posted 25 Aug 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 10
Wisdom of the crowd
Ewan McIntosh brings the concept of crowdsourcing out of the box and bang up to date
Crowdsourcing is more often associated with the success of ‘amateurs’ co-creating the Wikipedia encyclopaedia than with the harnessing of business information to give an organisation a lead over its competitors. But in a few pertinent examples, it can provide huge advantages. Whether it’s asking your customers or users to help you make better products or services, or to solve a problem, the crowd nearly always trumps so-called ‘expertise’, large organisational structures, small focus groups and over-zealous project management.
Understanding how this has all worked in popular culture is the essential first step in working out how a chief information officer is going to harness its power for gaining more, better, timely information and ensuring the right people see it. The ingredients for crowdsourcing in an organisational information-driven manner are all in these pop culture examples.
Crowdsourcing out of the box
Crowdsourcing is sometimes (mistakenly) thought of as a purely online principle, but it might be best to kick off with one that was inspired by television.
Krotoski’s approach in ‘The Virtual Revolution’ was grounded in the principle of sharing and listening to what people had to say. During production she added to the time it took to shoot each element by tweeting and publishing video shorts, Flickr photos and blog posts. She elicited help from her ‘expert’ following to work out what questions and people she should be probing. The following excerpt is taken from her blog:
“From the start of the process in early 2009, The Virtual Revolution’s production team envisaged two audiences: the first would be an online community who would help to develop the themes we would explore, clarify hard-to-grasp technological concepts, tell us when we were heading in the right or wrong directions, and really put their stamp on the finished programmes.”
But even once shooting was over the collaboration with the programme’s future audience didn’t stop there. The BBC team then released its raw rushes, in HD, with which fans were encouraged to make trailers for the show by downloading, ripping, remixing and uploading their own versions.
From marketing to information management
This is special; a new breed of truly interactive television that has been in the making for at least a year, and started to appear at the turn of 2010. The practices here are at odds with what the traditional management school of thought would have us believe is at the core of solid information management, which is designed to gain a lead over our competitors.
Normally, in the world of digital product marketing, focus is where it’s at: find what you want to do first, execute it better than anyone else and then move on to take over other land. Amazon did books for sale at a cheaper price first, then personalised book recommendation followed by book recommendation for gifts to others and wish lists. Big Brother does, well, Big Brother.
What Aleks and her team produced is an emerging realisation that it’s never as clear cut online as it might be in the world of ‘product marketing’, where you’re shifting a finished good to a client or customer. The process is where the innovation is most likely to happen, the final product (for the masses) is where the mainstream element comes in. However, the mainstream element that Aleks and her team produced was different – because it was most definitely informed by the audience’s reactions on the blog and, beautifully, by their own mash-ups of the filmed content the BBC gave away.
There are similar juxtapositions in the world of music, where the fan is effectively an outsourced marketer, given the ability to share music or get hold of it at loss-leading prices.They can film at live events through mobile phones and cameras, just so that more of their friends and strangers who find their ‘illegal’ ‘pirated’ content might part with $70 for a live concert ticket.
If the CMO now relies on fans to talk and share, what about the CIO?
We’re even seeing fans creating the inspiration for the ‘professional’, taking crowdsourcing as a means to create new forms of improvisation. The Piano Improv on Chatroulette video at http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2010/03/piano-improv-with-chatroulette.htmlnot (not particularly safe for work) amazed millions. A guy with some talent and free time on his hands uses random strangers appearing on the social video site to inspire some improvisation on his piano. There was much online debate about whether the talented (amateur) guy with a piano and some time on his hands was either Ben from Ben Folds Five, or a good lookalike. Regardless, the result has been phenomenal for the real (professional) Ben Folds. He has has since responded to the user-generated inspiration and thus reinvented U2’s penchant for the ritual phone call to presidents and prime minsters: he now chatroulettes with random members of the public during his 2000-seater concerts (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfamTmY5REw) creating witty songs for them.
Likewise, authors have turned to ‘social writing’ as a means of having readers ‘proof’ and suggest improvements to a text before it is published ‘for good’ in a hard or paperback: Naked Conversations, Here Comes Everybody, What Would Google Do?, and Free are all examples that spring to mind. Far from plagiarism, we see the influence of the crowd helping form thought before the author commits. The author, on the other hand, is prepared to give up some of his intellectual property because the upside – a great and authentic editorial board – isn’t available to them unless they do.
Social problem solving
The social problem solving that crowdsourcing enables is not limited to the fun and frivolous. Last year thousands of web users worked together to analyse a YouTube video of someone abusing a pet cat (subsequently finding out who he was, which led to a prosecution). On a larger scale, hundreds helped to update the crowdsourced Open Street Map (OSM) at a pace so that rescuers in
There’s also a certain amount of excitement that comes on seeing how crowdsourcing, when automated, can create some incredibly rich experiences, such as those we see in the real-time, user-generated material that might appear on a Bing map sometime soon, whereby tourists’ geotagged photographs can be republished and positioned exactly in-map, giving us one place at several points in time.
The long-haul investment
There is a catch: crowdsourcing anything requires investing in the longer haul – investing in relationships and potential customers with no immediate, or even obvious means, of making back the time and energy you spend there. However, for those who take the risk there’s nearly always a return – one that can be demonstrated.
Crowdsourcing for CIOs or those wanting to test ideas might be thought of as the focus group par excellence. Its return on the investment is demonstrable, I believe, when combined with pretty traditional, if underused, business planning skills that we see working with startups. Take, for example, the “eliminate, reduce, enhance, create” framework made famous by the success story of [yellow tail] wines. You can read more from William Kimbrell’s summing up at: http://www.sixsigmaiq.com/article.cfm?externalid=429.
Crowdsourcing won’t work for every project we’re undertaking. Work out first of all where current methods seem to be leaving gaps. Hone in on those gaps and examine how information could be better gathered and disseminated, and then use four headings – ‘Eliminate’, ‘Enhance’, ‘Reduce’, ‘Create’ – to prioritise what types of information you need to enhance, what methods will be best for enticing people to share it and what current ways of working need to be put on a lower pedestal and which, frankly, are worth ditching completely.
Going through this paper exercise will provide you with some answers. It will demonstrate where you’re saving time and energy, and how many pounds or dollars are saved on focus groups, creating unsolicited and unsuccessful surveys and the distorted results they produce. And you can show the benefits of using a community-driven crowdsourcing approach over a scattergun-email-list-in-one-hand-telephone-in-the-other one.
The beauty of doing anything with your crowd, whether in-house staff or your customers, is that AB testing – the crowdsourced option at half the price and the traditional focus group approach – is possible. In the initial stages of your testing you can see the results using traditional versus crowdsourced mechanisms and tweak approaches as you go. Best of all, it’s very unlikely you’ll do enough damage to get fired. With this ammunition in hand, any CIO can prove the value of managing information in a new more distributed manner.
Top crowdsourcing techniques
Use a wiki (a webpage anyone can edit) to help draw up new policies. See how East Lothian Council did this to create their new acceptable use policies, incorporating social media use: http://edubuzz.pbworks.com/socialmediastaff;
Get your research staff to share their information with the rest of the web, through a social bookmarking site like delicious.com. Using good tags (descriptive metadata) means that other people sharing the same interests will be able to benefit from their expertise and will start to share back. It’s not crowdsourcing per se, but it’s the foundations for later soliciting help from this wider network of sharers; and
Start building online social network presences now. When you need the help of the crowd you need to have a crowd to ask. You need to invest time and energy with your colleagues and customers, perhaps sharing links as suggested above or writing regular blog posts about what you (and your customers/colleagues) are doing well or in an interesting way, before you can spring a ‘can you help me?’ on them. Twitter is the main one worth worrying about at the moment – get yourself and the whole information team on there, and use Twitterfeed to share anything you publish – delicious links, blog posts or reports – through those channels. But make sure you also engage in real ‘human’ discussion with the people you’re interested in reaching out to.
Ewan McIntosh is one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services. Having founded NoTosh Limited in 2009, he now invests in startups on behalf of public and private investors, consults on digital media potential in communications and civic participation, and develops digital media skills in the world of education. Ewan can be contacted at email@example.com
Box 1: Mikel Maron tracked progress as users updated Open Street Map, in a bid to help find survivors of the Haiti earthquake
“There have been at least 400 Open Street Map editing sessions in Haiti since the quake hit. Mostly tracing Yahoo imagery, and gleaning information from old CIA maps. We also just received permission to use GeoEye imagery acquired post-event … that will allow us to tag collapsed buildings. Many relief groups are deploying now, many checking in with the CrisisMappers list (the main locus of the wider humanitarian tech community), and they are making inquiries into OSM data and requests for particular features. Dozens of mappers and developers are lending a hand, coordinating on the OSM Haiti WikiProject and IRC and the OSM talk list … standing up services, including 5 minute extracts in Shapefile and Garmin formats, and maps with hill-shading. Just the start to relief and reconstruction effort we hope to contribute to. Two images to show how we’ve progressed … the first
Note: To view the website and images, go to www.brainoff.com/weblog/2010/01/14/1518