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The rise of ‘crowdsourcing’

The rise of ‘crowdsourcing’
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Outsourcing has become passe! We are moving to the age of the crowd. Crowdsourcing aims to use the spare brain cycles from people across the world to...

Outsourcing has become passe! We are moving to the age of the crowd. Crowdsourcing aims to use the spare brain cycles from people across the world to accomplish specific tasks. These tasks range from annotating images, ranking websites, answering surveys, solving problems, to even corporate R&D. Tapping into the ideas offered by large number of people seems to be a smart and practical way to solve some of the critical problems we encounter in our daily lives. We all have experienced and benefitted the results of crowdsourcing in the form of user reviews on Amazon, E-bay, or Makemytrip.

The word was coined by Jeff Howe from Wired magazine in 2005 to describe how businesses were beginning to use internet to quickly accomplish their tasks. Crowdsourcing uses the wisdom of the crowds to distribute work across a large group of people. Companies take a project break it into tiny micro tasks each of which is farmed out to the general public across the world by posting requests on a website. These jobs range from micro tasks that take just a few seconds and pay a few hundred rupees to more specialised and sophisticated high paying tasks. Online crowdsourcing is a relatively recent phenomenon where professionals are being replaced by enthusiasts, hobbyists, part-timers, and other talent.

Many startups are using this for their out-of-the box explorations while staying lean. Procter & Gamble repeatedly uses crowdsourcing to solve scientific and technical challenges. Obtaining ideas or services from a large group of unrelated people provides multiple perspectives to the posed problem resulting in a more robust solution. Crowdsourcing is also economical in tackling a labour intensive job without taking on extra workers while completing tasks that required months in days. Companies are able to supplement their traditional core competency skills with enthusiasts from across the world with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets. Another advantage is that the talent and skill pool can be selected purely on the quality of work and not on the age, gender, race, education, or job history.

The open source software revolution demonstrated to the world that networked labour pool could write code just as well as highly paid employees on the payroll. Examples include Wikipedia, Linux amongst others. Input from the crowds has given life to many businesses such as eBay, Amazon, MySpace, and even Google. The internet age companies quickly adapted to the crowdsourced world. The productive potential of the hobbyists and enthusiasts across the world is now attracting traditional businesses as well.

The main reasons for the rapid rate of adoption of crowdsourcing is the access to the internet, online coursewares, that are allowing users to acquire a skill and apply it during their spare time to solve problems. Nearly 2.5 billion people use the internet every day and that is a huge pool of talent and skill that every company wants to exploit at cheaper rates. This collective but distributed use of resources is allowing them to harness the creative and competitive spirit of people globally. Historically, companies relied on the innovations of few of their star performers, hoarded knowledge, relied heavily on industry analysts and in-house gurus for advice on business strategy and competitiveness. Crowdsourcing is turning this model on its head forcing companies to look beyond their panel of experts and instead leverage the power of the many.

Companies are realising that the collective insights of a large number of people is superior to the inputs from the experts because of the diversity and breadth of ideas available in the crowd. They are even turning to crowdsourcing to stem the rising costs of R&D.

Several crowdsourcing-based companies have cropped up in recent years. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk has over 5,00,000 registered workers spread over 190 countries who help companies perform tasks such as identifying items in a photograph, skim through documents to extract information, write product descriptions, moderate content, or even transcribe reviews. Waze Inc, a navigation and traffic startup uses the crowd of daily commuters who share real-time road information to solve snarly traffic problems.

Kickstarter another famous crowdsourcing site has become the site for creative projects. Over 4.2 million people have pledged to fund over 43,000 projects. Marbler, a UK based company, aims to harness the collective imagination by allowing a user to post his invention so folks from across the world can submit ideas on possible uses for it. Quirky is a community platform for inventors where the crowd votes and filters the ideas. Other companies include CrowdFlower and Elance.

Crowdsourcing is not without issues. The information received from the crowd could have too many voices and opinions and could be half-baked and not of the required quality. In addition, it is not trivial to manage and harness all this information and reach a consensus. One must effectively balance the potential of crowds to contain wisdom with their tendency to be biased.

Several decades ago the Berkeley SETI programme focused on tapping unused computing power using millions of computers across the world. Similarly crowdsourcing is tapping into distributed labour pools across the world, who want to offer the spare processing power of their brains. It is transforming the way products are manufactured, work is organised, and even how talent is employed. Crowd sourcing is pooling the intelligence of the crowd into a single mind and slowly converting the whole world into a single laboratory.

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