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Read all about it! Crowd makes the news

March 10th, 2011 by

Newspaper and tea by Matt Callow @ Flickr“Researchers have always wondered what made hit songs, books and movies, just that, hits. What they’ve found is that quality had only little to do with it.”

At first glance, these 27 words look fairly ordinary. An interesting idea, but hardly revolutionary journalism. Even so, this innocent-looking sentence has caused quite a stir in the blogosphere. Why? Because it was researched, written and edited entirely by workers on Mechanical Turk.

Word processors
Here’s the scoop. Two journalists, Jim Giles and MacGregor Campbell, have begun an experiment in collaboration with researchers from Carnegie-Mellon University (“collaboration” as in the researchers do the work and the journalists blog about it). The aim is to
“try and create an automated system for producing quality journalism using Mechanical Turk’s army of untrained workers”.

In practice, this means seeing if Turkers can produce a coherent 500-word scientific article – like something you’d find in Wired or New Scientist.

The experiment works like this: each part of the article writing process (including researching, fact checking and writing) is divided into microtasks. Each task is completed numerous times by different workers. Other workers then vote on the best versions. The idea is that with enough built-in redundancy the crowd will act as a self-editing journalistic machine. The whole process is co-coordinated by an algorithm (or “robot boss”) that issues calls to workers in the same way a computer program would call functions.

Pressing problems
With only a single sentence produced so far, it’s too early to tell if journalists will soon be handing their press-passes over to the crowd. Jim Giles himself has admitted that he’d be surprised if the experiment worked perfectly first time.

The assembly-line style of crowdsourcing certainly sounds exciting, but it’s easy to spot some potential “functionality issues”. If an error is made – e.g. a worker enters a wrong name or date – will it be replicated throughout the writing process? Can readers trust crowd researchers to properly check facts? How does an article written by dozens of different people maintain a consistent style and tone (especially if the authors come from several different countries)?

Even if everything goes exactly to plan, and the crowd produces 500 words of totally flawless copy, I doubt that it will seriously affect professional journalism. Summing up a science paper is one thing, but interviewing witnesses and experts, gathering evidence, and then writing a well reasoned, coherent, reliable article is quite another (for the sake of my argument, let’s assume this is actually what journalists are paid to do, as opposed to just follow Charlie Sheen around with a microphone).

The future of churnalism?
There are some areas, however, where microtasked journalism could have a real impact. In recent years, content farms have become an online phenomenon. Controversial but incredibly successful, content farms specialize in churning out low-cost, search-engine-optimized articles. Currently, major players like Demand Media employ freelance writers to write the articles. Microworkers may be able to do the same job faster, cheaper and better (whether this would mean better quality content or just more spam results on Google, who knows).

Unless you happen to be Arianna Huffington (who sold the Huffington Post to AOL for a cool $315 million last month) the world of online content can be pretty tough. Reporters, freelancers, bloggers and tweeters are all in fierce competition for readers. Depending on how good the next 473 words turn out to be, things might be about to get even more crowded.


A ticket to play

March 7th, 2011 by

microtask_interactive_buststopSan Francisco is a great place to be a geek. The city is home to hundreds of startups including big names like Twitter, Craigslist and Zynga. Silicon Valley itself is just 50km round the bay.

Every year thousands of tech-seeking tourists cross the Golden Gate Bridge to attend events: the Game Developers Conference, Apple Keynotes, the Web 2.0 Summit – there’s an expo for everyone.

In such a tech-friendly town, it’s not surprising that computing is spreading into public spaces, affecting the way citizens interact with their urban environment. The first stop? That most boring of public places: the bus stop.

Routed to the stop
In late 2010 large touch screens were installed in 20 bus stops across San Francisco (with a little help from Yahoo). To liven-up that tedious wait for the bus, the screens run simple games and applications involving trivia, puzzles and good old fashioned alien annihilation.

Although the games themselves are pretty basic (more Pacman than PS3 stuff), from a gamification perspective this is exciting stuff. The bus stop screens have a built-in social networking system, enabling different neighborhoods to compete against each other. After a tough fight, the world’s first Bus Stop Derby was won by the inhabitants (addicts) of North Beach, who completed an impressive total of 150,000 games.

The “geeky and proud” residents of San Francisco are clearly having fun (though probably not getting to work on time), but the bus stop initiative also has serious microwork potential. With a smart set up, a wide range of companies could use task-based games in similar situations. In addition to the addictive, competitive element of the games, people could be encouraged to participate using incentives such as free fares for completing a set number of microwork tasks.

Gaming the city
The bus stop experiment also shows that it’s possible to use technology to modify people’s perception of everyday experiences. In Helsinki, the massive Jätkäsaari redevelopment project has surprisingly similar aims (plus a handy €60 million of investment money). As well as creating eco-friendly architecture, a key part of the Jätkäsaari project is changing consumer behavior: the idea is that visual stimuli and well-designed user interfaces can get people to interact with their environment in new ways.

Jean-Christopher Zoel, project leader for Experientia, one of the companies designing Jätkäsaari, believes that “people, their contexts, social networks, habits and beliefs are crucial tools for creating sustainable changes in behavior. We will therefore offer people ways to control their consumption and see the effect of their actions on the environment”.

In San Francisco, “gamifiers” are limited by the city’s established systems and infrastructure. Jätkäsaari is a clean slate – an opportunity for some real blue-sky thinking. Through Digitalkoot, Microtask has already shown how the gamification of crowdsourcing and microwork can be used to save precious text archives. Why not go further? You could potentially turn almost anywhere into an interactive space: bus stops, train stations, airports – all the places where people are usually terribly bored. If you can’t take the crowd to the interface, maybe it’s time to start taking interfaces to the crowd.


Testing Times

March 2nd, 2011 by

microtask_testing_timesLike life, love and the lottery, making mobile phone apps is a gamble. Play your cards right and you’ve got Angry Birds. Get it wrong and your app is left in the store with a two star rating, gathering virtual dust.

Back when Apple’s iPhone had an effective “app monopoly”, developers had it relatively easy. Okay, there was always the problem of getting stuff accepted into the app store, but apps only had to be designed for one interface, one handset, one puritanical CEO. iPhone apps still dominate world sales but now Android, Blackberry, Nokia and Microsoft are all focusing on smartphones. These days apps have to work on multiple phones and carriers, fighting for an edge in an increasingly crowded market.

Mob Rule?
At some point, everyone experiences that “cry-with-frustration” feeling you get from badly designed software: websites with no “Home” button, buggy videogames, apps that seem to be made for cinema-sized screens instead of mobiles. As every software engineer knows, all programs are supposed to go through “beta” or user testing before they get released. The trouble is that testing is often rushed, done “in house” (rather than by real users) or just ignored. With mobile apps, testing is particularly expensive and time consuming. Companies have to buy hundreds of handsets and then recruit hundreds of testers to get any meaningful results.

The situation clearly has crowdsourcing potential. Using the crowd, developers can test apps globally, accessing thousands of testers and hundreds of different devices. Several companies now offer cheap, crowd-based testing services.

One is the Canadian startup Mob4Hire. Otto and I met Paul Poutanen, the founder of Mob4Hire, last year at CrowdConf. Poutanen, who has Finnish roots (the “-nen” ending in his name is a dead giveaway), presides over a community of 50,000 testers and 1400 developers. Mob4Hire offers a range of testing services, from usability to localization, via a paid, mobile crowd. Testers run apps using their own phones, meaning the company can claim access to 30,000 different handset models.

Equally impressive, Poutanen also has an excellent grasp of important Finnish drinking terms including “kippis”, “Pohjanmaan kautta” and “hölökynkölökyn”. (Lest I am accused of any Finnish bias, I should mention that Mob4Hire isn’t the only company offering crowd testing. Another major player is uTest which raised an impressive $13 million in a recent investment round.)

App-ealing to the Crowd
As someone who was once in the mobile business, I think it is clear that industry standards will benefit from crowd testing. As well as being quick, cheap and easy, the crowd could also create a lot of free buzz around new apps. Mob4Hire is also pushing its Mobstar rating, as a kind of crowd tested, gold standard guarantee of app quality (is it just me, or does “Mobstar” sound like an app award sponsored by Tony Soprano?).

This is not to say that such testing services are infallible, even with the mob behind them. Like with any creative product, there will always be an element of unpredictability in how the market receives an app, even after crowd testing. Just as some books and films flop on first release then turn out to be enduring hits – The Big Lebowski waltzes to mind – so too may apps that test poorly.

On a final note, given that crowdsourcing itself plays a role in increasing numbers of mobile apps (think of Waze, the crowdsourced traffic info app), it’s surely only a matter of time before the crowd testers end up rating a crowd based app (metacrowdsourcing?). I guess the question is, how many stars will the crowd give the crowd?


Africa online 2011: The mobile continent

February 28th, 2011 by

microtask_africa_microworkAccording to a recent article in the Economist, in most African countries more people have a mobile phone than a bank account. In technologically advanced Kenya, over 50% of the population now owns a mobile. A friend of mine who used to live in Mali told me that many young people there would rather go hungry than go without SMS.

In the West, all the money and media attention goes to smartphones – see the hyperactive press coverage of Nokia’s recent deal with Microsoft. However, while citizens of London and New York are obsessed with the latest iPhone, in Nairobi the most popular handsets are still the Nokia 5130 and 3110. But, even stuck with this “classic” hardware, African companies have managed to come up with some truly innovative applications.

Show me the money
If there’s one area where Africa leads the world, it’s mobile banking. The Kenyan company M-Pesa is a branch-less, mobile money system that allows customers to transfer cash by SMS. In Nairobi, apparently, you can even pay taxi drivers by mobile. The success of services like M-Pesa is jaw dropping: in Kenya over $30 million worth of mobile transactions are carried out every day. And, if there really are more mobile phones than bank accounts in Africa, there’s definitely scope for the sector to expand.

Mobile banking is a relatively safe way to move money, and great for people in rural districts. It’s also a way of getting paid. Crowdsourced work providers have been quick to catch on. Take the African business directory Mocality. Mocality uses crowdsourced workers to write and edit database entries, paying them via (you guessed it) M-Pesa.

Silicon Valley, Nairobi?
Over the last couple of years, the success of organizations like Samasource, Txteagle, and, above all, Ushahidi (also from Kenya), has really put African crowdsourcing on the map. New initiatives are constantly jumping on the bandwagon (or on the bush taxi, perhaps). Many are health care or development projects, like Sproxil. Operating in Nigeria and Ghana, Spoxil has developed software that allows the crowd to authenticate drug labels via SMS. The aim is to fight the huge trade in illegal pharmaceuticals.

Some entrepreneurs have begun to think outside the development sector – moving towards more commercial enterprises. Eric Hersman, one of the Ushahidi founders, recently set up iHub in Nairobi. iHub is a building where developers can enjoy their natural habitat – fast broadband, laptops, comfy chairs and strictly no dress code. The physical space is also a gateway to a wider, online community of developers, funders, clients and programmers – all keen to explore the commercial possibilities of Africa’s mobile and web revolution.

Speed limits
Last year, in a blog covering Africa, we wrote about the challenges facing the budding tech industry: corrupt governments, instability, lack of infrastructure and lack of basic resources. One year on, and these problems are still major issues. One reason the mobile sector is so strong is that high-speed broadband is still patchy and, even in Kenya, overpriced and unreliable. People may be prepared to go hungry in order to afford a mobile but, in a better world, no one would have to make that choice.

But, as African companies are proving, necessity really is the mother of invention. I personally can’t wait to see what the African crowd has come up with by 2012.


Grandma knows best: experiments in distributed education

February 24th, 2011 by

microtask_education_india.jpgLast year, in a terrible blow to national pride, Finland dropped from first to third place in a global survey of child literacy.

The study ranked Finnish students below those in Shanghai and South Korea.

Many people blame excessive technology for the educational downturn. Finnish kids of today are internet addicts – plugged in, switched on, zoned out.

But not everyone agrees that children and computers should be kept apart. Educational expert Professor Sugata Mitra has spent the last decade researching how computers can help to educate some of the world’s poorest children.

In a (very entertaining) TED talk, Professor Mitra discusses his experiments in “self-learning”. His first scheme was setting up “hole in the wall” computers in villages in rural India. Machines were installed on the streets, raised about a meter off the ground. Groups of kids spent hours figuring out how the computers worked – often managing to teach themselves English in the process.

Word on the street
Not content with his progress, the professor came up with another idea: the Grandmother Effect. The theory is that grandmas are good at encouraging kids. They praise them and say things like: “Now that is clever dear, I’d never have been able to analyze the molecular structure of DNA all by myself!” Supervising village children, Indian grandmothers got some impressive results: test scores almost doubled in two months (perhaps Finnish schools should try recruiting Korean grandmas to bring literacy back up).

And the next step? The “Granny Cloud”. While working at Newcastle University, Professor Mitra recruited over 200 UK grandmothers as volunteers. Broadcasting via webcam each “grandmother” spends at least an hour a week encouraging classes of Indian school children. Some of the Indian locations are so remote that the Granny Cloud is the only access kids have to education.

Grey Power
It’s a cute story, but there’s also a serious point here. Europe has an aging population: millions of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s with time and expertise to spare. As we blogged last year, this demographic has huge, untapped crowdsourcing potential. Hopefully, voluntary schemes like Prof. Mitra’s will be trendsetters – demonstrating the possibilities of distributed work to the older generation (also, shouldn’t there be a grandfather cloud too? Old men could teach kids how to chop wood and rebuild car engines with a single spanner).

A few English grandmothers clearly won’t solve the education crisis in the developing world. Massive investment is needed, along with stable governments, school buildings and, of course, food and clean water. There are also big, ambitious technology projects, like the one child per laptop scheme. But even so, the Granny Cloud shows that with a broadband connection and a committed crowd you can make a difference, right now, to the lives of children almost anywhere in the world.


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