Crowdsourcing Social Problems

Using distributed technology to tackle society's most intractable challenges.

engineroomblog / Foter.com / CC BY-SAengineroomblog / Foter.com / CC BY-SARecognize 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.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I heard the people who built the pyramids just thought they were doing weight training.

  • Warrren||

    Turns out it was some sort of scam.

  • Miley||

    my best friend's half-sister got paid $13253 a week ago. she is making money on the computer and moved in a $315200 house. All she did was get blessed and apply the information explained on this web page

    WWW.JUMP26.COM

  • Sam Grove||

    "This shows special promise in medicine, where drug research skews toward the ailments of the wealthy."

    I suspect drug research actually skews more to ailments of the many.
    More fortunes have been made by serving the middle class than by serving the wealthy.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Indeed, if the interests of the wealthy drove drug research then we would already have a cure for the king of disease and disease of kings.

  • Whahappan?||

    Welcome back, I haven't seen you in these parts for a while.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    So the Reason commentariat is actually just crowd-sourcing sarcasm?

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Brilliant observation, EDG.

  • Warrren||

    Yeah, brilliant.

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    My mom knitted me a new hat for Christmas (literally).

    Pretty cunning, don'tcha think?

  • Archduke von Pantsfan||

    A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    Damn straight!

  • Agammamon||

    Fucking Firelfy - if she wanted to be cool with the pop culture she should have knitted you a cool toque like these guys.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086373/

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    But, they are Canadians...

    The only thing cool about Canada is the Temperature (in Celsius no less).

  • Archduke von Pantsfan||

    -1 poutine

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    I jest, of course. Have only ever met 1 Canuck I didn't like. A piss drunk Canadian Tutor pilot at the Auger Inn at Randolph AFB.

    Other than him, you're alright.

  • ||

    I'm starting to get the feeling I'm not welcomed here anymore.

    /bites into chunk of ice.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    Got any mayo for that ice?

  • BlueBook||

    Gimpier Clive is Tiny Tim's more wretchedly crippled cousin.

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    They're both working in one of my diamond mines.

  • Warrren||

    You have more than one? You Greedo McGreedster!

  • Francisco d Anconia||

    Sure, why, you only have one?

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    It is an uncomfortably warm 84 today.

  • Acosmist||

    Yikes!

    It was up in the high 60's a couple days ago. Miserably hot. I had to open the window and run the fan full blast for a good half hour to cool it down inside.

  • Archduke von Pantsfan||

  • ||

    Typical for pro photographers. I did it for a while. Imagine spending an entire day setting up a shoot for....cheese.

  • ||

    That was funny.

    "No, no, no...maybe"

    Like he knew. Classic.

  • DWC||

    I'm not up on the current language thingy. What the hell is crowdsourcing? I know I could use the google and the google it, but I want you to tell me.

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Basically you ask strangers online to collaborate on a project, such as contributing ideas, services, or money.

  • DWC||

    Ok, thanks. Like that thing (forgot the name) where people get their various projects financed by small donations by a bunch of people, right? God,why can't I think of the name. Alzheimers.

  • Terr||

    You're thinking of crowdsourcing.

  • Whahappan?||

    Kickstarter

  • Warrren||

    Beautifully done.

  • JeremyR||

    It means tricking other people into doing work for free (usually for giant corporations)

  • The Rt. Hon. Serious Man, Visc||

    Merry Christmas from Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss: Sherlock Lives!

  • Aloysious||

    Why does it have to be two years between seasons/ Why, God, why? Whywhywhywhywhywhywhywhywhywhywhyhwhy?

  • C. Anacreon||

    Did anyone else get screwed by UPS? They decided that they had "too much business" and can't deliver many of their packages that were due on 12-23 until at least 12-26. The story of their "apology" today on the CNN website already has 3300 comments, on Xmas no less.

    I was business traveling until the 18th so had to do some last-minute online shopping, as did my wife. But we were done shopping by 12-19, and paid for "two-day shipping" on everything -- so even accounting for the weekend, everything should have arrived no later than the 23rd. But nothing yet. It was a pretty sparse area under the Xmas tree.

    Amazingly, the vast majority of comments at CNN (I'd link but the site is crashing from so much activity) are about how Americans are assholes to complain about these "first-world" problems. Think about those poor hard-working UPS drivers, don't they deserve a break? (Somehow FedEx managed to deliver everything on time, so it's unclear why UPS couldn't.)

    I posted that if UPS didn't think they could handle the delivery load -- and clearly they had to know all weekend what was coming -- they shouldn't have accepted the business or promised delivery times. I also pointed out how in most jobs/businesses, you are expected to fulfill your obligations, and you can't just say to your boss or customer, "It'll be a few days late, and no, I'm not going to work harder to be on time. Get over your first world problems, asshole!"

    In response, a lot of "sucks to be you, dude" comments.

  • SIV||

    ^First World Problems^

  • ||

    Surely you have travelled out of the country. I have not been to Canada, of all places, but nearly everywhere outside the US they have a pretty fucked up, lazy, worthless attitude and the work ethic of a tree sloth.
    They also hate our guts with a white hot passion because we have more than they do, cuz....we are greedy.

  • ||

    Going on 20 years as an expat. Not sure who this imaginary 'they' are who supposedly despise you so much.

  • ||

    I dont despise them, they just dont have a good work ethic, in general.

    In most of the places I have been they have the work ethic of pre-industrial cultures. They dont have the same idea about time that we do. Built a soccer field for the workers in a mine in latin america. Of course the workers actually did it, taking over a week to do so. Then they demanded three weeks off to have tournaments, right before easter, when they wanted three more weeks off to circle-dance and drink.

    When they worked, they worked well, but they had no idea about time or why a mine cant be shut down for 7 weeks so they have time to fuck around.

    I walked into a Burger King in Newcastle-on-Tyne to try and get some food that tasted something like home ( which it did not ) and had to wait 10 minutes so that the one single person staffing the place could finish sweeping the floor and then have a smoke break. It then took her 15 minutes to fix a burger.

    I could tell a bazillion stories like that about a zillion places.

    Now you are going to say that some of those stories could be told about people in the US, and you will be right. The difference is that here people are at least aware of what a good work ethic is, even if they dont have it. In most places if you explain about showing up on time and working hard they look at you like you are a space alien.

  • ||

    I could tell a bazillion stories like that about a zillion places.

    Well you've obviously got way more experience than I do.

  • ||

    Canada has a good work ethic (less so in Quebec) but still not as productive as America. Americans are an anomaly when it comes to production. Beasts, really.

    I think America's influence on our economy does force our hand a little but when it comes to customer service, we lag big time. It's not even funny.

    As for how other countries view Americans, it's been my experience Europeans feel we're not "refined" and don't know how to enjoy the finer things. Hence, don't 'live to work' mentality.

    Though they make some good points, it gets to be grating after a while.

  • mtrueman||

    "Canada has a good work ethic..."

    I got to thinking about the flip side of a work ethic, and it must be a consumption ethic. While Canadians lag behind Americans in work ethic, Canadian docility means that they surpass Americans in having a good consumption ethic.

  • Kid Xenocles||

    If Burger King tastes like home for you I don't understand why you'd come back.

  • Whahappan?||

    That's funny, cause I'm from New Jersey, and we're very time conscious here. I never thought I was that way, cause I'm from central suburban Jersey not north Jersey, but on my way to Maryland one time back around 1990 we stopped at a diner in Delaware. It took an hour to get a simple meal and all of us were climbing the walls because we were on the road and just wanted to get going, but apparently that was an alien concept there, even though we were only two and a half hours from home.

  • mtrueman||

    "The difference is that here people are at least aware of what a good work ethic is"

    Another difference is that there customers know that in a shitty restaurant like Burger King, the food is shitty and the service is shitty.

  • Agammamon||

    Hmm, FedEx isn't unionized, UPS *is*. I wonder if that has something to do with the difference.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    I don't think that's it. UPS and it's holiday shipping made the cover of last week's BusinessWeek. They handle something like twice as many packages as FedEx does but has something like a third of the planes. They don't have that much excess air capacity.

    UPS is pretty good most of the time and I like to use them but in a crunch, they seem to fall apart and go "oh well, too bad". FedEx to my eyes still follows their "if it absolutely positively has to be there overnight" motto.

  • Tejicano||

    If you pay for time definite service with FedEx you get your money back if they don't make that deadline. They are highly motivated to run that business like they mean it.

  • Sevo||

    "If you pay for time definite service with FedEx you get your money back if they don't make that deadline. They are highly motivated to run that business like they mean it."

    UPS offers the same, although they might have cut that offer over the holidays.
    The holidays to the shipping companies are like Mother's Day to restaurants; can you staff up enough to cover the load?

  • Tejicano||

    It wouldn't surprise me if UPS is just as lackadaisical about paying up on that refund.

    UPS once lost a package they were supposed to deliver and every time I called them to file a claim it was Groundhog Day - it was as if I had never called before. Ask for a manager and I assume they just handed it to a co-worker. I never got any traction over the phone.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Here's the article:

    http://www.businessweek.com/ar.....r-dot-peak

    A couple of things stood out to me. The peak shipping and contingency teams don't talk to each other and don't even share the same floor (better than when they were in different buildings). The guy in charge doesn't seem to like their holiday volume and the driver, online shopping. Not a eat his own dog food kind of person.

  • ||

    I don't get people like that. The purpose of UPS is to DELIVER packages on TIME. It's not MY fucking problem they can't get the job done. No fricking sense of excellence and duty anymore.

    Of course they'd take that position C., they're so used to sub-oar public mail service anyway!

    But you can bet your ass they're gonna charge for being late, right?

    Anyway, I try to inquire the company I deal with doesn't use UPS - the fuckers charge when they come to my door. I haven't experienced that with anyone else including FedEx.

    Anyone else notice this?

  • C. Anacreon||

    I don't get people like that. The purpose of UPS is to DELIVER packages on TIME. It's not MY fucking problem they can't get the job done.

    Exactly, Rufus J. I masochistically checked back at the CNN comments. Now they are dominanted by smug fucknuts who say "anyone who procrastinated on their Xmas presents, it's their own fault." Followed by the self-important "I had all my shopping done in November, no problem here."

    One even said "the people on here complaining about UPS should go volunteer at the Salvation Army instead of worrying about their material things."

    Jeez, I don't know how that even went in that direction. UPS and their retailers advertised things would be delivered on time before Xmas. They utterly failed. It's not the fault of procrastinators, and whether people should even be buying gifts have nothing to do with it. You made a guarantee, you accepted perhaps a billion dollars for your promise, and you did not deliver.

    Some people said on the site that they could never get away with such a performance with their small business. PC jerks replied with "oh, I'm sure you're perfect, asshole (eyes rolling)"

    I'm now adding CNN to YouTube, Gawker, Huffpo and several other sites to comment sections to avoid without access to brain bleach.

  • Warrren||

    Obviously those people had junk shipping plans.

  • ||

    What we need is single-payer shipping.

  • Kid Xenocles||

    If you like your Amazon Prime, you can keep it.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    America needs single shipper like they have in Uzbekistan.

  • ||

    Those are the types of folks I've learned to simply stay away from.

    "They utterly failed. It's not the fault of procrastinators, and whether people should even be buying gifts have nothing to do with it. You made a guarantee, you accepted perhaps a billion dollars for your promise, and you did not deliver."

    I agree. Those people turning on the consumer are assholes and missing the point.

    They're confusing all sorts of things. It has NOTHING to do with materialism and everything to do with expecting a transaction to be fulfilled.

  • RishJoMo||

    Sounds like some very serious business to me dude.

    www.BeinAnon.tk

  • Flemur||

    Users-an estimated 10 percent of the world's population-are unknowingly helping to digitize around 100 million words a day,

    Regarding captcha, I doubt if that's true because the letters corresponding to the pictures have to be known in advance or else there's no right or wrong answers.

    It reminds me of Reason's bogus claim a while back that one could gain some email privacy by using hard-to-OCR text, as if the were NSA printing out and then scanning intercepted emails...

  • ||

    Often those CAPTCHA things involve two words. One is known by the system, the other is isn't and you're crowdsourcing the answer. If you answer the first word correctly, there's a high probability that you did the same on the second one. If several people agree on that one, congratulations, you've just help digitize some text.

  • ||

    Now that Google owns them, they've thrown in images of street numbers on houses.

  • ||

    I'm moderately familiar with reCAPTCHA's system, and what MS said is correct. There is one known word, and one unknown word. Once enough people agree on the transcription of the unknown word, it can be cycled into the system as a known one.

  • Miley||

    my best friend's half-sister got paid $13253 a week ago. she is making money on the computer and moved in a $315200 house. All she did was get blessed and apply the information explained on this web page

    WWW.JUMP26.COM

  • Miley||

    my best friend's half-sister got paid $13253 a week ago. she is making money on the computer and moved in a $315200 house. All she did was get blessed and apply the information explained on this web page

    WWW.JUMP26.COM

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