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Apocalypse Now-ish: can crowdsourcing save us from 2012?

November 3rd, 2011 by

microtask_2012As every Mayan priest and Hollywood film director knows, 2012 is officially the year of the apocalypse. All over the world, conspiracy theorists are stocking up on canned goods and exchanging tips on bunker design.

There’s even a black US president, and that only ever happens in disaster movies. In these dark days, can anyone save humanity? Yes, that’s right folks, the crowd can (well sort of).

Take the classic doomsday scenario of an asteroid hurtling towards the earth. For many years, scientists have struggled to identify and track every “near earth object”. Now the European Space Agency (ESA) has appealed to the crowd for help. ESA is piloting a project where amateur astronomers work with automated software to hunt for asteroids. Volunteers in Tenerife have already spotted one asteroid classed as a “potential impact threat”. Luckily it “just” missed the earth by about 30 million km (so no need to call in Bruce Willis quite yet). ESA aims to have nightly crowdsourced sky surveys running by (you guessed it) 2012.

What about Hollywood’s other favorite apocalypse: the killer global virus? Here too crowdsourcing may have the answer – the humble video game. Recently, the scientific establishment was astonished when players of online protein-folding game Foldit work out the structure of an HIV enzyme. Biochemists have struggled with this fiendishly complex enzyme for over 10 years. It took the Foldit crowd 3 weeks to decode it. Finding the antidote to a deadly global epidemic should be no problem.

Finally, if the end really is nigh, we can always mobilize crowdsourced crisis response platforms to help sort out the mess. I bet Ushahidi could have an interactive zombie infestation map online in under 24 hours. Clearly the crowd has got global annihilation covered. 2012? Bring it on I say.

Paying the price for Google Maps?

October 31st, 2011 by

torino_google-mapOnline cartographers were stunned last week when Google announced plans to charge for the use of the Google Maps API. As of next year, web developers will have to navigate prices of $4 per 1000 map loads. So, is this the “end of the road” for the dozens (probably hundreds) of crowdsourced mapping projects that rely on Google’s services? Not exactly: small sites – those with under 25,000 views per day – will remain free. Good news for fans of random mashup sites. But what about large not-for-profit mapping projects, like Ushahidi, that rely on Google’s unrivalled geocoding? Should they also be exempt?

Online commentators have been quick to point out that hard-up developers can always “just use OpenStreetMap instead”. OpenStreetMap – a free crowdsourced alternative to Google Maps – is a great product, however it lacks some of Google Maps more sophisticated features (like the all-seeing, all-knowing Street View). Much more worrying, Google has a reputation for producing the best maps of developing countries (OpenStreetMap is more Europe focused). Ironically, this is largely due to Google’s own crowdsourced mapping project, Map Maker, which has been a huge success in Africa and India. In 2005 only 15% of the world’s population had online maps, thanks to the Google Map Maker crowd, it’s now over 30%.

If Google wants to charge people/ companies that profit from using Google Maps, fair enough. But charging not-for-profit crowdsourcing organizations to use maps where much of the data has itself been crowdsourced (for free) from people in the developing world… Call me a crazy idealist but that just doesn’t seem right. Perhaps Google should remember its original motto: don’t be evil.

Crowdsourcing democracy: was the Arab Spring over-hyped?

October 26th, 2011 by

April6_HannaSistek7© Photos by Hanna Sistek @Sistek

This year, crowdsourced journalism has really “hit the headlines”. From journalists crowdfunding their own investigations, to The Guardian newspaper crowdsourcing its editorial policy.

Of course, the biggest crowdsourced news scoop of 2011 is the Arab Spring. From Morocco to Bahrain, citizens risked their lives to film, tweet and blog real-time on-the-ground reports. In the West, over-excited tech commentators discussed the great “social-media revolution”. Yet, six months after Tahrir Square, Egypt remains troubled and divided: a few weeks ago, 26 Coptic Christians were killed in Cairo during clashes with the police.

Social media helped kick start the revolution. But can technology also help create better, more democratic, Arab states? Tanja Aitamurto, a visiting researcher at Stanford, and Hanna Sistek, a journalist in Delhi, are researching exactly this question. Recently I caught up with them and discussed what they had discovered.

Stanford vs Egypt: compatible cultural codes?
Hanna and Tanja began by investigating Stanford-based crowdsourcing projects. During the uprising, volunteer programmers developed several platforms to support the Egyptian protestors. Has this software – often created during all-night “hackathons” – had any real impact?


Tweet Nadwa, and activist meeting held near Tahrir square.

Yes and no. Take Wathiqah, a site for Egyptians to discuss their new constitution. In just a week, Wathiqah got 18,000 hits. However the site soon became inactive. The reasons why are complex. The Egyptian constitution had to be completely rebuilt; some people thought this process should wait until after elections. Others felt Wathiqah was too closely linked to presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baredei. Ideally, Hanna explained, the website should be run by someone neutral and unbiased – making it a truly open discussion platform.

It was a different story in Morocco where King Mohammed VI created a committee to revise the constitution. In response, two Morocco-based computer geeks set up In Morocco (unlike in Egypt) reform was based on the old constitution, so people had a clear starting point for discussion. In one month, received over 150,000 opinions and suggestions. This huge response convinced the national committee to consider crowdsourced suggestions when drafting the new constitution.

It’s interesting that Western-developed platforms failed to get Arab support. An election monitoring platform – developed for Egypt at the request of the American University in Cairo – had to be completely re-written by local project assistant Michael Ayoub. “The programmers from Stanford wanted to use a new programming language for writing the site. They wanted to learn this programming language, but it wasn’t very useful over here” says Ayoub. He tried to communicate this with the Stanford developers, but felt that his needs were ignored. We think of social media as universal, but perhaps sometimes, even in crowdsourcing, you just gotta be there.


Another one from Tweet Nadwa. More on those meetings here.

To Cairo via the crowd
With this in mind, Hanna and Tanja decided it was time to head for Egypt, (crowd)funding the costs via After touching down in Cairo, the two intrepid reporters got to work recording videos and writing articles (one and two). Hanna and Tanja are now writing a book on the role of online participation in building democracy.

So, was social media really revolutionary, or has its relevance been overstated by internet enthusiasts? In Hanna’s and Tanja’s own words:“Just like during the uprising, online activism is merely one way of protesting. It is crucial to get boots on the ground, and activists on the streets [...] However successful online campaigns are, Egyptian activists are facing serious challenges as the revolutionary 18 days this spring drift further away. Egyptians are getting tired of ongoing restlessness and protests, and the unity of the country is diminishing as religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians, are emigrating to safety abroad”.


A demonstration by the April 6 movement in old Cairo. People are eating Sohour, the morning meal during Ramadan.

What we have learned, perhaps, is that you can’t reform or rebuild a society with just good intentions and 140 characters (or less) – especially if you are based at a far-away university. Yet while the tools from the social media “revolution” may not bring about revolution themselves, if managed in the right way, they can be used to organize people, spread ideas and demonstrate popular support for reforms. Perhaps eventually, then, they can help bring about real change.


Hanna & Tanja

Crime-sourcing: the dark side of the crowd

October 20th, 2011 by

microtask_cybercrimeWhat do you do if your bank account gets hacked? Option 1: cancel your credit cards, have a couple of drinks and promise to stop opening emails from long lost cousins based in Nigeria. Option 2: take it personally, put on some dark sunglasses and go after the hackers.

Misha Glenny chose option 2, and then spent over two years infiltrating the murky world of cyber-crime. He uncovered a fast-growing, global industry. According to Glenny, cyber-crime bosses are adaptable, imaginative and eager to exploit new technology. They’re also phenomenal outsourcers – a single hack can involve a “distributed workforce” operating across continents. So maybe it’s not surprising that – just like many legit online businesses – the bad guys are now experimenting with a new online tool: the crowd.

Guilty pleasures
So, how do you convince the crowd to commit crime? Answer: trick them into it. Take this ingenious scam where users (presumably young, spotty males) were given access to free pornography in return for solving CAPTCHAs. The more words they decoded, the more images appeared. Unfortunately, it turned out the CAPTCHA data was being used to break into Yahoo email accounts. You kind of have to admire the criminals’ grasp of game motivation theory, if not their choice of “reward”.

The sheer range of crime-sourcing plots is jaw-dropping: from Twitter organized flash robs to shady Mafia-type gangs who recruit virtual mules to launder money and receive stolen goods. Then there are cyber-crimes where the crowd actively participates, like the notorious LulzSec group’s “hacking hotline” which got people to vote on who the group’s next hacking victim should be (must have caused Sarah Palin some serious DDoS problems).

Trust me, I’m a crowdsourcer
Does crime-sourcing matter much to us – the hard-working, honest crowdsourcing majority? I guess it depends how big the “crime-sourcing sector” grows. Could enough crowd-scams make people suspicious of crowdsourcing in general? Right now there’s a lot of “positive-energy” around crowdsourcing. If we lose this, we risk losing the crowd altogether. Imagine people thinking: “those digital moles sure look cute, but what if they’re really a furry front for some evil cyber villain?” Or if crime-sourced games started infiltrating social networks (gives Mafia Wars a whole new meaning).

Of course, this is all speculation – a worst case scenario. Crime-sourcing is really a twisted tribute to the power of crowds. It’s only because crowdsourcing has become so successful that criminals are suddenly desperate to get “in on the game”. We just have to work out how to stop them. Ideas anyone?

Michael S Hart: a man of many words

October 18th, 2011 by

microtask_michael_hartAs people everywhere continue to mourn the loss of Steve Jobs (mainly by buying yet another iPhone), spare a thought for another recently departed tech visionary: Michael S Hart.

Like Jobs, Hart was a pioneer amongst geeks. Way back in 1971 (when “the Internet” had a grand total of 100 users) Hart founded Project Gutenberg, a non-profit enterprise to “encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks”. As a commenter on our recent Google Ngrams blog pointed out, not only was Project Gutenberg the first large-scale project to digitize books, it used distributed labor to do it.

Since 1981 Project Gutenberg has been run entirely by online volunteers (for the first 10 years, Hart apparently typed in every single book himself). Unlike Steve “control freak” Jobs, Michael Hart described himself as “not a very bossy boss”. To this day, the crowd (all 20,000 of them) is in control of pretty much everything at, from selecting and scanning new books to proof-reading, translating and digital formatting. Thanks to them, the complete text of over 36,000 eBooks is now available online.

When he first started out, Michael Hart was dismissed as “that crazy guy who wants to put Shakespeare in a computer”. Forty years on, Project Gutenberg is a piece of crowdsourcing history. Every digitization project since – from Google Books to Digitalkoot – owes a debt to Hart’s vision and, of course, to the literary dedication of the Gutenberg crowd.

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