Special Guest PostBy Angela Brennan

What does “crowdsourcing” really mean, what has it led to, and where is it going? Let’s start with Wikipedia’s (perhaps the ultimate crowdsource example) view:

Crowdsourcing has been defined as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers…. The general concept is to combine the efforts of crowds of volunteers or part-time workers, where each one could contribute a small portion, which adds into a relatively large or significant result. Crowdsourcing is different from an ordinary outsourcing since it is a task or problem that is outsourced to an undefined public rather than to a specific, named group.

Angela BrennanCheck history and you’ll find that the concept is not new, especially when one excludes the Internet. In fact, some very recognisable organisations used the concept to gather information and even solve problems for the greater good for decades. These were often disguised as competitions open to the public. One source, DesignCrowd, tracks the concept back to 1714!

Crowdsourcing today comes in various forms, has some clever names and has already succeeded in some major ways:

CROWDVOTING Think of this as gathering opinions on a certain topic, things as complicated as political views to simpler items such as which design the crowd likes best. Previously, the process was as tedious as calling into an X-Factor style show to vote for your favourite performer; now, it can be as simple as liking something on Facebook.

CROWDFUNDING In the movie “Despicable Me”, Gru and his Minions crowdfund their ultimate mission to become the greatest thief by stealing the moon. If the moon seems out of reach, here are more achievable tangents to this idea:

Jamie Drummond of one.org believes that the momentum of global public consensus

would make solving the world’s goals for developing nations as established by the United Nations more achievable.

Lucien Engelen is leading a project to crowdsource health

by asking the world’s universities (with the support of the citizens) to submit information as to where they could find the nearest AED (Automated External Defibrillators), a project he already completed in the Netherlands.

Paul Lewis uses crowdsourcing to gather news

and believes it can be an effective tool to solve crimes, gather eyewitness accounts and piece together stories with greater accuracy — which leads to …

CITIZEN JOURNALISM / COLLABORATIVE JOURNALISM Allowing other people through technology to be your eyes and ears, which (in essence) becomes a form of allowing the public to co-produce the news.

IMPLICIT CROWDSOURCING This engages users in an activity in order to gather information about another topic based on the user’s actions or responses; it uses human analysis in cases where computers fail to digitise books properly. According to its website, reCAPTCHA “helps to digitise books, newspapers and old time radio shows” … “reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitising books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA. This is possible because most OCR programs alert you when a word cannot be read correctly.”

Last February, Stephen Shapiro published his own list of the evolution of crowdsourcing. His post is definitely worth a look if you’d like an even wider array of how crowdsourcing has evolved.

Wikipedia was launched in January of 2001; as of this post, it has more than 19 million users. As you can see, the concept of crowdsourcing has expanded and evolved with many players now demonstrating what can be done via the uniting of minds and technology on the Internet. Of course, Wikipedia is a free service. But, are companies using crowdsourcing to make money? That’s the subject of my next post.

Angela Brennan (@AngelaLBrennan) has 10 years of experience in executive education, working for business schools in Europe and in the US. She has experience in executive education program design and delivery, business development and programme management. Recent interests include cooking, learning Portuguese and furious organising.