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Crowdsourcing Forums, a Daily appointment

June 1st, 2011 by

microtask_crowdsourcing_forumsSince The Daily Crowdsource launched last summer, it has quickly evolved to become the home for crowdsourcing news and information: a comprehensive site for news, crowdsourcing tools, and internationally renowned Crowd Leaders. The Daily Crowdsource continues its mission to expand the knowledge of crowdsourcing by launching the first publicly available crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and open innovation forums.

They are the first of their kind to be focused exclusively on facilitating global conversations about the increasing use of crowdsourcing in just about every aspect of life from marketing to public consultation. And because they are not tied to any existing company, they are a place to openly discuss various platforms.

As the founder of site, I can say that the reason behind their appearance within TDC is to support the crowdsourcing industry and further the understanding of crowdsourcing principles by giving people around the world a place to ask and answer questions about this relatively new process that impacts business, funding, activism and communications. We thought it would be beneficial to bring together the companies and individuals who are contemplating – or utilizing – crowdsourcing to help develop best practices and elevate the quality of all of our crowdsourcing efforts.

Echoing my thoughts, Rafael Zatti, founder of says “participating in the creation of the forums was amazing. Brazil is one of the largest countries for collaboration, both online and offline. Having a forum to unify all the discussions and leverage crowdsourcing worldwide will be fundamental. And, of course, Brazil will benefit greatly.”

The forums are currently available in English, German, and Portuguese, however there are plans to roll out forums in four other languages, including Spanish, French, Italian and Dutch. The Daily Crowdsource is also considering requests for additional languages to make the forum a truly global venue on crowdsourcing. (Since TDCrowdsource is motivated by the value that crowdsourcing holds, the translation of the forums was, of course, crowdsourced.)

If you want to share information and ideas with like minded individuals as well as some of the leading figures in crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and open innovation, you can visit The Daily Crowdsource to view the crowdsourcing discussion forum.

Down on MyFarm: gamification goes rural

May 26th, 2011 by

microtask_gamification_myfarmPicture the pioneers of gamification. Trend-leaders, people who are prepared to really “get their hands dirty” promoting online engagement. Who do you see? A fast-talking baby-faced Princeton drop-out? A well-groomed San Francisco game-developer? A good old-fashioned geek’s geek? Or how about a middle-aged English farmer? Okay, the clue is in the title. Farmer Richard Morris is the proud manager of 1200 acres of prime agricultural land, and the unlikely overseer of real-life gaming venture: MyFarm.

Back to the land
In the US, FarmVille players now apparently outnumber real famers 60:1 (that’s one of those statistics that goes round the blogosphere so fast it must be true). Encouraged by the sudden popularity of virtual agriculture, the owners of the Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire, UK have decided to let the web 2.0 generation have a go for real.

The idea behind MyFarm is simple: invite an online crowd of 10,000 users to run a real farm for a year. Organizers hope the project will “reconnect people with where their food comes from.” Members of the MyFarm community will discuss and vote on every aspect of farming life: what to grow, what to breed, what to buy. Whatever the crowd decides, as long as it’s legal, Farmer Morris (who seems surprisingly relaxed about taking orders from a bunch of online amateurs) will put it into practice.

To avoid disaster help things along, the MyFarm site is fully equipped with web-cams, informative blogs and (of course) discussion forums. So far 1280 people have signed up to the site and are hotly debating issues like wildlife management, crop rotation and how many magic beans a rare-breed organic cow is worth. The first official farming vote (Sow or No!) is scheduled for today, May 26th.

Milking the trend?
Inevitably, the media has been quick to label MyFarm a real life FarmVille. To me, the environmentalist/ educational/ do-gooder ethos behind MyFarm actually has more in common with green gamification projects like Practically Green and Recycle Bank.

There are, however, a few key differences that make MyFarm interesting. Practically Green, Recycle Bank and numerous other projects all use game mechanics primarily to alter/improve individual user behavior. The focus is on rewarding “good” personal actions: recycle more, drive less, run more. In contrast MyFarm is all about users making collective decisions which have a direct impact on the outside world (if only a small rural corner of the outside world).

From a strictly game-development point of view, MyFarm’s features are pretty rustic. No scoreboards, no clear narrative progression, no “juicy feedback”. The project also breaks one of the golden rules of gamification: players should always progress and never completely fail. In MyFarm, total failure is a very real possibility. There might be a drought, the soybeans might not sell, the site might get hijacked by vegetarians who vote to set all the animals free.

So, is “playing” with the real world worth the risk? Can plain reality actually be fun? Farmer Morris and his crowd seem to think so. Time, as always, will be the best judge of their success.

Distributed work and data security: can the crowd keep a secret?

May 23rd, 2011 by

microtask_crowd_secret_confidentialIn these post-WikiLeaks days, many people (and governments) might argue the only way to keep data confidential is to keep it offline. After all, the web was designed to link and share information. Online, as Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy once tactfully remarked, “You have zero privacy. Get over it.”

The trouble with the “McNealy philosophy” is that the web is now the place where millions of people go to work, as well as play. Even the most innocent, open, non-evil companies generally have some data – such as personal information, research and development strategy, secret Santa lists – they need to keep secure.

Distributed work platforms face a unique and particularly knotty data security dilemma. If your business model relies on distributing client data among a vast (often anonymous) crowd of strangers, how do you make sure that any confidential information stays on the QT?

Crowd control
Six years after the launch of Mechanical Turk, crowd labor platforms have become pretty good at extracting high-quality, consistent results from workers. But in some ways, confidentiality is even more crucial than accuracy. A bad data set and you’ll probably have to rerun some tasks. Bad data security and you might end up several million dollars worse off (as Google Buzz recently learnt the hard way).

Many of the basic “bread and butter” tasks of distributed work involve potentially sensitive data. Think of phone transcription, handwriting recognition, email address searches and SMS translation. There’s also the growing area of crowdsourced market research and product testing. What if someone in the crowd reveals your killer new mobile app (Moderately Irritated Frogs) to the folks at Rovio?

C.S confidential
It’s up to individual distributed work platforms to figure out how to deal with data security. One option is simply to do nothing. This sophisticated strategy is employed by the granddaddy of crowd labor, Mechanical Turk. To quote from their participation agreement:

“submission of any…materials is at your own risk, none of Amazon Mechanical Turk, its Affiliates, Requesters or Providers has any obligations (including without limitation obligations of confidentiality) with respect to such materials.”
In other words, it ain’t our fault if you’re dumb enough to spill your secrets here. Unsurprisingly, you don’t see much that would interest Julian Assange in Mechanical Turk requests.

Most service providers are more hands on. Editing and translation platform, guarantees that: “All Servio workers sign an agreement that prohibits them from using information for any purpose other than carrying out their Servio tasks.” Even more hardcore, crowdsourced transcription company CastingWords operate a strict one-strike-and-you’re-out policy: “workers understand that the work is confidential, and that they will never work for us again if they release it.”

Here at Microtask we prefer to opt for prevention rather than cure. Our strategy is to break material down into tasks so small that confidentiality ceases to be an issue. Individual workers never get hold of enough puzzle pieces to see the big picture.

The tasks are out there
As the crowd labor sector develops, projects are becoming bigger, more customized and more complex. Some clients have data requiring different levels of confidentiality. Leaving micro tasks aside, the most economic solution for such clients will be platforms that can categorize data according to sensitivity and treat it accordingly. For example, tasks rated highly classified (X-tasks perhaps) could be restricted to pre-selected, traceable workers who have signed legally binding non-disclosure agreements. Really ultra-confidential tasks (like transcribing the CIA’s Roswell archives or KFC’s secret recipe) could even be passed back to employees within the client company (who are later killed, I suppose).

Data security will be a key issue for the crowdsourcing industry. It’s a simple equation: the more companies trust us to keep their information confidential, the more work we’ll get (and vice versa). If anyone has any thoughts or juicy crowdsourcing stories to share, as always we’d love to hear from you. Please check your confidentiality terms first.

Crowdsourcing global development: working theories

May 18th, 2011 by

microtask_crowdsourcing_global_developmentWhat do Madonna, the Chinese Government and crowdsourcing all have in common? Answer: a complex and sometimes controversial relationship with the developing world.

Take the much quoted statistic that 33% of workers on Mechanical Turk are located in India. It sounds impressive, right? Thousands of people in a developing country using Mechanical Turk to earn some much needed extra rupees. But according to a recent study by Microsoft Research India, the vast majority of Indian Turkers are college graduates with above-average household incomes. In other words, mainly middle class kids.

We like to think of paid crowdsourcing as a truly “equal opportunities” phenomena. A global workplace where anyone anywhere can get a job. But is this really true outside developed, computer-literate countries? Has crowdsourcing lived up to its potential when it comes to employing the world’s poor?

Lost in translation
The researchers at Microsoft Research India conducted an experiment. They selected a group of Indians with lower incomes, high-school standard education and only basic English and computer skills. After researchers explained the basic concept of Mechanical Turk (it’s not mechanical, there are no Turks), the participants were set a range of simple tasks. The results make uncomfortable reading.

To cut a long study short, every participant in the group failed to complete the tasks. Why? Mainly because people couldn’t navigate Mechanical Turk or follow requestors’ “ad-hoc and complex” instructions. The researchers responded by simplifying the interface and translating instructions into the local language. Result: task completion was boosted from 0 to 66%.

Now, I know Mechanical Turk requestors are an intelligent bunch, but surely it’s a bit extreme to expect them to translate every task into multiple languages – India alone has hundreds of languages and dialects. Instead, the researchers suggest that crowdsourcing platforms create “standardized human instruction sets” (you can tell these are programmers): individual, pre-written, simple English sentences that requestors use to write tasks.

Of course, even if the instructions are crystal clear and the platform is a miracle of human-centered design, there’s still the problem of access. Only 6% of Indian households have a PC and internet connection. Some African countries are still waiting for broadband to arrive. Internet cafés are expensive, plus many people in the developing world don’t have bank accounts.

Hatching an industry
The authors of the study state that “paid crowdsourcing has the potential to improve earnings and livelihoods in poor communities around the world.” But actually creating a paid crowdsourcing industry in developing countries is clearly a mammoth task. It requires connecting more people to the internet, redesigning crowd labor platforms, improving computer skills and adapting more tasks for mobile phones. Will commercial crowdsourcing companies be willing (or even able) to invest that kind of time and money?

Crowdsourcing has been described as an “egg before chicken” industry (stay with me here, I promise it will make sense). You need the workers (or eggs) in place in order to attract clients (er, chickens). Unlocking the potential of the millions of workers in the developing world could accelerate the growth of the whole paid crowdsourcing industry. Or as the study puts it: “requesters could find lower-cost labor, platform owners could benefit from larger volumes, and the crowdsourcing paradigm as a whole could scale up to address much grander problems”. It sounds like a bright future, now all we have to do is figure out how to make it happen.

Microtask: we love the forms you hate

May 11th, 2011 by

microtask_forms_launchPaper forms are the bane of the modern workplace. They clutter-up our wireless, iPad-glass-and-steel offices like ghosts of the pre-digital past. As well as ruining the décor, forms are a terrible way to store data (just try “quick sorting” a full filing cabinet). Humankind has sent robots to Mars, mapped the human genome and even (in just 11 years) tracked down Osama Bin Laden. So why is the paperless office still such an impossible dream?

As you probably know by now, here at Microtask we take productivity seriously. We spent many long days and sleepless nights wrestling with this data-based dilemma. Finally we emerged, red-eyed and over-caffeinated but victorious. Ladies and gentlemen, we are extremely proud to present our new miraculous service: (drumroll please) Microtask Forms!

Forms of torture
Say you run a hospital. Most likely your staff are overwhelmed with bureaucracy. Let’s be optimistic and say your super efficient workers only spend 25% of their time filling in forms or deciphering doctors’ scrawl (bad handwriting seems to be an entry requirement for med school) and inputting it into databases. Now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all these highly-paid, highly-professional people could take back that quarter of their work time and spend it on something more productive? Like, for example, taking care of sick people?

Similar bureaucratic blues are experienced by a huge range of companies and institutions: from law firms to arts organizations to government agencies. The problem is how do you digitize and structure tons of paper records without condemning brilliant employees to perform endless tedious tasks?

Crowd beats paper
From today, the solution is at hand. Microtask Forms is a service specifically created to digitize high volumes of paper forms, transforming them from groaning, overweight piles to slender spreadsheets (available in two popular Excel formats: .xls or .csv).

The idea is simple and powerful. Submit your forms via fax or email then sit back and let the crowd do the work. Our system extracts the data from each record (a totally painless procedure) and splits it into individual tasks which are distributed, over the internet, to our workers. Humans are much better than machines at deciphering handwriting (especially bad handwriting). Just to make things extra-reliable each data fragment is digitized more than once and the results are automatically cross-checked. Security is also guaranteed, as each worker only ever sees tiny fragments of information. The “big picture” remains hidden: only known to you and us.

Our free trial (absolutely no strings attached) is now up and running. Microtask Forms is great value and doesn’t require a subscription or any long term commitment – we just want to digitize your data (but in a good way, not a creepy-iPhone-tracking way). Like we did with Digitalkoot, we’ve built a platform using crowdsourcing to get repetitive and dull work done better and faster. Why not form your own opinion and give it a try?

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