Harnessing the power of crowdsourcing

Written by Uma Ganesh | Updated: Feb 3 2014, 07:08am hrs
The term crowdsourcing has caught the imagination of all netizens around the world over the last few years. The concept of crowdsourcing itself is not new, what is exciting is its potential to deliver scalable, real time and global impact due to the confluence with digital technologies. The examples of running competitions to tap into great ideas and TV shows like American Idols connecting with audiences real time for better engagement and involvement leading upto social media such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Picasa heralding a new era of sharing feedbacks, emotions, thoughts and ideas on every subject under the sun are all pointers to the evolving models of crowdsourcing.

We have also experienced in recent times the use of social media in the western world like the election campaign of Barrack Obama in the US, the Arab Spring in the world closer to us and the little known political party in its nascent stage in India catapulting to centre stage by rallying people around some of the key issues haunting them for decades. Thus we have begun to see a new era where digital technology is no longer viewed as just enabling a platform for accessing content of ones choice but by virtue of various stakeholders coming together on the same platform is seen as enabling dialogue, innovation and solutions through crowdsourcinghitherto inconceivablebut now leading to outcomes, many of which have potential to make a transformational impact.

The principle behind crowdsourcing is to invite people to share their ideas and thoughts and participate in co creation of products and services or find solutions to problems. Sometimes this is done free of cost depending upon the nature of task to be performed and their perceived significance and at times this is done for a monetary consideration. It is possible to evaluate options transparentlybe they for funding, designing or for tapping into knowledge or wisdom of people on a given subject. The challenge is not just in inviting attention to the projects requiring crowd participation, it is more to do with ensuring that quality minds get attracted and are willing to spend time.

There are several successful examples of crowdsourcing such as Amazon Mechnical Turk, Utest, Innocentive that have been able to deliver services to their end customers on the strength of their ability to tap into the right resources. There have been also good cases of fund raising for business, charity and creative projects. How do we extend the power of crowdsourcing to projects aimed at finding solutions for the common good of the society and for problems faced by the disadvantaged sections of the society such that it becomes an enabler for making inclusive India a reality

In the context of inclusive growth and development, the ambit of coverage could be in any of the dimensionsagriculture, healthcare, entrepreneurship, education and livelihood, womens livelihood, to name a few. While there are several government and NGO initiatives in each of these segments, crowd sourcing could be beneficial if the people connected with the specific location or section of the society and who care about the local issues could be tapped for ideas or for funds. Activism and advocacy can be vigorously pursued on the digital platform, the real benefit of these efforts would be realised when there is a targeted transformation that is planned alongside activism.

Sunlight Foundation was created in the US to watch closely the proceedings at the Congress to find out how it could make its activities more transparent to all its stakeholders. It decided to invited experts from various people connected with the political processes and came up with apps for America and Twitter based engagement processes leading to a set of recommendations which have been well received.

The NES Turnright portal for instance brings together the CEOs and other senior corporate professionals who are willing to spare their time to mentor students from rural and semi-urban locations who are keen to get valuable advice and answers for their questions on career choices and options for higher education. Students and mentors reside in different parts of the world but through the virtual world, students are able to connect and communicate with mentors and receive precise advice from those who are best qualified and are willing to be of help.

Project Noah, an initiative supported by National Geographic, is another interesting example of encouraging citizens to gather ecological data using their smart phones thus helping in building valuable database about biodiversity and creating awareness about preservation of wildlife. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones in rural India, farmers are being encouraged to share data and evidences so that real time and meaningful support to farmers is possible to be provided in areas such as pest control and crop management.

Inspired by open source in technology in areas such as web and Linux and in biotechnology in human genome sequencing which would not have attained the magnitude of success and scale that has resulted without the collaborative efforts from people around the world, in India CSIR has launched an innovative platformOpen Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)for drug discovery aimed at affordable healthcare solutions for the developing world by collaboratively aggregating available biological and genetic information. Close to 8,000 members from 130 countries have come forward to be part of this initiative in less than five years of commencement of this project which highlights the recognition of innovation for common good being fuelled by bright minds.

Thus crowdsourcing is undoubtedly becoming an effective new age tool to garner the support of people from various walks of life for finding cost effective and innovative solutions for bringing about social transformation. Nevertheless, one should be cognizant of the challenges involved in making it work. Why would the intended participants be interested in being part of the project in the first place needs to be thought through carefully. After the initial euphoria, they may become passive or disinterested and hence the benefits that could accrue to them with regular and continuous engagement needs to be highlighted and reminded from time to time. Investing adequate time that is required to service the stakeholders and the customers well would be critical to keep the momentum going.

Another question which requires consideration is how to manage the communication process. In order to achieve time bound outcomes, communication needs to be structured to some extent and the right tools would be necessary.

With well defined goals and processes for continuous engagement, crowdsourcing could be a great tool for true democratisation in decision making, prioritisation of citizens charter and creating transparency in governance and thus act as a conduit for making inclusive India a reality. It is a tool that undoubtedly has immense potential for social transformation. It would be worthwhile to watch how the combination of advancement of tools and increasing awareness quotient of people would be able to fuel its impact further.

The writer is CEO, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company