Online Crowdsourcing Platforms for Social Change (Technology : Area of Interest)

Mashable defines crowdsourcing as “distributed problem solving. By distributing tasks to a large group of people, you are able to mine collective intelligence, assess quality and process work in parallel.”

Article 01 – Summary

Crowdsourcing a Better World (Opinionator – Fixes, The New York Times)


“People want to be thought of as something other than a source of money. They want to be thought of as creative, thinking people,” – Ethan Zuckerman (Senior researcher, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard).

Online crowdsourcing has hit the mainstream in recent years, with Wikipedia currently one of the largest and most well-known platforms. However, many of us often use crowdsourcing without realising it. Whether making a purchase on Ebay, reading an Amazon review or planning a holiday with the help of TripAdvisor comments, online crowdsourcing is a tool that most of us have used or possibly contibuted to.

Examples of a few different types of online crowdsourcing are given, falling within different areas. One such example, Innocentive, where companies seeking solutions for scientific and technological problems offer a cash prize. Often, the winner is someone who works outside of the area.

The focus of this article, however, is how crowdsourcing can help people on the ground contribute to social change in a effective and personally satisfying way. While cash donation in the form of crowdfunding is often essential, many people want to contribute their knowledge and skills. They want to offer hands-on help.

1. Crowdsourcing for Disaster Efforts
Two highly effective examples of crowdsourcing for this purpose are described in this article.

The first is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The population did not trust information offered by government and official sources. Those affected wanted to know specifics; the exact radiation levels in their areas. In response, several sites sprang up, collating and posting radiation levels. People with geiger counters were asked to measure localised radiation levels and upload the data. Information on where to buy geiger counters was published.

One of the first official platforms for this purpose, Ushahidi, evolved in Kenya during the post-election violence of 2008. Following a media blackout, reporting fell to bloggers but the task was overwhelming. One blogger, Ory Okolloh, requested help from her readers. Volunteers coalesced in the comments section and a few days later a tool was devised. This tool allowed anyone with a digital device to upload information which was then aggregated and used to document and visually map the violence. Ushahidi means “testimony” or “witness” in Swahili.

Ushahidi was used again during the earthquake in Haiti. Reports (for example, the locations of trapped people) were texted in Creole to local radio stations and were then forwarded to volunteers in the US for translation. This information was mapped and sent to rescuers. Ushahidi has since been used to track information from election fraud in Mexico to Ugandan medicine shortages to localised US disasters. This helps not only the work crews but ordinary citizens too, who can use the information to organise themselves and help out.


Ushahidi screenshot shows data collated during the Haiti Earthquake

In an attempt to verify the information uploaded through Ushahidi, data is combined with Twitter, YouTube and other sources. Once again, crowdsourcing is used to rate it. The higher the rating, the more prominently it’s displayed.

2. Crowdsourcing for Ideas
Ideas can also be aggregated through crowdsourcing. Openideo poses questions in the form of challenges and each has a financial sponsor. In one example, Jamie Oliver sponsored a healthy food challenge for kids. The ideas are refined and voted upon, in a fashion that’s akin to brainstorming.

3. Crowdsourcing for Citizen Journalism
Finally, crowdsourcing is often used in citizen journalism. ProPublica, a non-profit group produces investigative journalism by collating the opinions of people on the ground, affected by various issues. Director of Online Engagement, Amanda Michel, feels more can be learned by looking at the direct experiences of thousands of people as opposed to the report of a government official.

ProPublica also offers citizens the opportunity to be reporters, through assigned tasks. Readers were recruited locally to investigate the US Department of Transportation website to check on the status of civil engineering projects that Obama pledged to have up and running by Summer 2009. On investigation it was found that two-thirds had been delayed until the fall and projects in areas of high unemployment had been de-prioritised.

Article 02 – Summary

The Case For Crowdsourcing Innovation and Social Change (Forbes)


This article contrasts traditional top-down, hierarchical organisations with the crowdsourcing model which embraces collaborative effort and collective thinking. Innovation in technology has led to innovation in business through the ability to engage with and absorb ideas from all members of a corporation or the consumer community. Effective communication and collaboration has greatly accelerated the rate of innovation and increased employee and consumer social responsibility.

1. Traditional Model
Within traditional corporations, in the absence of incentives to formulate new solutions, workers typically only do the tasks assigned to them, i.e. the job they are paid to do. Under this system, where individual opinions and ideas are not encouraged, recognised or rewarded, decision making defaults to those highest in the chain of command and the flow of information is typically controlled by these few individuals in the upper echelons.

Typically, the disparity between status and knowledge often leads to poor decision making. Groups tend to defer responsibility to the member with the highest status; this member is not necessarily the one with the most knowledge. Minor members of the group tend not to share their own skills and knowledge.

2. Counterargument To Traditional Model
Alan Blinder and John Morgan, Princeton economists, discovered in a study carried out in 2000 that groups make better decisions than individuals. This study shows that “in diverse systems where a greater number of perspectives are represented, more possibilities are considered and addressed.” Thus, “the whole is equal to the sum of it’s parts.”

In the face of these facts, why is it that many traditional corporations insist on adhering to the command/control model? In hierarchical systems, many of those in a position of power are reluctant to relinquish control and some believe that the sharing of information will ultimately harm the organisation, an ideal which is flawed.

3. Crowdsourcing Model
Through modern technological advances, information is now more readily available than at any time throughout history. Successful and socially innovative corporations are now to be found at the hub of a web of employees, consumers and communities. Information, dialogue and innovative ideas flow throughout the strands in direct contrast to the top-down model. Companies such as Nike and IBM have benefitted from this type of social collaboration.

Maintaining an effective social innovation strategy benefits society as well as corporations. Those individuals who were formerly on the fringes or outside of the corporation, now expect to be allowed to collaborate and have thereby adopted a more socially conscious mindset. The transparency of the digital age has allowed access of information to anyone with the most basic of digital devices. Companies who have encouraged participation from their consumers have been rewarded with new opportunities. This collaboration has benefited all parties involved.


The first article defines crowdsourcing and gives examples across multiple platforms and scenarios. The second article compares crowdsourcing to traditional methods, examines the pitfalls of megalomania and explains the benefits of collaboration and collective thinking, backed up by studies.

Ethan Zuckerman hit the nail on the head when he said that individuals want to be thought of “as creative thinking people” and not just another cog in the machine. This is to be seen across the board, in every area of life. From something as simple as offering an opinion on Yelp, to the desire to help when disaster strikes, to dynamic employee and consumer input, most people desire a meaningful role in effecting social change.

In today’s digital world, various types of crowdsourcing are abundant, from the much maligned 1,000,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook to other, more productive platforms that have the capability to improve society and, occasionally, even save lives. A case in point; this week, Google has launched Person Finder in the wake of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

From a psychological point of view, crowdsourcing gives power to the people. Also this week, Russia announced that citizens will vote on one of five designs for the new Rouble logo. This is just one example of where the citizens of a country will be the decision-makers on how one of their national symbols will be portrayed internationally. Crowdsourcing also creates a sense of belonging. “If a group of people has mutual interests and aims their social bonds are strengthened. And belonging to such a group increases an individuals self-esteem and its own activity.” (Gregory Walton, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University).

While voting is a form of crowdsourcing, government establishments are still based on varying degrees of the traditional top-down model. Many citizens feel completely disconnected from their leaders. Election promises rarely come to pass and some feel downright hoodwinked. Perhaps in the future, drawing on the crowdsourcing model as an inspiration, citizens could contribute towards innovation in government. Perhaps, one day, we might be able to crowdsource the means by which we are governed.

Further Information:

The Roar of the Crowd : Crowdsourcing is transforming experimental psychology

Clay Shirky : How Cognitive Surplus Will Change The World (TED Talk, 2010)

Matt Ridley : When Ideas Have Sex (TED Talk, 2010)




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