An Introduction to Crowdsourcing (Part Two): Crowdsourcing Platforms for Global Challenges

An Introduction to Crowdsourcing (Part Two): Crowdsourcing Platforms for Global Challenges

Last time, we discussed the history of crowdsourcing and its emergence as a tool for innovation in the 21st century. Today, we look at some of the major platforms used by crowdsourcers to bring people together to tackle innovation challenges.

Using web-based platforms, Innocentive and OpenIDEO offer to match research problems with a worldwide network of potential solvers.

Innocentive provides an outlet for research and development companies to offer bounties for scientific innovation by members of its community. The idea is that by sharing problems previously confined to a closed research department, companies are able to efficiently and economically find innovative solutions to research problems that are impeding development.

The challenges posed on Innocentive are diverse, and successful proposals have ranged from facilitating clean up of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill to the identification of a biomarker which helps trace the development of ALS, a degenerative disease characterized by loss of motor function. The potential for the Innocentive model to overcome disciplinary boundaries has been well illustrated in a study conducted by Karim Lakhani and his research partners. They investigated the outcomes of 166 Innocentive challenges and found that community members working in fields not directly associated with the challenge were more likely to offer successful solutions than those already working in the same discipline. Also, more than half of the successful solvers reported that they had reached their solution by modifying previous work, either of their own or of others. This implies that solutions that already exist in the sprawling pool of modern research are being disregarded because they do not happen to exist within the realm of interest of organisations.The winning solver of Innocentive’s Exxon-Valdez clean up challenge was John Davis, a serial problem-solver who applied principles used in concrete pouring to devise a system for separating oil and water. This was after years of stagnation and failed innovation from the oil clean up industry.

Significantly smaller than Innocentive, OpenIDEO offers a user-friendly platform that aims to tackle broad social challenges through community participation. Its 58,500 members tackle diverse challenges in social, environmental and economic fields through collaborative learning and design principles. Its outcomes have included potentially life-saving increases in the number of individuals registering for bone marrow donation, the on-going creation of an app for political activists to covertly raise the alarm if they are taken into custody, and improved facilities for pregnant women in impoverished neighbourhoods of Colombia.

Whilst Innocentive and OpenIDEO offer explicit crowdsourcing platforms for educated users, crowdsourcing technology has also been used far more discretely to channel the time and energy of non-specialist crowds for social benefit. Cancer Research UK have tapped in to the growing appetite for simple mobile gaming by developing Genes in Space, a game which allows users to conduct simple but time consuming research into cancer genetics whilst appearing to collect a fictional substance known as ‘Element Alpha’. The disguised coding of the game creates an army of casual cancer researchers, freeing up time for professionals to get to work on more complex tasks.

Whilst the complex nature of modern science means that some sub-division of expertise is necessary – Trondheim’s own NTNU, for example, has over 90 research divisions, each with a designated focus – crowdsourcing enables expertise to pass through the walls of these divisions without interrupting their function. In an increasingly complex world, crowdsourcing creates a new ecology of knowledge. There is a saying in English that ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’.  Today’s solvers create novelty out of nothing, simply by looking in the right direction and adding a little twist of imagination.