Crowdsourcing into the future – a report on Crowdopolis LA

Our friend, Catherine Shinners of the Merced Group recently posted a comprehensive review of the conference, Crowdopolis, that we want to share here given the context: crowdsourcing.  

Before that though – an AppFusions comment:

While bringing enterprise collaboration systems together via integrations is Appfusions’ “thing” – we obviously can only do that well by also possessing a solid belief and passion in the notion of crowdsourcing to bring together the people.

The platforms do this, the integrations do this, we do this (internally), and of course we also do this with our partners and customers in our business approaches.

Crowdsourcing collaboration is no longer just a good idea – it is a mandatory idea in today’s competitive market to deliver innovation – whatever kind, with fast, smart, and solid agile iterative ways.

That said, following is a great and thorough recap from Catherine on this theme:

The Daily Crowdsource hosted a conference at USC’s Davidson Center on Thursday, July 19. Crowdopolis, a fast-paced, day-long event, showcased crowdsourcing as a growing force in changing the structure of work. new business model development, high impact relationship building with customers, widening and accelerating innovation opportunities, and streamlining business processes (middle managers, start re-thinking your careers).

Using the Crowd to Innovate with Efficiency

Crowdsourcing is often associated with widely-cast ideation used as a way to innovate or solve problems, and as kick-off keynote speaker, innovation consultant and author Stephen Shapiro noted, simply asking for ideas can be a bad idea.

Many crowdsourcing initiatives become ‘glorified suggestions boxes,’ according to Shapiro, and he cautioned, especially for enterprise efforts, to ask a crowd for a solution also means having executive ownership, and organizational home for evaluators, transparent evaluation criteria and the resources to implement winning solutions.

Crowdsourcing in this context is about innovating efficiently, not just about casting a wide net, and so it’s vitally important to be thoughtful about posing the question or the problem to solve.  A key value of crowdsourcing can be to tap into varied sources of expertise and knowledge outside of a domain — Sharpiro used the example of a decades-long issue posed by submerged oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

The problem of how to safely extract oil from icy Alaskan waters without the oil freezing had vexed hundreds of oil experts, but a chemist from the construction industry with expertise in cement had the answer.

Crowdsourcing – Building on Expert Community Strength

Crowdsourcing within a domain also has its value, and several companies utilize the approach within an expert community as a key enabler to their service delivery models.

Topcoder is a software product development company that brings the expertise of over 400,000 developers from around the world to deliver services along the spectrum of the software development lifecyle.  Indeed, Topcoder has atomized the work processes in that cycle such that it enables them to draw out hyperspecialists from their community.

New projects are sourced out to their community via contests – Topcoder has developed more than 30 specialist contest types and their developers compete by delivering a completed project.   Using this model, Topcoder then chooses the highest quality product and the coder is renumerated.   The second ranking coder does receive some renumeration, and the third receives points towards a monthly ranking and recognition program.

According to Mike Moore, SVP at Topcoder, the best quality product is obtained for the project, while the contests drives skills improvement of others in the community and reduces the ‘single-points-of-failure’ issue in projects – when three people do each task, there’s a better chance of rapid completion of product.   Topcoder’s clients include Google, Comcast (for whom they built the set-top box technology for iPad and Android devices) and the U.S. Government, including DARPA and Medicaire (this project was for real-time fraud detection).

uTest, according to CMO Matt Johnston, is the largest marketplace for software testing services with over 60,000 testers in their community from 190 countries.   These testers provide testing for functional, load, security, usability and other tests and have worked with startups, enterprises and NGOs.  uTest uses their crowd to deliver work product to projects requiring specialized skill sets and lets them scale their capacity to meet variable demand.

Both Moore of Topcoder and Johnston of uTest spoke of the importance of community to their businesses.  Each company manages an extensive community of expert members and provide them access to community resources, validates and affirms their skills and contributions through well-structured recognition programs, and draws in the community to contribute skilled training and learning programs.   The communities seems to function as guilds of experts, with work made available to the community through crowdsourcing.

It’s not all about software development and testing.   GeniusRocket provides video advertising services from its community of 600+ professionals who have been vetted for experience and quality work.  GuideRocket moved away from a contest model, according to CEO, Peter LaMotte, and now uses a process of curated crowdsourcing that protects clients strategies and messages.   Smartling provides crowdsourced language translation services for websites and mobile apps.

Crowdsourcing for Innovation

Several companies used crowdsourcing in ways that supports co-creation of business and innovation, enhances brand standing, and leads to new business investment and business models.

Stephen Pajieg, Senior Director of Corporate Growth and Innovation for Kimberly-Clark discussed a new initiative that was targeted as a complementary source of innovaton for the Huggies brand.  Looking at a target market of six millions entrepreneurial moms in the U.S., Kimberly-Clark created an online innovation program, Huggies MomInspired,  that makes cash grants of $15,000. to innovators to use as they see fit to advance their businesses or new business ideas.

Now in its third year in the U.S. market, the program also provides aspiring entrepreneurs with basic business information for the small business owner.   Winning grantees are also able to be mentored by Kimberly-Clark employees and can join a community to share experiences and get support from other entrepreneurs.  The company’s profile with their customers is enhanced as less than 3% of financial investments are made to the more than 10 million women own businesses in the U.S., according to Pajieg.

GE’s Healthymagination challenge crowdsourced ideas for innovation in breast cancer treatment, and awarded $100,000 to each of five breakthrough ideas.  Lisa Kennedy, CMO of the program spoke of the impact crowdsourcing can have on disease solutions, citing the protein structuring game    Gamers were able, in ten days, to decipher the structure of a protein called retroviral protease, an enzyme that is key to the way HIV multiplies.  Kennedy pointed out that new crowdfunding models and approaches to health and science innovations are emerging such as Medstartr and Petridish.

Kristin Kuehl is the head of community innovation for Nokia’s IdeasProject – an idea crowdsourcing effort that was initially internal to Nokia, but has moved to include consumers as well.  Not surprisingly their consumers like mobile applications, Keuhl said, with the project also helping Nokia developers get closer to the consumer — staff help refine ideas and bring consumers together at hackathons.   The IdeasProject, launched at SXSW in 2011, provides a platform for ideas and also organizes challenge areas.

Crowdsourcing and Microwork

Both Amazon Mechanical Turk and the Finnish start-up Microtask use a process of parsing out mini-pieces of work to a distributed work force.   Mechanical Turk (MTurk) functions as marketplace/broker between entities that need the service and individuals who sign up as workers to complete what Amazon calls Human Intelligence Tasks (HITS).

With over 500 million products in their catalogue, Amazon also employes Mechanical Turk themselves to rationalize and cleanse their product database, according to Sharon Chiarella, Vice President, Amazon.  Human micro tasks or HITS could include simple tasks like verifying content, identifying objects in photos or decoding catpchas.

Finland-based Microtask focus is on human powered document processing.  CEO Ville Miettinen described their company as bringing human level intelligence to the cloud.  Microtask conducted a joint project with the National Library of Finland to index the library’s archives in order to better enable web search of those resources.  Old newspapers, for instance, were originally printed in an old-fashioned typefont that makes it hard to determine a word’s precise spelling, even when scanned by OCRs.  To help decipher and validate the library’s archives, Microtask created an online game, Digitalkoot and with a voluntary workforce that engaged in the game, completed 5.2 million microtasks in the first 9 months of the project.

In microwork environments, accuracy is verified by task replication — the same task is sent to more than one individual: if there is a difference in the results, the task is then sent to more people to process.

Crowdsourcing, AI and Middle Management

Where is crowdsourcing going?  Crowdcomputing Systems brings AI and crowdsourcing into a business process platform.  In thinking about where this could lead, CEO Max Yankelevich invited his audience to consider the nature of cloud computing in 2006 — largely then a repository for photos, websites — hosting content — but by 2010 the industry was delivering very complex workloads in the cloud.

Crowdsourcing today is often in the realm of simple microtasks, he said, tagging photos, categorizing items.  Yankelevich sees business processes and operations like finance, accounting and marketing as targets.   Crowdcomputing Systems grew out of AI and crowdsourcing projects done at MIT labs, and he left the audience with a provocative thought —

You can never take advantage of cognititive surplus if you have humans in the middle management layer !

Crowdsourcing – Refactoring Work

David Alan Grier, Associate Professor of International Science and Technology Policy and International Affairs at George Washington University, and author of When Computers Were Human, brought the conference crowd some historical perspective on crowdsourcing and technological change.   Crowdsourcing is a means of combining expertise, experience and skill judgement — qualities that produce valued results.

The sessions at the conference highlighted various crowdsourcing forms – innovation, contests and microtasking.   Crowdsourcing extends traditional information processing, stated Grier, by adding judgment to the mix.

Grier suggested some historical examples of types of means of production or coordination of work that earlier had harkened to crowdsourcing.  He noted the case of Reine LaPaute, a French astronomer, who collaborated with two other colleagues to divide the computational workload to determine the next passing of Halley’s Comet in 1757.   William Henry Leffingwell, an early proponent of scientific methods in business practice, wrote about “suggestion systems” in the early part of the 20th century.

As Charles Handy noted in 1989, the expensive part of work processes is in the knowledge of management, and work processes in this highly networked, digital age is undergoing what Grier calls “refactoring.”  Crowdsourcing refactors controls in work, organizational and business processes making them more efficient and flexible.


David Bratvold and the DailyCrowdsource team  put on an interesting and dynamic conference and a great party at the top of the London Hotel in West Hollywood, complete with magnificent sunset.


What do you think? Please share...