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Could crowd-driven think tanks be weapons of mass instruction?

March 14th, 2012 by

microtask_think_thanksWhat comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘think tank’? A passionately engaged team of experts, using their knowledge to shape the social discourse? A bunch of overeducated technocrats with no experience of the real world, dictating our futures? A telepathically-operated war machine?

Whatever your opinion, think tanks – or policy research units – are everywhere, clustering around democracy like barnacles on a ship’s hull. The traditional think tank model, which sees a group of experts working to solve economic, social or military problems, sounds like a great idea on paper, but it is open to abuse. Private interests can set up their own think tanks in order to pursue their own agendas, as with the sorry tale of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which was set up by tobacco firm Philip Morris in the 1990s to dispute medical research on the negative consequences of smoking.

But thanks to some new initiatives, the traditional think tank model may soon be turned on its head. The new UK think tank newthinktank (most imaginative name ever) aims to bust open the walls of the Ivory Tower by inviting the crowd to contribute to its research efforts. Newthinktank aims to create an online forum where public service employees and users can come together to share their experiences, orchestrate research and generate policy ideas. The project is still in its infancy, but could be a fascinating experiment into the possibility of crowdsourced policymaking.

Shooting for the moon

Google has also introduced its high-profile Solve For X project, which aims to use imagination, discussion, emergent technology and cult author Neal Stephenson’s inspirational beard to address some of the world’s most persistent problems. Its panel of experts are encouraged to think big and aim for what Google’s Director of New Projects Astro Teller calls ‘moonshots,’ or ideas which “live in the grey area between audacious projects and pure science fiction.”

These ‘moonshots’ are then turned over to the crowd for discussion, debate and refinement. Right now, the Solve for X site is brimming with optimistic, exciting and unrealistic ideas from Teller and his panel of experts, but the crowd-based discussion and development element appears underdeveloped. Like Newthinktank, the project is still in the early stages though, and it would be unfair to judge it too harshly at this point.

Why can’t we all just get along?

But while Google CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founder Sergey Brin are busily plotting the future benefits of stretchable electronics, Google has another project which may serve as a vital template for crowdsourced policymaking and genuine problem solving. It’s called Google Ideas and despite its very un-Google-like online bashfulness (the initiative doesn’t even have a website), its first project, Against Violent Extremism, has been a huge success. In addition to creating a ‘marketplace’ where users can offer or request resources for anti-extremist projects, Google recently flew 80 former neo-Nazis, Jihadists, gang members and terrorists to a summit in Dublin where they met with survivors of terrorist attacks, kidnappings and other forms of violence, as well as politicians, academics and members of the public.

This unique crowd is able to look at the problem of violence from all angles, and judging by the number of projects fighting for space on the site’s marketplace, their debates are incredibly productive, creating policy ideas as well as ideas for new crowdsourced projects. There is no central organizer, and as one of the first truly crowd-run projects, it offers a valuable example of how crowds can not only complete tasks but also identify and organize them.

We’ve written before about the hype surrounding crowd-based revolution, but this kind of crowdsourced policymaking may offer a glimpse of some exciting new forms of government. Google’s idea of bringing such disparate viewpoints together to work towards a common goal in some ways is at the heart of the crowdsourcing movement. Hopefully this model will inspire similar ventures around the world.


Manufacturing success: how to use crowdsourcing to enhance innovation and product development

March 7th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourced_manufacturingSince the global financial crisis, rich countries have increasingly come to see manufacturing as a reliable driver of growth. Globalization, of course, means that it is more difficult than ever for rich countries to compete with developing countries in this sector of the economy.

In this environment, crowdsourcing is increasingly recognized as a good way to enhance innovation and develop better products more efficiently. For a variety of reasons, however, many companies are hesitant about importing it into their development processes. Below I set out concrete ways that companies can overcome some of these issues.

Reflections of a software analyst
For the last year and a half I’ve been covering the manufacturing industry as a software analyst for Software Advice, a site that reviews manufacturing software. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing how tools such as Salesforce’s Chatter are making their way into the industry and how they can improve supply chain and shop floor collaboration.

All of this got me thinking: why should collaboration be limited to in-house experts? How can companies alter their processes so that outsiders can help?

Crowdsourcing speeds up innovation
By now it’s pretty well documented that if run properly, crowdsourcing can bring products to market faster and at a lower cost. Proctor & Gamble experimented with crowdsourcing a while back to find a way to print images onto its Pringles cans. Its search led it to a small Italian bakery that had figured out how to print images onto pastries. P&G licensed the technology and was able to bring its idea to market in a little under a year.

Because crowdsourcing proved successful in this instance, it decided to expand its crowdsourcing efforts. P&G currently relies on outside collaboration for a full 50 percent of its innovations. But it’s not alone: several large companies have started to lean on the wisdom of crowds for production innovation. Among them are companies like Chlorox, 3M, Johnson & Johnson and many others.

How to bring crowdsourcing into the mainstream
These companies are the exception rather than the rule for a variety of reasons. Most important amongst these seem to be a fear of change, uncertainty about intellectual property rights, and a lack of design sharing technologies. Luckily, each of these obstacles can be overcome. Here are three ways to bring crowdsourcing into mainstream manufacturing.

1. Start small and work your way up. A lot of manufacturing companies are uneasy about opening up their development processes to outside influences. To work around this mentality companies should start off using crowdsourcing for a small project to get management used to this method of innovation. After a few successes, they can work their way up to bigger projects.

2. Protect intellectual property by dividing responsibilities. Many companies are (understandably) also nervous that the crowd may steal their ideas or intellectual property and share them with competitors. This is a legitimate concern but one that can be mitigated by compartmentalizing roles of the project. By narrowly defining who gets access to what, the problem of intellectual property theft can be managed.

3. Make it easier to share design files. Right now, there is no standard for sharing CAD (computer aided design) files because there is no standard software format for the files. This makes it difficult for project collaborators to share their designs with others. Without a way to share files, it’s pretty tough to change and adapt different designs. Creating a universal standard for CAD files could greatly enhance the potential for crowdsourcing and collaborative innovation.

A few years ago, crowdsourced product development was almost unheard of in the manufacturing industry. Although some early adopters are now effectively using crowdsourcing, whether or not it catches on across industry as a whole may depend on how well companies can navigate the obstacles outlined above. For the sake of European and American manufacturing industries – and economies as a whole – I hope they succeed.


Duolingo Beta put to the test: can you learn a language while translating the web?

February 29th, 2012 by

A while ago, while trying to avoid some work, I watched this TED presentation by Luis von Ahn.

While his name might not ring a bell for everyone, his legacy definitely will: he is the guy behind reCAPTCHA, the bot-blocking service that uses all of us to help digitize the archives of The New York Times and Google Books. (Just think: every time you have to squint your eyes and turn your head sideways to decipher those annoyingly blurry squiggly words, you’re making the world a better place. Still, feel free to swear while you do it.)

In this TED presentation, von Ahn introduces his new project, Duolingo. Duolingo’s goal, in short, is to crowdsource language teaching. Here’s the twist: users will be able to learn a new tongue free of charge while translating the web through (unpaid, obviously) microwork.

Given the revolutionary nature of this idea, you can understand my excitement when the invitation for the Duolingo Beta landed recently in my mailbox. (It was also a great chance to refresh my rusty Spanish skills, recently put to the test – with mediocre results – while exploring a notorious Caribbean island.)

A brilliant user interface

At first glance, Duolingo is clean, friendly and sleek. There is no hint of the annoying and unintentionally funny user interface associated with reCAPTCHA.
To begin with, the platform gave me a quick tour, introducing really basic concepts and allowing me to try my hand at translating simple sentences. At any time I could hover on each linguistic particle to see a suggested translation.

I was then introduced to a skill tree, which some gamers out there will be used to, but is novel in a language teaching context.

Upon starting the first “lesson” (“exercises” would be a better term for what they are in practice), three familiar hearts appeared on the top right of the window. This is a way to check quality: if you lose all three you must start over.

After a few excercises I was humbled by my very first achievement. I’d like to thank the Academy (and my parents) for making this possible.

Then it was time to do some actual (micro)work, translating the web. At this point the interface changed slightly. I was asked to translate a sentence, which could be played in audio format and had an accompanying picture to help me understand the concept in context.

The actual sentence was “Ilumina la piscina”. I went with a straightforward (in my mind) “Light the pool”. It turns out Duolingo demands precision: two other users provided a better translation (“Illuminate the swimming pool”). I lost one heart. Ouch!

The second sentence went better, as my translation matched the others.

For the third sentence I scored a “60% agreement”, meaning that one user translated the sentence like me and the other suggested a second option.

After the check, Duolingo asked me to rate the other users’ performances. I assume this is their way to crosscheck the quality of translations. It would be interesting to know how many times they need to do that before being sure of an answer (industry standard, as far as I know, is around 7 times).

…And the first task was complete. More achievements, points and unlocks! The gamer in me rejoiced.

My verdict

It’s easy to get excited about Duolingo (especially if you don’t get out much). Given it is estimated that only 0,5% of what needs to be translated today is actually translated (due to high cost and other contraints), if it takes off it could really change the world.

So should the rest of the translation industry be afraid? I decided to ask an expert in the matter, Jani Penttinen. Jani said he can’t see how Duolingo could sufficiently guarantee quality to make it a serious threat to professional translation services, but he does “see it as a great way to get translations to consumers, in areas where it is not currently possible to translate content due to high cost.”

In my view, Von Ahn and friends have done a great job of designing the interaction between users and the platform so that the concept works as intended. That alone is a huge achievement. I would need to spend more quality time with Duolingo to see if it will really help me learn Spanish, but it certainly is much more appealing than boring grammar books. Now, if they could only add Finnish to the list of available languages and help fix that little drama of mine…


Happily ever after: how bored workers and their bosses can benefit from crowdsourcing

February 23rd, 2012 by

microtask_workers_crowdsourcingWith its mysterious, often invisible army of workers diligently completing tasks and solving problems, it is understandable that the media sometimes treat crowdsourcing almost like a fairytale industry.

Recently, however, our friends at CrowdControl have begun to tear down our carefully cultivated air of magic and mystery with new research on the demographics of digital labor (I can handle losing a little mystique, but nobody better go anywhere near my special Microtask wizard’s hat). Some of the results do not make pleasant reading for traditional employers.

The research found that nearly 75% of those surveyed have a job outside of their Turk work and 21% perform tasks while at another job. Although this is a great way for workers to boost their pay packets while passing a boring afternoon, it is unlikely to be viewed enthusiastically by their employers. This trend will surely increase: the crowdsourcing industry is growing rapidly and nearly half of surveyed workers are between 26 and 35, with their whole working life ahead of them.

We, of course, do not see this as a major problem (assuming staff at Microtask are not doing it). But we are concerned about the reputation of our industry, and how distributed labor is perceived by the wider market. So what can companies do?

Unhappy endings from the past
One option is to try to cut off employees’ access to crowdsourcing platforms. This would, of course, be largely futile: with a smartphone and a 3G connection, workers can easily bypass the company connection (plus the thrill of doing something illicit may be an extra incentive to beat the system).

History suggests that trying to block access may be worse than futile. Back in the first days of Napster and the birth of illegal P2P file sharing, the music industry faced a similar dilemma, as its traditional revenue streams were threatened by technological progress. As we all know, the efforts of big record companies to resist progress were far from successful.

Let’s make a deal
A better idea would be to learn something from digital labor and judge employees by their results, not by the hours they spend at their desks staring into the void. Like those enlightened companies that have successfully implemented unlimited leave opportunities for staff, employers may find that if staff are treated like responsible adults, they just may just act like them, and get the job done even if they spend occasional down-time completing distributed tasks (or just playing Minesweeper).

Employers could even go a step further – like some of our customers are – and keep staff occupied all day by filling their down-time with distributed tasks. If employees are not thrilled by this prospect, they could be incentivized by additional pay for tasks completed. These tasks could be related to the company’s own in-house digital labor needs, or a third party’s.

The CrowdControl survey results may be fascinating, but they are not yet definitive, and any interpretation relies on a degree of speculation. However, as more research into digital labor is released, we are building a clearer picture of the dynamic, motivated workforce using new digital labor opportunities to achieve their goals outside traditional structures.

The big question is whether those traditional structures are flexible enough to cope with the changes that digital labor will bring. One thing’s for sure – as any music industry bigwig will tell you – it’s never a good idea to stand in the way of progress. If traditional employers want a happy ending, they should make sure they learn from the past.


Hey! You! Get off my crowd: is crowdsourcing becoming a meaningless buzzword?

February 20th, 2012 by

microtask_superbowl_footballOver the last few months, I have been spending more and more time in the US, doing my best to soak up the famous American culture (while rushing between meetings).

Of course, regardless of what country you live in, one event which you cannot escape is the Super Bowl: that special time of year, when the world comes together to ignore America’s favorite sport. This year we in the crowdsourcing industry were forced to pay attention (but, mercifully, not to the game itself): amongst the usual 60 minutes of incomprehensible rhinoceros-ballet scattered over a four hour broadcast, some 111 million American households were treated to the best the ad industry has to offer. On display this year, according to several delirious press releases, were a selection of the world’s first crowdsourced adverts.

But before we get all excited about our industry’s move into the mainstream, let’s have a look at what actually happened (I promise I don’t mean in the actual football). Several sponsors, including Doritos and Chevrolet, held online ‘crowdsourcing’ contests giving entrants the chance to see their home-made ads in the coveted half-time slot, rubbing shoulders with Clint Eastwood (selling cars in an ultra-patriotic Chrysler ad ), Matthew Broderick (selling cars by squeezing out the last drops of nostalgia from his cheeky Ferris Bueller grin), and Kim Kardashian (doing something that I’m not going to bother dignifying with a link).

Out of thousands of entries, each company picked one lucky winner to receive prizes of up to $30,000. Doritos featured a man being bribed with tortilla chips to keep quiet about the activities of his murderous dog, Chevrolet fared less well with a predictable graduation day mix-up, while yoghurt maker Dannon’s choice faced multiple accusations of plagiarism with its suspiciously familiar tale of greed triumphing over romance set to a suspiciously familiar musical accompaniment.

The crowd goes wild?

While in some ways it is nice for the crowdsourcing industry to get this sort of attention, the focus on competitive crowdsourcing distracts from the unique opportunities that the crowd can offer.

As we have discussed before, competitive crowdsourcing, which only ends up using a single participant’s work, is the least effective form of crowdsourcing. Crowds are most productive when they work together, as we’ve seen with our experience at Digitalkoot, where thousands of small contributions added up to a huge achievement. In competitive crowdsourcing projects, most of the work done is wasted. There is no real co-operation (unless you consider plagiarism a form of assistance). Finally, none of the really exciting, juicy bits of crowdsourcing theory, like collective reasoning, can come into play.

In some ways, this comes back to the issue of the vague terminology that surrounds a lot of crowd-based enterprises, and the multiple models that are described by the word ‘crowdsourcing.’ The Super Bowl ads demonstrate on a grand scale why it is important for the different parts of the crowdsourcing industry to differentiate themselves from what is fast becoming a meaningless buzzword.

Crowded house of representatives

Thankfully, while the NFL sponsors have been parroting the term, crowdsourcing has quietly been getting on with the business of revolutionizing the world. The US Congress has unveiled a draft form of its new Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, a more considered alternative to the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills. It was opened to the crowd for amendment, and the input of some 150 users resulted in six alterations to the bill. This comes right after new research revealed that crowdsourced businesses may have an even brighter future than everyone (except us, of course) predicted.

Away from the sideshow of the Super Bowl ‘crowdsourcing’ experiment, with its alarmingly sexist corn chip commercials and accusations of plagiarism, the crowdsourcing model continues to demonstrate its value in both the public and private spheres. The best we can do is to explore the possibilities of the crowd to the full, and try and take this kind of half-baked imitation as a compliment.


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