The Future Of Crowdsourcing


CrowdsourcingI am a believer in the power of exploration. It is often in the seemingly random corners of life that we find opportunity, brilliance, and possibility. In an effort to open the door to possibility for myself, I spent some time with the producers and participants of Crowdsolve Seattle– a first-of-its-kind event bringing together law enforcement, a variety of experts, as well as several hundred “regular people” from around the world who share an interest in true crime and a passion to contribute in a meaningful way.

Designed and produced by the team at Red Seat Ventures,this event extends upon the team’s prior work producing CrimeCon, a variety of events throughout the year that attract flocks of true crime fans from around the globe. “CrowdSolve came mostly out of attendee feedback over our first three CrimeCon events. Fans told us they wanted to go much deeper into a single case file for the entire experience,” says Kevin Balfe, co-founder of Red Seat Ventures.

CrowdSolve uses a process known as crowdsourcing, an open collaboration process intended to help solve problems, has gained a great deal of popularity in the last decade. Application of crowdsourcing principles have been introduced to a wide variety of situations ranging from medical research, to navigation (think Waze), and even how you book travel accommodations through Airbnb. Crowdsourcing offers an opportunity to bring together large groups of diverse individuals to solve problems with the assumption that diverse groups bringing a variety of opinions and backgrounds can make higher quality decisions than a small group of “experts”.

Types of crowdsourcing.

There are a variety of specific methods that crowdsourcing processes can take including crowd creativity, crowd voting, crowd complementors, crowd contests and challenges, and crowd innovation to name a few. While many methods of utilizing crowdsourcing are focused on microtasks, or small, repetitive tasks such as interpreting handwriting or street signs, crowdsourcing presents a promising future in helping businesses think about solving some of their most complex problems.

What does it take for crowdsourcing processes to be most effective? 

When I think about my experience designing crowdsourcing processes for my clients who are working to solve some of their most complex business challenges, three fundamental things come to mind- the crowd, the tech, and the experts. The crowd is pretty self-explanatory. They provide the new perspectives. The experts can provide valuable insight to help guide the journey for the participants. Where I, and others, see interesting opportunities to support crowdsourcing efforts is in figuring out how technological advances may aid groups in scouring large amounts to data to find clues and patterns that people may miss.

During my recent visit to the Crowdsolve event in Seattle, I had an opportunity to meet up with Sukrit Venkatagiri, a computer science doctoral student at Virginia Tech’s Crowd Intelligence Lab. Sukrit and his colleagues were at the event trying to understand how technology can best be utilized to facilitate crowdsourcing efforts in ways that help speed up the work in ethical and effective ways. Through their research, the team at Virginia Tech supports law enforcement, journalists, and human rights investigators to better integrate technology into their crowdsourcing processes in order to help them drive results. Sukrit summed it up nicely, “The future will be about combining human thought and creativity with AI’s ability to see patterns in large sets of data.”

Tips for considering crowdsourcing for your business. 

Seems simple enough. Toss a bunch of people in a room and let them have a massive brainstorming session, right? Wrong. Ensuring that you have taken the time to design your process correctly will:

  1. Clearly define your goals before you start. Since crowdsourcing requires the participation of well, crowds, you must be very intentional about clarifying and putting boundaries around your goals before you get started. In addition, figure out what success looks like for everyone. This helps narrow in on a set of goals that meets the needs of all of the participants.
  2. Ask the right question. Many people underestimate this simple concept but the ability to ask the right question at the right time is a true art. Being extremely thoughtful about the question you are trying to answer with your group can make or break the success of your crowdsourcing process.
  3. Bake in safeguards to ensure ethical and productive work for all parties affected by the process. This is something that should always be considered regardless of topic but when bringing together a crowd to work sensitive challenges like those attempted by the participants of CrowdSolve (solving actual cold cases) it is absolutely imperative that safeguards are in place to protect people, evidence, and even the potential suspects. The leaking of case files, vigilantism, or inconsiderate behavior in front of the victim’s family members (who were present during the event that I observed) can all have significant negative effects and damage your ability to crowdsource in the future.

It is not lost on me that this type of process requires a lot of trust on the part of law enforcement to open up actual case files to participants. Therefore, guardrails must be in place to ensure that confidential information is not leaked to the public or that vigilantism does not become a reality.

When I asked about what it took for law enforcement to agree to open active case files to participants, Balfe added, “Trust does not come easily (nor should it) but I think we’ve proven to law enforcement, families, victims’ rights groups, and content creators that we do things the right way. I hope we’ve shown them [law enforcement], and other jurisdictions watching, that our sole interest is in hosting an event that brings together smart, passionate, and engaged attendees with world-class experts and [that this] has the potential to provide law enforcement with new directions, leads, and ideas.”

  1. Provide a clear process. A lack of a clear process and expectations to guide the crowd makes you run the risk of losing focus and getting off track. Ensuring that the experience is intentionally designed helps to ensure that you are as productive as possible.
  2. Ensure that experts are involved in the design and facilitation of the process. Having experts present to guide the crowd through the process helps keep people focused and productive and helps mitigate any risks associated with sensitive information. In addition to having experts supervising the design and facilitation of the process, identify subject matter experts to help provide valuable perspective that will help move the crowd forward.
  3. Provide data that supports the process but nothing more. One of the benefits of crowdsourcing is bringing diverse people together who aren’t experts to create new ideas to consider.In order to maximize the limited time that the crowd has to work together, provide them with the information that they need to be most effective.
  4. Provide feedback to participants. If people are going to give you their time, attention, and ideas you owe it to them to keep them looped into the outcomes of the process.
  5. Create a safe space where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas. There are many factors that may make participants feel uncomfortable opening up during your process- not being clear or transparent about how peoples’ input will be used, who will own the rights to the outcomes of the process, etc.  This is another reason it is critically important to be very intentional about the environment you create.
  6. Keep an open mind. Regardless of the process that you design, you never know what you might get from working with a crowd. Don’t discount ideas or input that you didn’t expect. One of the real benefits of this type of process is that bringing together a diverse group can lead to some really “out of the box” type solutions. Be open to letting the dialogue go where it goes. You never know what might come out of it.
  7. Check the governing law regarding intellectual property rights. One thing to be sure of before attempting any sort of crowdsourcing process for your business is to make sure that the laws pertaining to intellectual property rights are aligned with what you are hoping to get out of the process.

The business implications of crowdsourcing in the future of work. 

Many clients ask my opinion on the future of work and how technological advances such as artificial intelligence and machine learning may impact their people. This is not an easy question to answer. In my opinion, some jobs will become irrelevant, completely taken over by automation. Most jobs will continue to integrate technology in ways that make people more productive and where technology is capable of handling the more mundane and routine tasks, freeing people up to do what computers can’t. This would include freeing people up to do things that computers can’t like creativity.

In a world where the challenges we face become increasingly complex, finding methods of bringing together crowds, experts, and technology in ways that facilitate creative and beneficial solutions presents exciting opportunities where a great many “laypeople” can engage in activities that they enjoy while solving real-world challenges.

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