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After the quake: crowdsourcing Japan

March 28th, 2011 by

microtask_japan_tsunamiA massive earthquake, a tsunami and a potential nuclear meltdown. The crisis in Japan is like a disaster movie. Only the “special effects” are real and Bruce Willis isn’t going to parachute in and save the day.

Scientists can now (more or less) accurately forecast volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts and hurricanes. But despite the best efforts of seismologists (who probably get ignored by all the other physical scientists at parties), earthquakes remain devastatingly unpredictable.

Although technology is powerless to prevent an earthquake, it can certainly help clean-up afterwards. For the last fifty years Japan has led the world in electronics and computing. Now, users of that technology are getting together and giving something back.

On the map
Thanks to the pioneering work of Ushahidi in Haiti, crowdsourced crisis-mapping is now almost a standard part of earthquake response. With impressive speed, students in America launched a Japan crowdmap barely two hours after the earthquake struck. During the first chaotic post-quake days, over 3000 people uploaded geo-located data to the map. This provided rescue teams with vital information on trapped people, dangerous zones and supply levels.

By March 15th the world’s attention had turned from Sendai to the Fukushima nuclear plant. Multiple explosions and hysterical headlines stoked widespread fear about radiation (though in general the Americans seemed more panicked than the Japanese).

Amid all the rumor and speculation, newly launched website RDTN.org attempted to crowdsource some hard data. Ideal for people who always keep a Geiger counter handy, RDTN maps radiation readings submitted by the crowd. The website is keen to stress that the project:

“is not meant as a replacement for government or official nuclear agencies,” but hopes to “provide additional context to the official word in these rapidly changing events.”

It’s a worthy cause, although it is a concern that one false (accidental or deliberate), high radiation reading could cause a sudden panic.

Storm chasers
Imagine a 10 meter wall of water is hurtling out of the sea towards you. Do you drop everything and run, or take out your iPhone and start filming? A surprising number of people chose the second option. The Japanese tsunami was filmed close-up and from all angles. Far from being mere “disaster porn”, experts say these amateur and professional videos will provide invaluable new data. Storm researcher Dr Costas Synolakis hopes that footage of the force, speed and path of the Japanese wave may even help predict future tsunamis.

Land of the rising funds
The ability to forecast tsunamis may be good news for future generations. But to the people of Japan this must seem like a very, very thin silver lining. Reports estimate that over 500,000 people are now homeless or displaced (that’s equivalent to the whole population of Helsinki). As governments across the world pledge support, crowd funders have also stepped up.

Crowdrise is a non-profit platform that lists individual fundraising projects (like a charitable version of Kickstarter). Organizations register, describe their cause and set a target for crowd funded donations. The HopeforJapan section of the site has over 60 projects listed. There’s something satisfyingly democratic about the way Crowdrise gives every fundraiser equal space. So the American Red Cross is listed next to sponsored fun runs and lemonade stands. Together, crowd efforts have raised over $200,000 so far.

As the Japanese proverb (and this could be a motto for crowdsourcing in general) goes: “Virtue is not knowing but doing”.


SpeakerText: serious about subtitles

March 23rd, 2011 by

microtask_speakertextThe 1980s was a strange decade. An era of big business, big hair and really big mobile phones. It was also the golden age of the VHS video player.

Thanks to a cutting edge piece of technology called the rewind button, we could enjoy classic scenes from Star Wars, The Karate Kid and Crocodile Dundee again and again (although watching the Death Star explode too many times ruined the tape).

Fast-forward thirty years and video technology is a lot more sophisticated (as is my taste in movies, well most of the time). On the surface, the internet seems like the perfect video host: you can stream, download, enjoy live TV, and risk losing brain cells on YouTube. But one part of the modern movie experience is still stuck in the VHS era. The only way to search inside an online video is to sit down and watch it through.

Off the radar
The internet was originally designed for text documents (that’s what happens when you put academics in charge of technology). Search engines still only recognize text: video content is invisible.

Most providers solve this problem by SEO-ing the web pages that contain videos (“Search engine optimization” is internet-jargon for sucking up to Google). A more sophisticated solution is video transcription: converting the spoken contents of a video into text and embedding it into the web page.

Video nicely
There are two “traditional” video transcription methods. Option one: get someone (for example a nice lady from California) to watch the whole video and type it out – accurate but expensive and slow. Option two: use machine transcription – cheap but often unintentionally hilarious.

Crowdsourcing startup SpeakerText has proposed a third way (cue drum roll and dry ice). The company claims to “combine artificial and human intelligence to offer low-cost, high-quality video transcription”.

SpeakerText breaks the transcription process into a series of crowd and machine based tasks. First, speech-recognition software splits a video into 10-second chunks. These chunks are then (no prizes for guessing the next step) transcribed by Mechanical Turk workers. Finally, editors stick the whole thing back together to form a (hopefully) readable text document.

Search for the content inside yourself
The SpeakerText interface has some neat functionality. All transcriptions are time stamped. You can click on any sentence in the “SpeakerBar” display and the video will start playing from that point. Also, if you copy and paste a quote from the SpeakerBar, the quote becomes a link that starts playing the video at the time where the quote appeared. Hours of fun, huh?

CEO Matt Mireles (whose previous jobs include paramedic, firefighter and journalist) has admitted that when he started the company in 2008, he had no idea what he was doing. Three years, an office in Mountain View and $600,000 of angel funding later, he seems to be getting the hang of things.

The stampede of funders for SpeakerText shows that video publishers are desperate to get their content on Google’s radar. While it’s easy to get caught up in the hot-new-startup hype, success brings its own problems (just ask Barack Obama). SpeakerText is a small, inexperienced company. Will it be able to scale-up in response to demand? How about building for mobile devices or providing transcription in other languages? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Working the line
Over the past few months we’ve covered a whole bunch of companies that use the “assembly-line” model of distributed work. From ServioTranslate to Mybossisarobot, crowd-machine workflow is definitely in fashion.

By combining on-trend crowdsourcing with a little JavaScript magic, it looks like SpeakerText might finally have invented a video search tool to replace the rewind button.


GDC 2011: Angry birds, happy Finns

March 21st, 2011 by

microtask_GDC2011_finlandFor people in the far north of the world, this is a great time of year.

The long winter is drawing to a close, and promise of summer is in the air. For some of us, who spend long hours indoors gazing into a computer screen, this time of year is exciting for other reasons: SXSW festival in Austin, and the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.

This year I was sadly unable to attend SXSW because of other commitments (the organizers of SXSW refused to change its date for me on such short notice). With all that is currently happening in the gaming industry and the prominence of Finnish companies at the GDC, there was no way I was going to miss this as well.

Fringes in fashion
I was not disappointed: my fourteenth consecutive GDC was the best yet.

As usual, I skipped the actual conference, but visited the exhibitions and attended the two-day summits prior to the main event. The summits were divided into seven categories: AI, education, localization, smartphones, independent games, social and online games, and serious gaming. Gamification, localization of content and microwork were thoroughly explored, both during the presentations and informally. Other than Microtask, Finnish companies on the fringe of the gaming industry such as Premium Fan Page and Applifier were present and active.

Smaller developers had a blast: Recoil finally presented Rochard, a side scrolling shooter/puzzle game that is pushing Unity where no software has been before. I also bumped into the CEO of Tribe Studio a few times (they are behind Stagecraft: potentially the missing link between alternate reality games and interactive software).

This comes on the crest of a wave of success for smaller Finnish firms: Grey Area, the developer of Shadow Cities, has just completed a successful funding round led by Index Ventures, one of Europe’s biggest VCs. RocketPack, a web gaming startup, has moved into Disney’s office in Helsinki. Supercell, with its talented and experienced team (CEO is Ilkka Paananen, founder and former CEO of Sumea) has just released a beta version of a free-to-play social RPG called Gunshine.net.

The Finnish line approaches
For some at GDC, it probably seemed like Finland’s gaming industry has suddenly struck it lucky. Helsinki-based studios produced Alan Wake and Angry Birds, both topping Time magazine’s top 10 list of videogames for 2010. Rovio’s Peter Vesterbacka was swamped by people wanting photos, and a chance to find out how he managed to sell 100 million game apps featuring birds, slingshots and green space pigs.

But this success is actually a reflection on the vibrancy of the game development scene in Finland. In the early 90′s we had about 15 people making a living from the games industry. Now there are 1500, working in about 100 dedicated studios.

Finland has the second most active International Game Developers Association (IGDA) chapter in the world. When we founded IGDA in Finland our meetings were usually just an informal drink with friends. Now between 150 and 200 people show up. (Those of us on the Board in no way attribute this attendance to the fact that the beer is sponsored by local games companies.)

Games are now by far our biggest cultural export – ahead of movies, music and theatre. Finnish studios are setting up offshore, and capturing the attention (and backing) of high-profile foreign investors.

All of this leaves those of us in the industry extremely happy: although it is very un-Finnish, for once I suggest we openly rejoice at our accomplishments, and look forward to building on them in 2012. If it is true that the world is going to end then, we want it to Finnish with a bang.


Libya, liberation and the crowd

March 17th, 2011 by

microtask_lybia_crowdThe recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have taught the world a lot about people power. Depressingly, they’ve also shown how easy it is for a crazy dictator to shut down the internet.

At the time of writing, Libya is still almost totally offline.

It’s clear that oppressive regimes are scared of the web. Considering the online creativity of the young, tech-savvy crowd you can understand why. Deprived of broadband, the opposition has shown that in the age of crowdsourcing, a cell phone can be a megaphone (if you add a burning sense of injustice and a little help from Twitter, Google and CNN).

Alive and tweeting
In the early days of the Libyan revolt there were no foreign journalists on the ground (presumably because the world’s media was still camped out in Cairo). As the fighting spread, citizens turned to web and mobile technology to get their stories heard.

Many Libyans started using Google’s new Speak2Tweet service. Set up during the Egyptian crisis, Speak2Tweet turns voicemail messages into tweets. The service is perfect for Libya, where internet penetration is low but mobiles are almost universal.

Initially, all messages were in Arabic but, within days, a crowdsourced translation platform called Alive in Libya appeared on the scene. Alive in Libya uses a distributed army of online volunteers to translate tweets, emails, audio and video clips into English. The published results are compelling: often Libyans are literally tweeting under fire.

New media storm
Since the Iranian election protests in 2009 there’s been fierce debate about the so-called “Twitter Factor” in world events. Is social networking the voice of a new generation, or are internet activists just an over-hyped bunch of pretend protesters? Stepping away from this minefield conflicting opinion, I think it is interesting how news agencies, as well as protesters, are now using online media.

If you thought 24 hour-rolling news was the maximum coverage any crisis could get, think again: this is the era of the crisis liveblog. Once upon a time, a battle-scarred foreign correspondent could file his copy then head straight to the nearest bar. Now journos have to tweet, blog, and update interactive maps as well as writing articles.

With so much copy to write, the professionals are eager for crowd-based help. Collaboration between journalists and the crowd is a win-win relationship. If a small platform like Alive in Libya can give the crowd a voice, CNN can give them a megaphone. As Al Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar recently said when talking about Egypt’s uprising:

“…we found these people in the street and all of them were our reporters: feeding us with pictures, video and news… Al Jazeera took the voice of these people and amplified it, allowed a new sense of possibility.”

Crowd on camera
Al Jazeera is now planning to devote permanent airtime to the crowd. The network has scheduled a new program, The Stream, a half-hour news slot where all content will come from tweets, social networking sites and online footage (the editorial process is going to be epic).

I guess the immediate issue with crowd-based news is verification: how do you know if a tweeter is telling the truth? An even bigger concern is whether big media players will manipulate the crowd. Will networks start “massaging tweets”? Pushing biased political views while claiming to represent the voice of the people?

Crowdsourcing works well when projects are focused and well targeted. Alive in Libya is a snapshot of a unique, historic moment. Crowdsourced documentary 18DaysInEgypt works on the same principle, bringing together material from the specific period of the Egyptian uprising. Will a constant stream of crowdsourced TV be as compelling? I guess we will have to tune to Al Jazeera English to find out.


Crowd funding: a monumental achievement

March 14th, 2011 by

microtask_crowdfunding_robocopDetroit is a tough town, down on its luck. First there was the fall of the US motor industry, then a global financial meltdown. Thousands of people have left the city. Many neighborhoods are now derelict – populated only by violent gangs, wild dogs and film crews shooting apocalyptic zombie movies. In these troubled times, can anyone save “Motor City”?

Forget Obama and Government investment. Long-term, sustainable regeneration? No way. What Detroit really needs is a half-man half-machine, kick-ass eighties movie icon. That’s right, a statue of Robocop.

Robot Love
It all started with a tweet. Some guy on Twitter asked the mayor of Detroit about a Robocop statue. Mayor Bing (unsurprisingly) replied: “there are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop.” But luckily for fans of the law-enforcing cyborg this is 2011 – the age of crowd funding.

Two days after the original tweet, a Detroit-based collective called Imagination Station launched a Detroit Needs A Statue of Robocop campaign on the crowd funding site Kickstarter. That was February 9th. By February 17th the project had reached its target of $50,000. Over 2000 people have donated money. When the campaign officially closes on March 30th, Imagination Station will probably be able to fill a police station with Robocop statues.

Clearly, we can learn a lot from this story. First, real-life solutions are no match for Hollywood sensation (as if Arnie’s election hadn’t proven this already). More importantly perhaps, we have learned that in the age of the internet, just because an idea is stupid doesn’t mean it won’t succeed. In fact, the more absurd an idea is the more chance it has to go viral. With crowd funding taking off, going viral is all an idea needs.

Epidemic spread
Of course going viral is easier said than done. Some content, like Colonel Gaddafi’s latest rap video, seem destined for greatness. Which ideas will go viral is harder to predict: who would have thought that the campaign to make an old Rage Against the Machine song the Christmas No 1 single in the UK would succeed, outselling The X Factor’s hit?

Unsurprisingly, creating a “viral campaign” is an advertising executive’s dream. Whether or not getting 5 million people to watch a man in a Gorilla suit play the drums actually sells lots more chocolate is uncertain, but it sure does make the ad execs feel cool.

With crowd funding on the other hand, viral success translates to cold hard cash. Sure, the far majority of people will just have a laugh at your idea to build an absurd monument, but the Long Tail of the internet means that lots will also cough up money, if given the chance.

Even rather dull ideas can succeed in this wonderful new world. Last December, a small US design company raised over $900,000 from people (again via Kickstarter) keen to place a pre-order for an iPod Nano watchstrap. Hardly a statue of Robocop, yet almost 14,000 people invested.

It’s almost impossible to predict what the next big viral phenomenon will be. I doubt anyone – especially Mayor Bing – expected Detroit to get a $50,000 Robocop statue this spring. (Perhaps he supposed the money would be better spent on homeless shelters or paying the wages of a few real cops. The fool.) Creative, powerful, often surprising, and sometimes totally bizarre: crowd funding, I salute you.


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