Putting the IT in Crowdsourcing
Can IT benefit from mass collaboration? Consider these quick-start ideas for using the wisdom and talents of the crowd for technology operations.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
WHEN THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH wanted a new bus
station designed, it turned to the masses for input. The idea
was inspired by a paper written by Daren Brabham, a PhD
candidate and graduate teaching fellow at the university,
who positioned crowdsourcing as a way to increase public
participation in public planning. Tom Sanchez, who had just
moved to the university to head up its urban planning program,
took Brabham’s paper and turned it into the rationale
for a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The Utah
Transit Authority would work with the university in implementing
the design project.
That grant turned into Next Stop Design, a web-based
competition from June through September 2009, in which
the general public submitted bus stop designs and vetted
the submissions to determine the best ones. Along the
way, participants from 127 countries submitted 260
designs and cast over 11,000 votes. Interestingly, fewer
than 8 percent of site visitors were from Utah, and only
half of those came from Salt Lake City, where the bus stop
is located. The three winning entries came from Greece,
India, and South Dakota.
“The goal was to increase public participation in a transit-
planning effort,” says Brabham, who acted as the project
manager and is completing his dissertation on the
topic of crowdsourcing and public participation. “We consider
it a success—thousands of voices in a democratic
process. Most people were frequent riders of buses in
their areas. This was a user community, which speaks to a
lot of user innovations—that users know best and have a
lot to contribute.”
Crowdsourcing in Action
According to Jeff Howe, author of the 2006 Wired article that coined the term, “crowdsourcing is the act of taking a
job traditionally performed by a designated agent
and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large
group of people in the form of an open call.” The
idea is to put the labors of many people to work. The
bus stop project, for example, would formerly have
been handled by an architectural firm hired by the
Brabham adds another layer of specificity to
the definition. He believes there’s a traditional
management aspect to crowdsourcing. “I define it
as an online distributed problem-solving production
model,” he says. “Somebody in the organization
needs something done and asks the crowd to
do it. It isn’t organic. The crowd does not decide
what it does next. It’s a very top-down thing,
blended with an open, creative process.”
The advantages to crowdsourcing are many.
Problems can be addressed with relatively little
expense and often with great speed; the organization
can gain access to skills and talents outside
its immediate circle; and often the crowd can
turn out to be smarter or wiser than any one individual
Examples of crowdsourcing in higher education can be
found across disciplines:
- The Amazon Mechanical Turk, which calls itself “a marketplace
for work that requires human intelligence,” has been
tapped by universities for crowdsourcing projects. The service,
from Amazon.com, allows users to break up a project
into discrete units—called human intelligence tasks
(HITs)—and outsource them en masse to workers for compensation
that frequently is just a few cents per HIT. In
2008, Teesside University in the United Kingdom turned
to the Mechanical Turk when it needed help completing a
project to create online skills development maps for some
of its courses. And last month, the Computer Vision Lab at
the University of California-Irvine used the service to get
hundreds of people to view video sequences as part of a
research project on human motion.
- Dartmouth College (NH) Professor Mary Flanagan won
a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the
Humanities to develop a set of games that can be used
by the public to add keywords and descriptive data to
specialized libraries and archival databases. Her current
focus is eliciting metadata for collections that may—for
copyright reasons—only be viewed by a single person at
a time or that would benefit from expert input.
- In December 2009, when the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) positioned red weather
balloons in 10 cities around the country as part of a competition
to explore how large problems can be tackled using
social networking, MIT used crowdsourcing to win the
$40,000 prize. The MIT team obtained the precise global
coordinates of the balloons in less than nine hours by
encouraging participants to register on a special website
set up for the contest and to invite others to do so as well.
Anybody who identified the coordinates of a balloon, or
somehow influenced the registration of somebody who did
so, was promised some portion of the prize money. By the
start of the contest, MIT had 5,000 people in its network.
So Where’s the IT in Crowdsourcing?
Brabham, who is joining the University of North Carolina-
Chapel Hill in May as an assistant professor, believes the
application of crowdsourcing can lend a tremendous
amount of knowledge to the right kinds of endeavors.
“There’s so much flexibility for how it can be used,” he
insists. “You can solve anything if you just frame it right, and
build a community around it.”
That is precisely why he is surprised that higher ed IT
departments have not caught on to the value of crowdsourcing
for their own work. “All [crowdsourcing] is is a website
that distributes tasks, aggregates solutions, and allows for
ranking mechanisms for people to vote on the best things.
That’s really at the heart of everything,” he marvels.
In the spirit of distributed problem solving, Brabham
offers some suggestions for quick and easy ways to use
crowdsourcing to extend and improve IT operations:
How-to videos. Crowdsource the creation of videos
explaining how people can do various things with their
computer or network connections. “This could be crowdsourced
to students on campus or beyond,” Brabham
notes. All it would require, he says, is making the video
screen-capture software available through a campus
license and letting the campus technology center check out
equipment such as microphones.
Video transcription. Crowdsource the transcription of
videos for people with hearing disabilities or into other languages
for students whose first language isn’t English.
Computer lab upkeep. Want to job out the work of
checking computer labs for problems, cleanliness, or overall
usage patterns? “Task people with duties, such as dropping
by certain computer labs at certain times and taking a quick note of how many students are using them, if they’re
clean, if they have error messages,” suggests Brabham.
Distributed tech support. Encourage students and faculty
to participate in an online “faculty” of technical expertise,
he says. When somebody needs tech support, the system
can connect that user to the appropriate person, whether he
or she is across campus or down the hall.
Problem reporting/beta testing. Get people to report
where the wireless gaps are in that pervasive-wireless rollout.
Tap into your campus community to test your web, mobile,
gaming, and desktop applications during development.
Market research. Use a prediction market platform such
as Inkling (which polls participants via an online-trading
mechanism) to gauge the value proposition of a new program
in your institution. As you develop a new IT policy, get
input from the campus community to mold it in ways that
make sense to them. “From an administrative standpoint, it
may help you predict or alleviate tensions for putting out a
policy that nobody likes,” Brabham points out.
Community problem-solving. Post your biggest technology
challenges to the campus community—or beyond:
For instance, “‘We have a new building going in that’s
going to suck too much power off the grid. How should we
allocate resources?’ There is an empirically right answer,”
says Brabham. “So you cast a wide net hoping to find that
needle in the haystack.”
Ultimately, crowdsourcing is “all about being creative in
the way you frame a question and knowing what will motivate
your crowd,” Brabham concludes, and then waxes a little
lyrical. “Maybe these types of things can improve the
world somehow with all sorts of ideas—to get people
involved in government, to solve tough diseases that drug
companies don’t want to research because they’re so rare.
That’s my grand vision—to aggregate intellect.”
12 CROWDSOURCING GUIDELINES
DAREN BRABHAM, a crowdsourcing
researcher at the University of Utah, points out
that to attract a crowd, you don’t necessarily
have to offer cash as a reward. It could be inkind
meal-ticket money, sports tickets, or
other on-campus spiffs that don’t cost the
institution anything. Plus, he adds, “You’d get a lot more out of
it in PR and writing about it in the alumni magazine.” Here are
his other rules of thumb in setting up a crowdsourced project.
Make sure the tasks are small, yet work toward a clear
goal that’s big and for the common good.
- Use social networking tools to succeed.
- Where the reliability of information is vital to the mission,
figure out ways to minimize fakery.
- Let the crowd clean up your data for you.
- Listen to people and respond to their advice—but retain
final ownership over the ultimate decision.
- Give recognition to top users of your crowdsourcing
efforts by points, contributions, and ranking lists.
- Make it fun and don’t bog it down with too many rules. That
said, make sure you have clarity, so that people know the
one or two things they absolutely must do to contribute.
- Expect your contributions to come en masse—so the
servers better be able to handle the load.
- Consider giving the community a chance to interact with
the paid staff as part of the reward of participation.
- Expect “super-volunteers” to do the bulk of the work and
pay attention to what they tell you.
- Use paid staff to set up the operations. But use volunteers
to manage the work.
- Make sure that whatever you want done is of interest to