A Lesson on Crowdsourcing

Imagine you are faced with an enormous challenge. For example, let’s pretend you’ve been asked to write the world’s biggest encyclopedia. Or imagine you are tasked with finding the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Or perhaps you have to find a way to quickly reduce the costs of producing an important tuberculosis drug.

Such tasks would require a truly herculean effort, not to mention exorbitant funding. Impossible, right?…at least in any sort of reasonable timeline. Today, I’m going to argue that quick solutions to these sorts of tasks aren’t so far-fetched after all. It’s the same thing I tried to convince my 10th grade English class (10A) of a few weeks ago.

Enter: Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, especially tapping into an online community. Said differently, it’s taking a job historically completed by one person or a small group of people and outsourcing it to a large group of people.

The term was initially coined by Jeff Howe, a writer for Wired Magazine all the way back in 2006. Since that time, it’s been used as a solution to incredibly complex problems. I reviewed the definition of crowdsourcing with my class before watching this video:

Seemingly gargantuan tasks suddenly become manageable. That encyclopedia you had to write…why not rely on experts in the vast online community to do your work for you? That’s what made Wikipedia one of the largest information sources ever created. Or how about that plane you have to find…rather than scouring the ocean with a handful of ships and aircraft, why not release satellite images online, and let interested users virtually mark anything of interest?* Or finally, instead of working on that tuberculosis drug in a silo, why not solicit ideas, opinions, and advice from an online medical community?

I also shared the example of Waze–a traffic app that relies on real-time driver data supplied by users to alert others of traffic congestion, road construction, and even speed traps. Pretty cool stuff, right? 10A thought so too, as many of them immediately whipped out their phones to download the app. Silistra could benefit from Waze as it has more potholes and construction than just about anywhere I’ve ever been. Unfortunately, I think the only users in town are in my class, and they aren’t even old enough to drive yet!

I then pointed out that each of these examples of crowdsourcing dealt with collecting information. I challenged the class to think about what else could be gathered or collected using the crowdsourcing methodology. It didn’t take them long to come up with the answer I was looking for: money! At this point, I introduced the notion of crowdfunding, or the idea that large sums of money can be raised by collecting small amounts from many people. I introduced them to Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform that gives people the opportunity to fund projects in a variety of different fields: technology, photography, journalism, food, and music, just to name a few. My students are incredibly talented and full of ideas. I wanted to introduce them to a platform that could help bring those ideas to life in the future!

To introduce a philanthropic spin on the idea, I showed my students Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform that helps people achieve fundraising goals for a good cause. There isn’t a big volunteer/philanthropy culture here in Bulgaria, so I often encourage my students to think about how they can help others, but more on that later!

The key takeaway for my students: Big, complex problems have solutions! Sometimes you have to cast a wide net to achieve those solutions, but the internet, notably crowdsourcing platforms, has made this a reality. Furthermore, if you have an idea, but don’t have the means to make it happen, explore crowdsourcing as a potential way to bring your idea to life!

*While I’m fully aware that this effort did not result in finding the plane, I think it was an innovative use of crowdsourcing.