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Picture this: introducing the Descriptive Camera

May 16th, 2012 by

microtask_descriptive_cameraPhotography has come a long way. Two centuries ago taking a family photo meant standing perfectly still for ten minutes in a pose stiffer than a waxed mustache. Now we’ve all got multi-megapixel cameras built into our phones (or cans of processed meat), and if we want that scratchy sepia look without the waiting around, we can just use an Instagram filter.

This is great, especially for people like me who like to take photos. The downside is that the more photos we have, the harder it is to sort them in a way that makes them useful in the future. The trigger happy amongst us now feel like we are drowning in a sea of digital photos.

Before you cast away your digital cameras and save yourselves (yes, I’m exaggerating the problem slightly), hope is here. It’s called the Descriptive Camera, and it intends to bring a whole new perspective to photography.

Say ‘Crowd!’

The brainchild of ‘creative technologist’ Matt Richardson, the prototype Descriptive Camera does exactly what the name suggests. You point the camera and press the shutter button, but instead of a photograph, the built-in printer spits out a short text description of your image (it turns out a picture is in fact worth about 150 words).

So how does it work? Advanced pattern-recognition software? Quantum Entanglement? A tiny prehistoric bird? The answer, as regular readers of this blog will probably have guessed, is crowdsourcing. The Descriptive Camera uploads images to Mechanical Turk, where users are paid a small fee for providing a brief text description. Thanks to the popularity of Mechanical Turk, and the relatively high price per task of $1.25, Richardson says that it typically takes between three and six minutes to ‘develop’ each photo.

Tell me a picture

The Descriptive Camera was designed primarily to help categorize all those photos on our hard drives. By including the unique description in each photo file, the Descriptive Camera allows text-searching of photographs. Looking for a picture of a mountain? Just search for mountain. A sunset? Search for sunset. Sounds great so far, but there are limits: how about a picture of your parents? Anonymous Turkers are unlikely to be able to recognize your mother and father, or be familiar with your friends and pets (at least we hope they won’t). Despite this potential limitation, the Descriptive Camera, (which is still in the experimental stage), may prove an important step on the road to more manageable images.

But as well as offering a potential solution to a cluttered ‘My Pictures’ folder, the Descriptive Camera is also a great example of what can be done with crowdsourcing platforms like Mechanical Turk (and say …ummm… Microtask, for example). It’s now possible for anyone to bring the crowd into their project, whether it’s a towering data processing task or a quirky prototype like the Descriptive Camera.

This means that innovative thinkers like Matt Richardson are free to pursue unorthodox ideas and create unique crowd-based projects. But it also shows just how easy it’s becoming to incorporate the crowd into everyday life. As the Descriptive Camera shows, it’s entirely possible to fit a whole crowd in your pocket.

Can crowdsourcing be used as a tool for evil?

May 9th, 2012 by

microtask_evil_crowdsourcingA recent interview on Daily Crowdsource with Manuel Cebrian (you might remember him from such groundbreaking crowdsourcing projects as 2009’s DARPA Red Balloon Challenge and last month’s Tag Challenge) about crowdsourcing and crime got me thinking.

It occurred to me that the Joker from The Dark Knight may be the first ever super-villain to use crowdsourcing for his own nefarious (probably my favorite “evil-doer adjective”) means. I’m talking about when the Joker interrupts regularly-scheduled programming to announce his intent to blow up a hospital unless somebody kills the guy who knows Batman’s identity.

When I first saw this, I remember thinking: this is clever. The Joker’s ultimatum was not your typical ransom note or threat; something covert sent to the family of a rich kidnapping victim, or phoned into a school. In actuality, it was a perverse form of crowdsourcing: “I’m appealing to the community to do something terrible on my behalf, or I’m going to kill people.” By tapping into the mainstream media, he reached “tipping point” in a matter of seconds, and his “call to action” was immediately heeded.

It led me to think about how social media could be exploited by criminals. I came up with two scenarios (super-villains get your pad and pencils ready):

The Crowdsourcing Terrorist
What if a status update popped up on the home page of every Facebook or Twitter saying if they want to save the Eiffel Tower, they must visit such and such website (I’ll provide details of this site and bank numbers at a later date) and click the “donate $5” button. If the target figure of $5 million is not reached in 12 hours, the Eiffel Tower will be blown up. Essentially what I’m talking about is a cross between crowdfunding site Kickstarter and those absurd guilt-trip chain emails saying kids will die if you don’t forward the message.

Like the Joker, in my example, the criminal puts the onus on the community to meet his demands – or at the very least places a psychological burden on everyone who reads his message – gaining critical mass via social media. While I’m no expert cyber-fraudster (my bank balance can conclusively prove this), I’m guessing that police would have trouble tracing the villain’s identity or bank details in 12 hours.

The Crowdsourcing Thug
This idea evolved from the “flash rob crimes” that hit Chicago last year, in which groups of thieves, coordinating via Twitter, contrived to show up at a certain store at a certain time to rob the place. A few of them were caught, but most got away (if you’re a store owner, what are you going to do when 30 people proceed to simultaneously overpower you, rob you, and then run away in 30 different directions?)

I could see a criminal mastermind (one who’s fond of wearing a Zoot suit and a monocle, and stroking a pink ferret) logging onto Facebook/Twitter and offering to buy the spoils from anyone willing to rob “jewelry store x”. Unlike the “Eiffel Tower” plot, the announcement wouldn’t be made to the general public. 50 thugs could organize and decide to hit the store at the same time. Of the group, 10 are waiting outside in getaway cars, promised a cut of the loot and another 10 have signed up as lookouts. As with the flash rob crimes, the police will nab a few, but it’s likely that most of the group will get away with some loot.

In the interview, Cebrian says that like other high-profile technologies such as nuclear power and genetic engineering, it’s only a matter of time before crowdsourcing experiences a negative event. I completely agree, and am somewhat curious to see what form it takes (bwhahaha!).

More importantly, I hope law enforcement agencies worldwide are considering the negative potential of crowdsourcing, and drawing up contingencies to address it. These should include preventative measures, designed to catch these super-villains before they hurt someone and damage the reputation of our industry.

Welcome to the Open Ministry

May 2nd, 2012 by

After casually revolutionizing the worlds of design, data-processing and translation, the crowd is now getting to work on the business of government. Iceland is preparing to implement a crowdsourced constitution, and this March the Finnish Parliament passed the Citizens’ Initiative Act. The Act allows any citizen to present a law to Parliament, providing they can get the support of 50,000 citizens.

Spotting the opportunity for a groundbreaking piece of online activism, Finnish entrepreneur Joonas Pekkanen assembled a team of volunteers, including web-development wizard Aleksi Rossi, and created the Avoin Ministeriö, or Open Ministry. The site allows Finns to submit proposals for legislation, which are then debated and refined by the site’s membership. We sat down with Joonas and Aleksi to discuss the possibilities for crowdsourced lawmaking.

I understand the first proposal submitted to the site was a bill to repeal the tax on dog ownership, and that it came from you, Joonas. Why did you choose that as your starting point?

Joonas: It is an obvious idea with a lot of support, and it is a good way to show what the site can do. Last time I checked it had a few hundred supporters, so it’s not anywhere near the 50,000, but it’s a start, and not bad for just a few weeks.

Will you continue to be personally involved in the drafting process?

Aleksi: There are two different things happening here. There is Open Ministry, which is the group of individuals that set up the site, which includes Joonas. But Joonas is also acting as an individual, who has now presented four or five ideas. This was first to show the capability of the site, and also to underline the fact that while Joonas is a part of the Open Ministry, he is also a citizen called Joonas who can submit his ideas.

Joonas: The point being that the Open Ministry doesn’t have opinions as an institution. The Open Ministry doesn’t present any ideas or have any opinions itself.

Do you have to exert any editorial control over the proposals?

Joonas: We were originally quite worried that we would have to moderate the content, but we’ve been very positively surprised that we have not had to moderate a single comment or a single idea. We’ve had some 130 ideas already, and obviously not all of them are good ideas. But there has been no illegal or derogatory material, or anything offensive or inappropriate. Obviously part of this is due to the fact that we ask people to sign up using their real name.

Aleksi: I was just checking the comments and users recently, and I found that out of over a thousand users, only one has signed up without registering and confirming their identity. He has only left one comment, and it is of quite low quality!

How is the project financed?

Joonas: At some point we will probably need some funding, but at the moment and in the foreseeable future, we try to be completely non-money driven, so there is no funding, there are no sponsorships, and nobody is able to donate any money at the moment. Maybe that will change in six months or so, but for the moment we try to be as effective as possible on a purely voluntary basis.

So what are you working on now?

Joonas: We have already executed these first ideas and put the framework in place, but the project is very much a work-in-progress. What we need right now is for individuals to start to do voluntary work and make things happen. For that we need experts to get involved. We need more lawyers, we definitely need more developers, and we need people who are able to talk with the media. We also need people to act as liaison for different citizen associations. We need to make sure that people are first informed, then engaged. There’s plenty of room for many types of individuals.

Aleksi: We’ve basically tried to create a playground for democracy. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Cracking the code: The crowd vs the virus

April 25th, 2012 by

Today’s blog involves a thrilling tale of international espionage. But for once the hero is not an alcoholic, sex-addicted Englishman with a fancy exploding pen. This time it’s a rather remarkable crowd.

So before you read further, please ensure that your Cone of Silence has been activated, and that nobody has cut any eye holes in any of your paintings. All done? Good, then I can begin.

The story begins in 2010, when Iranian state computers were brought to a standstill by a highly infectious virus named Trojan-Spy.0485/Malware-Cryptor.Win32.Inject.gen.2 (or Stuxnet if you’re human). Experts at the big antivirus companies concluded that Stuxnet was probably created by the US or Israeli intelligence services, and was designed to cripple the Iranian nuclear program.

This blog will self destruct in ten seconds

Of course, the US and Israel responded with the traditional mantra of the intelligence community: deny all knowledge. The story seemed to go away. The idea of governments releasing their own viruses into the wild is pretty sinister, but not quite as bad as the thought of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s finger hovering over a nuclear button. Stuxnet was specifically designed to target Iran’s illegally-imported Siemens supercomputers, so why should the rest of us worry? Besides, the threat seemed to be over.

But then in 2011 a new virus was discovered by analysts at Budapest University’s (awesomely named) CrySys Lab. It was called Duqu, and it shared some key similarities with the Stuxnet virus. But while Stuxnet’s purpose was obvious, Duqu worked in more mysterious ways. It passed through millions of machines without a trace, but wiped the hard drives of others. Much of its code was written in an unidentified language. What was its purpose? And how was it made? Even the experts at the big antivirus companies were stumped.

Nobody had the answers, until Igor Soumenkov of Kaspersky labs decided to call on the crowd for assistance. In a blog post, Soumenkov outlined the problem and provided samples of the virus code. Within hours a crowd was born, colonizing the comment thread and establishing a presence on Reddit.

The man with the golden crowd

Soumenkov’s crowd is a perfect example of the power of collective reasoning. Members quickly sifted through the code, picking out familiar features and eliminating possible answers. Some worked alone, some in groups. With their help, Soumenkov was able to close the case and identify the code. He concluded that Duqu appears to be the work of the same team that created Stuxnet, and is an aggressive data gathering tool. The intended target of the virus remains unknown, but the crowd is still investigating.

So why did Soumenkov’s crowd work so well? Part of its success was due to Soumenkov himself. He presented the problem clearly and responded to questions quickly, providing extra information when needed. This kind of feedback is crucial to getting the most out of a crowd. At Microtask we use some pretty incredible (if I do say so myself) code of our own to verify the accuracy of our Microtaskers and let them know how well they’re doing. By being given feedback, a task-oriented crowd can learn and improve. This kind of clear direction is vital to a crowd’s success.

The Duqu affair shows how powerful collective reasoning really is. Soumenkov’s crowd of volunteers managed to crack a code created by the world’s most powerful, well-funded state security agency (probably). As well as helping to cure infected computers, the crowd shone a light into one of the darkest corners of international relations. In a world filled with mysterious super-viruses and shadowy government hacking teams, it’s nice to know the crowd’s got your back.

Power from the people: crowdsourcing the constitution

April 18th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourcing_constitutionTo a crowdsourcing evangelist like me, the idea of a crowdsourced nation sounds like heaven on earth. Just think: a country where the wisdom of crowds trumps the ulterior motives of politicians, and the people rule supreme. But despite my limitless optimism, I can’t help thinking that the people are also responsible for littering, traffic jams and the career of Justin Bieber. Just how effective could a crowdsourced constitution be?

Rip it up and start again

Last year we reported on Iceland’s plans to crowdsource a new constitution. The official Facebook page has received an almost Bieber-worthy 16,000 comments, and the constitution could be ratified as early as June 1st. Now it looks like the idea is spreading.

The Scottish Assembly has invited members of Iceland’s Constitutional Council to speak at a special event held by the policy group Nordic Horizons. This group leads Scotland’s efforts to emulate the success of, well, Nordic folk like me I guess (oh, and Nordic-style education, healthcare and equality, but mostly me).

Crowdsourcing constitutional change was, of course, big news in North Africa and the Middle East last year. The rash of revolutions in these areas created new states in need of new constitutions (and probably tripled Bashar al-Assad’s life insurance premiums). As we have previously discussed, it’s nice to think that you can use the same suite of apps to help topple a tyrant or build a nation. Sadly, it also takes a lot more than a Facebook page to rebuild a whole country’s infrastructure: the efforts of the crowd in these regions had only limited success.

But a country doesn’t have to need a whole new constitution to take advantage of crowdsourcing. Shortly after his election, Barack Obama set up the We The People site, which gives citizens the chance to post petitions online. If a petition gets 25,000 signatures in 30 days, the White House must issue a response. However, critics have pointed out that no matter how much support an issue gets, the most voters can expect is a courteous reply from the President. It offers no direct influence on policy.

No, the friendly kind of CIA

Meanwhile (and more importantly) in Finland, the Citizens’ Initiative Act has been in effect since the beginning of March. The Act allows any citizen to propose a new law to Parliament, as long as they can get the support of 50,000 eligible voters. Aiming to help Finns make the most of the Act, a group of volunteer activists, software engineers and researchers created the Avoin Ministeriö (Open Ministry). There, voters can present their ideas to the crowd, offer support for policy initiatives which catch their eye and join in debates.

While the US has dipped a toe into the warm, radiant waters of crowdsourcing, Finland has plunged straight in. Unlike the We The People programme’s arms-length approach, the Citizens’ Initiative Act allows citizens direct access to policymaking, and it will be interesting to follow its development (and see how soon it is before someone suggests declaring war on Sweden).

The current crop of constitutional projects represents a new frontier for collaborative reasoning. Though Iceland’s constitution has yet to be seen in operation and the Finnish CIA is in its infancy, those of us at the commercial end of crowdsourcing will be able to learn valuable lessons from these large-scale initiatives. Let’s just hope those lessons are more ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ than ‘Oh no, how can we avoid that?’

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