Recognize the distorted text to your left? That's a knock-off of CAPTCHA, the ingenious online system for verifying that you are a human user of a website and not some crawling bot. (The punny acronym is short for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.") Developed more than a dozen years ago at Carnegie Mellon University, CAPTCHA has been a reliable firewall between sensitive databases and virus-like programs designed to pry into them.
Four years ago the computer scientist Luis Von Ahn, who helped develop the original technology, extended the same insight to the problem of accurately digitizing print books for online distribution. Ahn's reCAPTCHA, now owned by Google, uses the CAPTCHA interface to break up digitizing projects into two-word chunks of old scanned texts. Users-an estimated 10 percent of the world's population-are unknowingly helping to digitize around 100 million words a day, the equivalent of about 2.5 million books a year.
Ahn's latest crowdsourcing project allows people to learn a foreign language while simultaneously translating huge chunks of the Internet. Duolingo, launched in late 2011, teaches six languages (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese) by giving students short translations to complete based on their current language level. Every time one of these translations is completed successfully, a small part of the Web (say, Buzzfeed's English-language site) gets translated into the language in question.
In a TED talk, Ahn explained his approach to crowdsourcing with an historical analogy.
"If you look at humanity's large-scale achievements, these really big things that humanity has gotten together and done historically-like, for example, building the pyramids of Egypt or the Panama Canal or putting a man on the moon-there is a curious fact about them, and it is that they were all done with about the same number of people," he says. "It's weird; they were all done with about 100,000 people. And the reason for that is because, before the Internet, coordinating more than 100,000 people, let alone paying them, was essentially impossible. But now with the Internet, I've just shown you a project where we've gotten 750 million people to help us digitize human knowledge. So the question that motivates my research is, if we can put a man on the moon with 100,000, what can we do with 100 million?"
It doesn't get much bigger than digitizing human knowledge. Think of it. Technology and a clever business model allowing for the kind of large-scale coordination heretofore impossible in the annals of human history-without force, and much of it for free.
reCAPTCHA and Duolingo both represent a distinctly 21st-century form of distributed problem solving. These Internet-enabled approaches tend to be faster, far less expensive, and far more resilient than the heavyweight industrial-age methods of solving big social problems that we've grown accustomed to over the past century. They typically involve highly diverse resources-volunteer time, crowdfunding, the capabilities of multinational corporations, entrepreneurial capital, philanthropic funding-aligned around common objectives such as reducing congestion, providing safe drinking water, or promoting healthy living. Crowdsourcing offers not just a better way of doing things, but a radical challenge to the bureaucratic status quo.
Here are several ways public, private, and nonprofit organizations can use lightweight, distributed approaches to solve societal problems faster and cheaper than the existing sclerotic models.
Chunk the Problem
The genius of reCAPTCHA and Duolingo is that they divide labor into small increments, performed for free, often by people who are unaware of the project they're helping to complete. This strategy has wide public-policy applications, even in dealing with potholes.
In Boston, the city collects data on the driving habits of residents. Specifically, citizens volunteer to passively survey road conditions by opening an app called "Street Bump" during their daily commute. The resulting GPS data, combined with gyroscope readings, identifies potholes in time for intervention.
Boston's pothole problem might previously have required a small army of inspectors, managers, and relayed complaint calls. Now a citizen doesn't even have to report a problem herself. The local government can thus cheaply perform work that would otherwise rack up payroll. City officials Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacobs, the innovators who created Boston's Citizens Connect in 2009, call their approach microvolunteerism: empowering citizens to make small commitments to the public good, with a huge aggregate impact.
Microvolunteerism has proved effective the world over. The Kenyan slum of Kiberia needed maps. These would help citizens locate water sources and help officials plan future improvements. To map the slum, volunteers carried GPS units through Kiberia and marked landmarks such as water pumps and bathrooms.
Meanwhile, Finland's DigitalKoot project enlisted volunteers to digitize their own libraries by playing a computer game that challenged them to transcribe scans of antique manuscripts.
Governments can set up a microtasking platform, not just for citizen engagement but as a way to harness the knowledge and skills of public employees across multiple departments and agencies. If microtasking can work to connect people outside the "four walls" of an organization, think of its potential as a platform to connect people and conduct work inside an organization-even an organization as bureaucratic as government.