Crowdsourcing: when size makes a difference

Crowdsourcing Office Trends Lifestyle

Four eyes can see more than two, ten thousand creators are more innovative than ten, And two million collaborators together have greater knowledge than two hundred. No surprise then that crowdsourcing is currently experiencing a real boom.

The fact that innovation is no longer found solely in research and development departments is common knowledge in the meantime. Entirely new aspects and perspectives are provided as soon as departmental boundaries are crossed and employees from other areas are also invited to contribute their ideas, thereby ensuring benefits for everyone involved. Why then should we stop at the limits of the company? There are countless creative minds all over the world with differing backgrounds, approaches, ideas and skills: could they not also be incorporated into the process? Of course they can – and here we find ourselves at the heart of crowdsourcing.

Not an Internet invention

The term "crowdsourcing" was supposedly coined in 2006 by journalist and blogger Jeff Howe (Wired Magazine), but the principle has been in use for a considerably longer period of time and not just since Wikipedia and InnoCentive both emerged in 2001. The concept really started in 1900 when the National Audubon Society, an American NPO specialising in the protection of birds, called on the public to take part in annual counts of all the birds in the western hemisphere. A number of other examples can be found from the pre-Internet era, but there is no doubt that the web has absolutely perfected the possibilities available through crowdsourcing by providing far simpler access to a considerably larger crowd.

New ideas from outside sources

One of the reasons for implementing crowdsourcing is the simple but ingenious supposition that the innovation potential and problem-solving skills of a large number of different people are greater than those of just a few individuals, who most likely have similar skills and therefore similar restrictions in their thinking which keep them from looking far beyond the end of their noses. So if internal attempts to solve problems therefore fail then companies today can rely on the brainpower of the crowd. The task is usually put to the public with an offer of prize money or other rewards, thereby increasing the chances that a solution will be found.

InnoCentive is an example of an organisation that has made a name for itself dealing with scientific topics of varying degrees of complexity. Solvers there have, for instance, supplied solutions for a simpler production process for certain pharmaceutical components and for other physical, chemical and biological challenges. Clients include well-known companies such as Boeing, Eli Lilly and Procter & Gamble along with government organisations and NGOs.
A completely different area is covered at 12designer where users can turn to a pool of creatives for the development of logos, websites, business cards and similar items. The client names their price, the designers present their solutions and the best one (this is subjective, of course) is purchased.


Fiat Mio – designed by the crowd

Crowdsourcing can also help ensure that the product does what customers really want. Market opportunities can be increased significantly when interested parties and potential customers are incorporated into the design process. The result is then (largely) consistent with their desires and also has the bonus of fostering identification with the product.

Fiat in Brazil relied on this method by inviting visitors to a website to submit their ideas and suggestions for the perfect town car. The number of responses received was considerable: more than 17,000 people from over 40 countries took up the invitation and actually submitted more than 10,000 suggestions. The result was the Fiat Mio – a car which not only delighted those who had contributed ideas but which also won numerous design awards and attracted major attention and support on account of its origins: an impressive example of customer proximity and customising.

You still need rules

Of course, there are also examples of how crowdsourcing does not work. Henkel for instance launched a competition to redesign Pril washing detergent in 2011 which allowed users of social media to contribute and vote on ideas. Henkel changed the rules after apparently fictitious votes quickly placed joke designs in the lead, so that designs also had to be approved by a jury and falsified votes were discarded. Then they decided to remove non-marketable designs from the Top 10. When the voting finished, more votes were discounted that were assumed to be false. The result was an outcry in the Internet community due to perceived manipulation. The fierce debates on Twitter and Facebook certainly did not provide an ideal start to the planned product relaunch.

Valued or exploited?

Not only is it difficult to determine the "winners", the legal position in relation to the ideas that have been submitted is also a sensitive one. The question is: what goals is a company pursuing through crowdsourcing? Is it really interested in ideas, or is it using crowdsourcing as a marketing gimmick or a customer retention initiative? Or is it just trying to reduce costs in its own development department by harnessing cheap or even free labour? This may work as a one-off but it can also backfire spectacularly if used as standard business practice.

Negative side effects

The remuneration and job situation involved are also seen as a problem to some extent. If a company outsources its problems by using crowdsourcing and paying the winner a particular amount it means all the remaining contributors have completed research or worked for the company for free using their own tools and their own time resources. Even the winner only receives a one-off amount without any insurance covering unemployment, illness or a pension. This turns employers into customers and former employees into entrepreneurs (if they weren’t already), with a perfectly justified fear of increased casualisation of employment relations. The frequency with which crowdsourcing is implemented and in which areas is therefore of vital importance. Both the advantages and the disadvantages need to be considered carefully, including within a social context.

Crowdsourcing vs. traditional areas of activity

One other aspect is the fact that crowdsourcing puts sustained pressure on the prices of the "goods" which are purchased – something which is good for consumers and users but not for professional designers. iStockphoto is an example of this: purchasing pictures from this source is of course extremely practical and cheap, but professional stock photographers have to radically reorganise their existing business model since they can never compete with the prices in the crowd, and therefore specialise for example in unique contracted work – when they can get it.

Products manufactured in traditional ways also need to make way for the innovations in crowdsourcing. Classical lexicons are now no more than collectors' items since the emergence of Wikipedia, and open source software competes with software companies, at least in some areas. Whichever way this development is viewed, it is certain that crowdsourcing is increasingly making its mark in certain sectors.

Achieving more together

Let’s think about those last two examples for a moment. Wikipedia and open source software demonstrate an additional aspect inherent in crowdsourcing, i.e. cooperation. Neither are developed by a closed group of people; instead they involve countless individuals working on an overall solution, just like some other crowdsourcing projects, except that there is ultimately no "winner" and lots of losers or runners-up, but instead everyone has made their contribution to the end result.

Jovoto, a crowdsourcing platform for creators, clearly emphasises this collaborative aspect. Ideas surrounding complex tasks are discussed and assessed in the community. Even the prize money offered by the client is not received by one individual, but is instead distributed by the community among the top 6 or 12 ideas which it judges to be the best.

There are also film and book projects which have been started by companies or creatives and which are meant to be developed by the crowd, although not always successfully. Experience has generally shown that too many cooks do indeed spoil the broth. It remains to be seen whether viable options can be found here.

One thing that is certain is that members of large crowds operating independently of each other are also able to achieve a lot. The SETI@home project from the University of California, Berkeley is a famous pioneer in the technical area dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and operated using distributed computing. Private PC users were called upon to make the unused computing power of their computers available to the project, meaning that huge quantities of data were able to be analysed. The model proved successful and became an example for further projects in medicine and science.

Since computers are not as suited to some mental activities as humans, crowdsourcing projects also emerge which appeal to their working power but which follow the same principle, i.e. breaking a large task up into lots of small "micro tasks" and distributing these to the crowd. This activity may involve creating comprehensive databases, searching for addresses, translating product descriptions or providing keywords for images. At the present time Crowdguru and Clickworker are specifically devoted to this area.

Eye-witnesses for good purposes

Non-commercial crowdsourcing can even save lives. The platform Ushahidi collects important and timely information via SMS and e-mail from witnesses in crisis-hit regions, consolidates this and displays it on maps in order to help individuals and aid organisations in crises or during disasters. Everyone is called upon to send information on the local situation, thereby contributing to an improved overall picture – e.g. of where possible victims may be located, where water or medicines are urgently required or where there are disturbances. One example: such a map was provided online within half an hour of the devastating earthquakes in Haiti in 2010. Ushahidi received 80,000 messages and half of them were usable and capable of being projected on various maps. This made it possible to organise targeted aid with considerably greater speed.

Incidentally "Ushahidi" is from Swahili and means "witness". The project was started in 2008 in Kenya during the disturbances following the national elections. Registered customers received warnings via SMS when there were outbreaks of violence in their vicinity so that they were able to move to safety. Since then cases of election fraud, damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, medicine shortages in Uganda and snow damage in Washington and NY have all been mapped.

Several of these types of crowdsourcing platforms sprang up in response to the devastating nuclear reactor disaster in Fukushima in 2011. Since the official statements on radioactive levels were either scarce in number or were not regarded as reliable by many individuals, people with Geiger counters were called upon to send in their local measurement results so that realistic contamination maps could be developed.


The final area that must be mentioned is crowdfunding. Lots of creative people, small companies and private individuals have an idea, concept or project which they are unable to finance either alone or via the traditional channels. As a result they ask potential supporters from the crowd for help via platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo or
Startnext. These are able to supply thoroughly exciting projects with donations of varying amounts and generally receive special goodies as a thank-you in return. This was for instance how the documentary "The Happy Film" by designer Stefan Sagmeister was made possible. The website Sellaband is "where fans invest in music" as its slogan makes clear. Public Enemy was one of the first groups to be launched this way and with a great deal of success. Similarly in June 2010 four students embarked on a quest to find US $10,000 in order to develop a counterpart to Facebook with their Diaspora project which actually takes data protection seriously. The project was so popular that it received excess financing amounting to over US$ 200,000 from close to 6,500 supporters. Mark Zuckerberg was also one of those who made a donation to the project. Somehow it seems we are all part of the crowd...


Brigitte Schedl-Richter

Texterin, freie Journalistin,