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A (cryptic) case for the crowd

May 9th, 2011 by

microtask_code_crowdAn unsolved murder. An unbreakable cipher. Baffled police issue a desperate plea: can anybody out there crack this code?

It sounds like fiction, right? Just add Matt Damon, a car chase and a deadlocked high-security vault, and you’ve got a guaranteed summer blockbuster. But in reality, this is the exact scenario currently being acted out by America’s premier crime fighting (and conspiracy-theory-generating) agency: The FBI.

Mental man hunt
The FBI has a long history of working with the crowd. Ever since agents nailed up the first Most Wanted poster (back in 1919 apparently), citizens have been eager to aid “the Bureau” in the fugitive-catching business.

This March, the FBI published a unique appeal for crowd help. Here’s the story: in 1999, police discovered the murdered body of a man in a field in Missouri. The killer left behind no evidence. The only clues found at the scene were two encrypted notes, apparently written by the victim.

For the last 10 years experts have tried and failed to decode those messages. Now they’re handing the job over to the crowd. As Dan Olson, head of the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit (racketeering? Have FBI chiefs been watching too much Boardwalk Empire?), has stated: “Maybe someone with a fresh set of eyes might come up with a brilliant new idea.”

Secrets of the past
The coded notes look impressively incomprehensible (and this is an assembly language programmer talking). You might think that a cipher which has defeated a decade of professional analysis is pretty much certifiably unbreakable. But the history of cryptography (and computing) is rich in examples of “amateur intelligence” breakthroughs.

During World War II, amateur cryptologists were among the team that helped crack the famous German Enigma code. Interestingly, these 1940s code breakers left behind a massive archive of (some still encrypted) papers which are only now being digitized. The Bletchley Park Museum, which owns the archive, sadly won’t be “gamesourcing” the digitization process itself (just imagine how cool a WWII spies version of Digitalkoot would be!). But once everything is uploaded, the museum does plan to crowdsource the skills of amateur historians and cryptographers to help research and decode the records.

The FBI has reported an “outpouring of responses” to its crowd code appeal. 70 years ago, human-computer intelligence helped to end a war. Now, who knows, maybe it might just catch a killer. So if you’re a math genius, a crossword puzzle freak, or managed to follow the plot of Lost all the way through, get over to the FBI site and get cracking.


2011: a crowded year

May 4th, 2011 by

microtask_2011_crowded_yearOver the past couple of years the growth of the crowdsourcing industry has been fast and furious. The term “crowdsourcing” itself now covers an ever-increasing number of sub-categories. From microwork to gamesourcing, from open innovation to crowd funding. New ideas, new research and new companies are constantly bursting onto the scene.

At this critical “coming of age” stage in crowdsourcing’s development, it’s vital that industry players get together and engage in real, ongoing debate. What’s the best way of achieving this? Either throw a huge party or organize a convention (or best of all, organize a convention which includes a huge party). Here are a few good reasons to venture offline in 2011:

Crowdsortium Symposium
Crowdsortium Symposium is the debut event from crowdsourcing advocates and industry practitioners group Crowdsortium.org. The convention is scheduled for May 19-20 in Mountain “Google” View, California. Given Crowdsortium’s impressive list of members, the event should be a great opportunity for crowdsourcing professionals to meet up and gossip engage in productive discussion. Tickets are on sale to members for $125, so get in touch with Media Director Brittany Lincoln if you wish to attend.

Crowdconvention
Next up is Europe’s first ever crowdsourcing conference: Crowdconvention. Taking place on June 15th in Berlin, the convention (co-sponsored by Microtask) will offer “space for discussion, exchange of information and possibilities for new partnerships” (hopefully served up with some decent beer). The packed schedule includes crowdsourcing A-listers such as Richard Lewis from Clickworker, Lukas Biewald from CrowdFlower, Pia Erkinheimo from Nokia, Jeff Howe from Wired, Carl Esposti from crowdsourcing.org and last but not least, Microtask’s own Dear Leader (“just call me CEO”) Ville Miettinen. Check out Crowdconvention.com for more details.

HCOMP 2011
The Human Computation Workshop is this year’s third go-to industry event. HCOMP 2011 kicks off around August 8th in San Francisco. Primarily a research conference, organizers include crowdsourcing pioneer (and certified genius) Luis von Ahn and (in)famous Mechanical Turk blogger Panagiotis Ipeirotis. HCOMP 2011 (which is part of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Conference) is a unique chance to debate the fascinating and potentially revolutionary area of A.I. and human computation in crowdsourcing (plus, there will be REAL robots). Microtask’s CTO Otto Chrons will be our man on the ground, and may possibly present some of the data collected from Digitalkoot. Date and time are still unconfirmed so make sure to check the official blog for updates.

One to watch
For my money, CrowdConf was definitely the defining crowdsourcing event of 2010. So far, organizers remain tight-lipped about this year’s program but it’s safe to assume it will be worth the wait. 1-2 November in San Francisco, the great and the good of the crowdsourcing industry will again gather… Make sure you don’t miss out.

With so many opportunities to meet and discuss, we wonder what topics will define crowdsourcing in 2011. Will it be gamification? Microwork? Quality concerns? Wages and legislation? If any of you feel like sharing any suggestions – conventional or unconventional – we are all ears.


Gaming the system: how rewards affect performance

April 28th, 2011 by

microtask_rewards_gamificationSometimes the simplest things are the hardest to define. Everyone knows what a game is, but agreeing on a definition is another story. Wikipedia’s no-nonsense entry defines a game as: “structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment…with goals, challenges, rules and interactions.” Jesse Schell is somewhat more fun, saying it is simply “a problem solving activity, approached with a playful attitude”.

Although not mentioned in these definitions, a key part of many games is rewards. Checkmate the king – win a chess trophy; explode a bad guy – collect the coins (plus if it’s multiplayer, you get the added buzz of annihilating friends and family).

While such reward systems seem straightforward, the rationale behind them can be incredibly complicated. Should rewards be physical or emotional? Intrinsic or extrinsic? Predictable level-ups or unpredictable Easter eggs? With the rapid spread of gamification into business, developing reward systems that entice people to play is becoming an important industry.

It’s not about the money
Common sense (and free market economics) suggests that the relationship between productivity and rewards should be simple and linear. Say you pay a worker X dollars in return for Y output. Double the dollars and you’d expect to double the output (2X = 2Y). Or so you’d think. But interestingly it appears that in many cases productivity is one of those things money just can’t buy.

Dan Pink argues that increasing rewards only increases productivity when workers are performing repetitive, mechanical tasks (and even then you can run into problems). Unbelievably, when it comes to creative or complex tasks, monetary incentives can actually damage people’s productivity (maybe this explains why so many second albums disappoint).

Mr Pink makes a compelling case. He quotes 30 years of research into employee motivation. Tests and studies have been carried out all over the world by universities including MIT and the LSE. All the data points to the same conclusion, that “once a task calls for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward leads to poorer performance.” This, of course, has serious repercussions for gamified incentive schemes.

A badge too far
Gamification usually works by layering game-like rewards over existing sites and concepts. You take something people are already intrinsically interested in and use gaming to give the service an “engagement boost”. So Nike+ gamifies running by adding challenges and progress bars. Uber-geeky Q&A site Stack Overflow offers badges as rewards for solving programming dilemmas.

Influential technology research company Gartner recently predicted that by 2015, 50% of businesses will use gamification to “obtain and keep customer loyalty”. The question is, how relevant is Dan Pink’s analysis for such schemes? Can companies assume that the more points they hand out, the more customers they’ll attract?

The answer may depend on how well the reward system is designed. To work, reward structures have to be carefully planned, customized and implemented. Just slapping points and leader boards on everything that clicks can actually damage a brand. If badges are too easy or too difficult to obtain then users get bored or frustrated. If a points system can be easily gamed then less-loyal (dishonest) users are rewarded over loyal (honest) ones. Plus, users engaged in creative tasks may feel patronized / irritated/ homicidal if forced to work using a cute, bug-eyed avatar.

So far, very few gamifiers have addressed Dan Pink’s evidence on the dangers of relying on rewards as motivators. As companies start applying gamification to more complex, creative tasks the question is, will virtual dollars be any better than real ones at encouraging productivity?


War Games (or how the US military learned to love the crowd)

April 26th, 2011 by

microtask_darpa_bigdogQuestion: where do you work if you: a) are a genius, b) are too crazy for NASA and c) really like blowing stuff up? Answer: DARPA.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a $3 billion budget, a remit to “create lasting revolutionary change” and a project list that looks like it was written by Philip K Dick. Current schemes include shape-shifting matter, laser guided bullets, flying submarines and robotic beetles. Since its creation during the cold war, DARPA has been credited with some spectacular innovations including GPS, stealth planes and the first ever internet network. But for every hit, there’s been a (usually embarrassingly wacky) miss. Famous failures include the Vietnam mechanical war elephant and an operation to train telepathic spies. And the latest far-out DARPA scheme? Er, crowdsourcing.

Getting off the ground
Given its cutting-edge reputation, DARPA was surprisingly late to the crowdsourcing party. The agency only launched its first crowd-based experiment in 2009 – an open competition to test whether online social networks could be used to gather precise data. DARPA released 10 red weather balloons at secret locations across the U.S. The first team to pinpoint the coordinates of all of them was offered a $40,000 prize. Using Facebook, Twitter, public radio and good old-fashioned bribery, the winning team tracked down every balloon in an impressive 9 hours.

Obviously impressed by the crowd’s talent for tracking inflatables, in 2011 DARPA launched the snappily titled Experimental Crowd-Derived Combat-Support Vehicle Competition. The competition invited the crowd to submit designs for a “groundbreaking” new military jeep. The contest ran for a month and DARPA received and validated over 150 entries (it’s not a massive number but I guess there are only so many frustrated amateur Humvee designers out there).

Submersive elements
Finally, this April, DARPA waded into the deeper waters of crowdsourced gaming. The Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel or ACTUV Program is a project to build an automatic submarine-tracking drone. DARPA has asked the crowd to help refine ACTUV’s software by playing a tactics simulation game. In the game players navigate a virtual drone through various scenarios: targeting enemy ships, hiding from commercial traffic, trying to avoid accidentally surfacing off North Korea. After completing missions, players “debrief” their tactics to DARPA. The best crowd strategies will eventually be incorporated into ACTUV’s software.

You might ask why random gamers are testing this simulation instead of say, trained submarine crews. I guess part of the answer is that trained submarine crews are busy crewing submarines. Using the crowd also allows DARPA to collect huge quantities of data very quickly and cheaply. Game scores are also a great way to automatically sort the best and worst underwater tactics. The only limit is the game itself. However imaginative the simulation designers are, real-life sub hunting is bound to throw up a few “untested scenarios”.

The idea of “military crowdsourcing” clearly has some ethical issues. So far, DARPA’s crowd-based experiments have been restricted to tactical and support operations. But what if the next project is helping to design an attack drone or program a flesh-eating robot? The agency seems determined to push the boundaries of crowd collaboration. Time will tell how helpful the crowd is – and whether it will choose to play.


Crowdsourcing vs privacy: do we know too much?

April 18th, 2011 by

microtask_crowd_privacyBack in the 1950s, the U.S. writer Louis Kronenberger famously complained that TV had “given privacy its death blow.”.

The pronouncement turned out to be a little premature. It’s hard to imagine what Kronenberger would have said about the rise of the internet (possibly that the web was doing something very nasty to privacy’s corpse).

60 years on, the battle between privacy and technology shows no sign of letting up.

The very nature of crowdsourcing means it is often at the forefront of privacy issues. The last few months have been embarrassingly rich in privacy-related crowdsourcing disasters. Take Internet Eyes, a crime detection service that uses the crowd to monitor live CCTV camera feeds. The company has faced a storm of criticism from civil rights groups, the UK’s Internet Commission, and (ahem) this blog. In March, one shopkeeper who installed Internet Eyes got so many complaints from customers that he left the service a week later.

Playing tag
For many people Internet Eyes seems invasive, Orwellian, and just plain creepy. However, most online privacy issues are more subtle. Geotagging is a prime example. 2011 is set to be a breakthrough year for Geotagging apps, with Facebook Places, Foursquare and Gowalla all eager to grab the biggest share of the market. But, though it might be a good way to score cheaper Starbucks, playing with virtual maps has hidden dangers.

In an earlier blog post we discussed how a group of over-enthusiastic baseball fans used Foursquare to organize a riot in San Francisco. Influential blogger Aaron Strout has also voiced his “personal” concerns about Facebook Places, describing the service as “a privacy nightmare”. What if friends (or enemies) start gaming your location: tagging you in places when you aren’t really there? Imagine trying to explain to your fiancé why Facebook says you’ve spent all day at your ex’s apartment?

It’s easy to forget that underneath the innovation and idealism, the web is basically the world’s most sophisticated billboard. The more you feed information into Places, the more Facebook can “geo-target” and personalize its ads. Cue this terrifying scene from Minority Report.

Fanning the flames
For all the talk about personal privacy, human beings are addicted to gossip. Before language was invented, cavemen probably sat around grunting and winking about what Fred and Wilma were doing down in the swamp.

The ultimate mud-rakers are, of course, the paparazzi. Member of this dubious profession keep the world supplied with an endless stream of celebrity photos (inspiring shots like “Angelina Jolie buys milk” and “Justin Bieber checks his watch”). Now, a new iPhone app for gossip lovers promises to make celebrities’ lives even more over-exposed. Says the press release: “All you have to do is take a picture of a celebrity on your phone using this app and your image will be instantly submitted from anywhere around the globe to Big Pictures so that you can make LOADS of INSTANT CASH!”. If I was a famous soccer player, I’d start worrying about fans with smartphones.

The debate around privacy has been going on for at least the last 60 years – probably much longer. I guess this means there really are no easy solutions. The question is, how do we encourage crowd collaboration without creating a frenzied online mob? Plus, as social networks grow, how do we share data while safeguarding personal information? Right now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re entering a new era of openness or just creating a lot of future lawsuits. Let’s just hope that whatever happens, we don’t all end up living like celebrities: totally without private lives.


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