Crowdsourcing is controversial. It takes a different shape in every context where it’s been used: marketing, advocacy, social networking, or crisis management. These projects set out to better understand crowdsourcing and how it can be applied in planning.

What is Crowdsourcing?

According to Wikipedia, arguably the most successful application of the term itself, crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing, i.e. subcontracting, to the crowd[i]. This definition creates two new questions: what is crowdsourced and who is the crowd? The question of “what” changes depending on the example – ideas, raw data, deep knowledge, participation of others, help, answers to questions, or public opinion. The question of “who” is key to the quality and quantity of “what” is crowd sourced. If the “crowd” of interest is the public – how does one reach out to the public? If the “crowd” is a defined community or interest group – then is it still a crowd? These questions of “who” and “what” are particularly important when evaluating crowdsourcing as a method of population selection for a research study and are exactly why many people in the world have not accepted crowdsourcing as a legitimate tool.

Why Participate?

The main question surrounding the legitimacy of crowdsourcing relate to concerns of motivation for participation – why has the crowd chosen to participate in this process? The issue of incentive and motivation is key with crowdsourcing as with any other participation method – such as town hall or community board meetings. Crowdsourcing presents an alternative opportunity where participation is not bound by time and location. Adovocating for a cause or advertising a deal are two examples where the incentive to participate is built into the content. Civic engagement presents more of a challenge – as the feedback loop, which rewards the participation is usually over a longer period of time. Or in the case of crisis response crowdsourcing, such as Ushahidi, the response and feedback may present itself in an indirect form or at a disjointed time, clouding the participants’ understanding that they were heard at all[ii].

So what can Crowdsourcing tell us?

Crowdsourcing can collect data, create community, solve problems, grow knowledge, help people in a crisis, or answer questions, depending on how it is used. The main issue identified by all of the student projects was that the context – i.e. the “who” and the “what” – directly translate to the quality and success of crowdsourcing as a process and tool. As with most processes or tools, the challenge is in the use or application of the tool – not the tool itself. The student projects determined that key factors for success include having active/engaged champions or leaders of the effort that the crowdsourcing is supporting, having a targeted community as a initial base group, focusing on simplifying the technology that the participants use, so as not to create barriers and incorporating rewarding feedback.

[ii] Adam White’s Lecture; Katrin Verclas’ Lecture