony, Steam and gamers everywhere, I very much hope so.

Kaggle: crowdsourcing genius or statistical anomaly?

November 14th, 2011 by

microtask_kaggleIn 2009 Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, famously claimed that “the sexy job in the next ten years will be statistician”. It still sounds pretty improbable right?

I mean, when did you last see a data-analyst fighting off screaming groupies? Statistics isn’t even a cool branch of maths.

Real “pure” mathematicians wrestle with the fundamental mysteries of the universe. Statisticians wrestle with pie charts.

Sexiness aside, Hal’s point was (probably) that in our information-driven world, statisticians are a precious, in-demand resource. Without them, companies like Google would drown in a tsunami of data. Recently, Silicon Valley funders proved just how much they appreciate the humble number cruncher, investing over $11 million in Australian data analytics crowdsourcing start-up Kaggle.

Kaggle is a classic “brain-based” crowd competition site. Organizations post statistical problems and Kaggle’s crowd of “the world’s best data analysts” compete to solve them. As well as prize money, Kaggle boasts various gamified incentives such as a real-time leader board and “kudos point” rankings. Only founded in 2010, the company has had an impressive first year. Completed competitions include: working with NASA on dark matter (okay I admit that’s pretty cool), improving the World Chess Federation’s official rating system (still reasonably cool) and accurately predicting the outcome of the Eurovision Song contest (totally uncool, but very profitable).

Founder Anthony Goldbloom aims to grow Kaggle into a “buzzing hive” able to support “hundreds or thousands of data scientists relying on Kaggle for their full-time incomes”. It’s an ambitious step-up from other, older science competition sites (InnoCentive is a classic example) which tend to market crowdsourcing as a rewarding hobby rather than a career choice. Professionalizing will be a major challenge. Can Goldbloom really guarantee enough competitions to support thousands of workers? At the time of writing, Kaggle has over 17,000 data analysts and only 12 active competitions. Okay, there are a couple of big prizes up for grabs, but I certainly wouldn’t want to depend on Kaggle for a regular income.

Investors clearly see potential in Kaggle. Will the company “buck the trend” and manage to convert all the money and media-hype into statistically significant growth? Perhaps we should get the Kaggle crowd to calculate the probabilities.

Crowded planet: desperately seeking sustainability

November 8th, 2011 by

microtask_crowded_planetAccording to the latest UN figures, there are now over 7 billion people living on planet earth. In response, the world’s media has exploded with dire predictions of famine, war and climate disaster (and some great info-graphics). Of course, in Finland over-population is hardly a major problem (except for reindeer and right-wing politicians). But we’re probably as guilty as any Western nation when it comes to over-consuming resources.

As well as rapidly reproducing, humans are fast becoming an “overwhelmingly urban species”. By 2050 there will be over 8 billion people living in cities. Can we find a way (other than by crowd funding a moon colony) to live sustainably on such a crowded planet? According to some experts (and kindergarten teachers everywhere) the answer is simple: learn to share.

Shared visions
Imagine the perfect eco-city. What do you see? Green spaces? Low-rise housing? Hippies meditating on roof gardens? Not according to futurologist Alex Steffen. True eco-cities, Steffen argues, are hyper-dense and hyper-connected. Denser urban environments mean fewer cars and therefore less pollution. Increased connectivity also allows people to share and access city services. Steffen highlights apps like Mapnificent – which crowdsources public transport routes – as examples. He argues that technology-enabled “crowd sharing” could eventually see communities pooling everything from surplus space and energy, to food and power drills.

Steffen’s ideas might sound ambitious (he does want Americans to stop driving cars, after all), but many of his “predictions” are already a crowdsourced reality. In her latest publication The Enabling City, Chiara Camponeschi (another sustainability guru), lists an incredible variety of collaborative city projects – global and local. There’s Neglected Spaces a London-based scheme to share and repair disused buildings. In the USA Bright Neighbor combines community involvement with online social tools to “increase livability, sustainability and improve local economies”. There’s even a Tool Lending Library service based in Berkeley, California.

The Enabling City is designed as a toolkit to engage and motivate urban citizens. In Chiara Camponeschi’s own words “there are vast amounts of untapped knowledge and creativity out there that we need to unleash to make our cities more open and sustainable”. Inspiring stuff.

The West vs the rest?
Despite their grand vision, both Steffen and Camponeschi only really tackle sustainability in the developed world. All the crowdsourced projects listed in The Enabling City (and it’s a pretty long list) are based in Europe or North America. Plus I wonder how Alex Steffen’s “denser, greener future” applies to already chronically overcrowded cities like Manila and Lagos.

While growing populations are a worldwide issue, developing countries face the toughest, most urgent challenges. In the next 40 years, African cities alone are set to triple in size. Previously on the blog, we’ve discussed how developing countries have embraced crowdsourcing. Imagine if the creative, innovative developing-world crowd also had experts like Steffen and Camponeschi fighting their corner. Could be a powerful, sustainable, combination.

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