Crowdsourcing allows organisations to harness the collective resources of a large group of people through the Internet. The benefit of using this approach is that it provides access to a more highly skilled and/or lower cost workforce than other options. Businesses and governments in Australia and internationally are rapidly adopting this approach across diverse fields such as software development and public policy making.
Is your organisation making the most of the crowd’s potential? To be successful, you need to be clear about how you will engage the crowd. These decisions typically fall into four areas.
Are you after expertise in a particular area or low-cost labour to perform a commoditised task? Approaches to crowdsourcing will differ depending on this decision.
Expert knowledge: Many organisations fall into the trap of thinking they should do everything themselves, when in reality the greatest pool of expertise lies outside their organisation. Examples of crowdsourcing for expert knowledge include Kaggle for data science and Mindhive for public policy. Your organisation will need to frame the value of the task you want to solve in order to appeal to your target pool of experts.
Commoditised labour: Reduced labour costs are another reason for using crowdsourcing, if the task is simple and repetitive. For simple tasks such as data entry or running errands, platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit and the Australian Airtasker can be cost-effective. An interesting example of labour contributed at no cost in the Australian public sector has been the digitisation of newspapers collected in the National Library of Australia’s Trove database, which used volunteers to correct errors in the digitised versions of articles by comparing them with scanned images.
Fee for service: If the task is straightforward and well-defined, fee for service is likely the best approach. Most tasks of this nature will require some remuneration of those contributing their labour. Sites such as oDesk and the Australian-owned freelancer.com provide access to freelancers with a wide range of skills operating on a fee for service basis. In some cases where there is a public good being delivered (such as the Trove example mentioned above), it may be possible to get participants to contribute for free.
Competition: For more creative or complex tasks, a competition with cash prizes may be appropriate. For example, Innocentive is a platform for a wide range of research and development challenges and 99designs runs graphic design competitions. This approach has been used in the public sector in Australia to source apps through GovHack and the Digital Canberra Challenge. In the US, challenge.gov provides a whole-of-government platform for these kinds of competitions.
What are you asking the crowd to do? Complete tasks or provide their opinions?
Complete tasks: Crowdsourcing commonly requires individuals to complete tasks in exchange for remuneration. The examples above mostly relate to this model.
Provide opinions: Alternatively, you may wish to elicit the opinions of a wide range of people. In the public sector, community consultation is a common step in policy development and can be facilitated by online platforms such as Delib. Harnessing data from social media and search engines, such as through the Twitter API and Google Trends, can be another effective means of gaining insight into what the crowd is saying.
Who will be the customer of the services provided through crowdsourcing? Your organisation, or is your organisation a platform for other end users?
In most of the previous examples, the organisation is the customer: it has a particular problem and seeks solutions from the crowd. Your organisation has the choice to either host the crowdsourcing platform itself or use a third party platform.
In some cases your organisation may be better suited to facilitation of solutions for another set of end users. For example, Telstra set up the Crowdsupport platform, which allows users to help each other respond to technical support issues. This is an example of a question and answer model where users contribute for free in exchange for reputational benefits, a model also used by Stack Overflow and Quora. In the Australian public sector, the creation of open data platforms such as data.gov.au and their state-based equivalents allows individuals to use the data for the benefit of the general public. Peer-to-peer commercial arrangements are also increasingly common through sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb and Uber.
Clear decision across these four areas will place your organisation on track for success with crowdsourcing. There is no right or wrong answer to any of these, but you should be clear on what each of your decisions is and why before you proceed. The crowd will only ever give you part of the solution. Success will also depend on effective use of the outputs of crowdsourcing within your organisation.
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