Crowdsourcing

If you've ever called up all your friends to help you move, depending on the many hands make light work maxim, then you've crowdsourced. Crowdsourcing is a fancy word for dividing up work amongst a large group of people. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is one of the older examples of crowdsourcing in the computer realm. I wrote about it in a column a few years ago. But tackling a problem by putting it in the public domain has been around a lot longer. The practice of bottling food for preservation was created in response to a request to the public from the French government back in the 1790s.

For most of the last couple of decades the term has primarily meant work that's distributed out to a large number of computer users. This was in part because the mere act of distributing work in a timely fashion was most easily accomplished by sending it around on the internet. And the people with the tools to do the work and communicate on the internet were computer folk. Now that computers have become ubiquitous and more appliance like than ever, most people have a computer and internet connection. As well, the tools to let people contribute have become less computer oriented. Often it's just an opinion that's looked for. More recently it has become financial support.

There are some massive crowdsourced science projects underway. The Folding@Home project is software you can run on your home computer to help scientists in their study of Alzheimer's, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and many cancers. The software uses your computer when it's idle to crunch numbers. Today there are close to a quarter million computers outputting 36,000 teraflops of computing power on Folding@Home alone.

Crowdsourcing design ideas have become popular with sites like 99designs.com where designers compete to create logos for submitted ideas. Starbucks has even got in on the trend using MyStarbucksIdea.force.com. It's a site where you can submit ideas for menu items, locations, games, you name it.

You've probably heard of Kickstarter.com by now. It's a site dedicated to letting people raise funds for project ideas. The ideas run the gamut from movies, gadgets, books, games, hot sauces, even the new Veronica Mars movie, which raised over $5,000,000. The highest donation level of $10,000 included a bit part in the movie!

A recent high profile example is the creation of a new so-called “Normal” Barbie. In response to a few decades of criticism around the unrealistic dimensions of Mattel's centrepiece toy a designer created a Barbie-like doll, but with average female dimensions. The idea spread and the designer, wanting to make the doll as a real product, crowdsourced the funding. The initial request was for $95,000 for a first run. At press time, Lammily™ had raised $428,000.

An even more high profile crowdsourced event is occurring as I write this column. Right now there are hundreds of thousands of people pouring over satellite photos looking for lost Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. DigitalGlobe, a US satellite firm is distributing cut up satellite photos to volunteers who are looking intently at each photo for any signs of the missing plane. The same technology has been used in other natural disaster sites. This is a global Where's Waldo game with life and death consequences.

Sometimes you're participating in crowdsourcing initiatives without even knowing it. If you've ever had to type in a strangely distorted word on a website to authenticate yourself you may have been helping to translate a book. Originally created to help The New York Times digitize its archives, it is the principle means used now by Google to authenticate text in Google Books. When books are scanned in, text that's flagged as uncertain by the computer gets chopped up into captcha images and the next bunch of users authenticating help to confirm the actual text. Text recognition is something humans are many times better at than computers – for now.

You can expect many more of these types (pun intended) of ventures to appear over the next few years. There are many areas of processing that humans find easy that are difficult for computers, and vice versa. And now that virtually everyone has enough computing power to put a man on the moon sitting on their desktop, the opportunities for all of us to contribute, will grow.