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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Crowdsourcing – Social Bane or Boon?

Crowdsourcing is a process of outsourcing tasks to groups of people. It differentiates itself from its better known cousin, Outsourcing by getting the task done through undefined segments of society rather than employees of an organization. To an IT professional, any form of sourcing is a business proposition and even in this context it would be naive to think otherwise. The sarcasm is partially right though Crowdsourcing is more famous hitherto for being instrumental in national uprisings. The only obvious technology shade, this process imbibes is from social media. That being said, there are start-ups and smaller technology companies which have leveraged Crowdsourcing as part of business model. Rather for some, it is core business model. So the potential of this social tool is not oblivious to the technology and business community but it’s critical to construe its potential impact and govern its amorphousness.

Professor Jeff Howe coined the term “Crowdsourcing” in 2006. So does that make it a recent phenomenon and an internet revolution?  Let us rise above this fallacy as there are number of notable examples of projects in the past that utilized distributed people to help accomplish tasks. Let me substantiate it through a classic incident that occurred in 1906. It pertains to a country fair at which attendees were invited to guess the weight of a large ox. Cajoled by a cash prize, about 800 people made guesses, though no one got it right. Subsequently, a statistician analyzed the written guesses and discovered something shocking: the average of all the guesses was a mere one pound away from the exact weight of the ox. Bottom-line? Sometimes a crowd can be smarter than any one of its members, even when they're not actually working together. Wikipedia was the first real crowd sourced internet project that gained success in the contemporary world.

Along with Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe has also indicated other categories of Crowdsourcing:  Crowdvoting, Crowdfunding etc. There are various forms to empower groups of people to perform a task, but one of the most salient and common attribute of this social tool is Transparency-An unbiased approach to influence an acceptable outcome. Ironically, this attribute also represents the thin line betwixt Crowdsourcing being a social bane or boon.

While Crowdsourcing resulted in conducive social uprisings like Arab Spring, it’s also been haplessly exploited to create ethnic mayhem like the recent incident of terrorizing citizens from the north east provinces of India. Transparency fosters an environment of faith and trust which unfortunately can be influenced either ways.  That raises a justified alarm on its credibility and impact. So is there a way to steer this volatility into a tractable state?  Technology can play a critical role as a conduit and a catalyst to govern Crowdsourcing. While technology is no virgin itself, marred with hackers and viruses, the solace is that it can be regulated, comparatively.

Companies like Quirky and Local Motors are industrial design companies, which uses Crowdsourcing to decide on products to design and manufacture, one of the best examples of how technology wrapped crowdsourcing can harness innovation. Taking this a notch up are some countries that have successfully married technology with crowdsourcing for an even wider impact. Singapore has launched a collaborative master plan dubbed eGov2015 which aims to connect government agencies to its citizens using a variety of social media and crowdsourcing platforms. The ultimate goal is for Singapore to end up with “a Collaborative Government that Co-creates and Connects with People.” 

While technology, as mentioned above can cater to a positive and regulated impact of Crowdsourcing, the challenges pertaining to Confidentiality, IPR etc remains at large. But those are subset opportunities up for the grab. Business breeds business. So in a nutshell, a social process like Crowdsourcing with technology padding can produce a disruptive but governed business model!