Crowdsourcing is not new, but startup CrowdFlower is taking the concept to large businesses with a systematic cloud-supported service designed to be faster and cheaper than hiring people to do massive e-commerce evaluations, fact-checks and related work.
CrowdFlower uses its own patented CrowdEngine technology and about 1.5 million workers worldwide who are given short tasks that are then collated and checked for accuracy. CrowdFlower then passes the results back to its customers.
CrowdFlower hopes to reach out to online retailers, marketers and a host of other businesses with the general availability of its service announced on Tuesday. So far, it has named EBay and Microsoft as early adopters.
EBay used the service to verify information provided for products posted on its Web site. By using CrowdFlower, EBay found it could cut costs by 70% over hiring its own workers -- and get results in a fifth the time, said Ryan Ferrier, vice president of product marketing at CrowdFlower.
"We're able to take the cloud computing model and apply it to outsourced work because we're able to tap into people who are already on computers," Ferrier said.
CrowdFlower finds the workers, whom it calls "contributors," through 50 third-party channel partners who often reach out to the workers through online surveys or social gaming and social networking sites. Contributors might be asked to do 10 minutes to two hours of Web-based research, for which they could be paid with extra cell phone minutes or bonus points in an online game.
For example, Embee Mobile works with CrowdFlower and offers free mobile minutes to crowdsource workers; Gambit offers virtual currency online, Ferrier said.
CrowdFlower takes the responses, often from thousands of people, and looks for 90% consistency in an answer, he said. In addition, CrowdFlower does its own assessment of accuracy before passing the information to its customers.
In the EBay example, Ferrier said contributors in one task were asked to find the Universal Product Codes online for specific products being posted on EBay. With that information tabulated and verified by CrowdFlower, EBay was able to attach a UPC to a product for sale.
In addition, CrowdFlower's crowdsource workers helped EBay put a product in the proper category on its Web site. For example, an iPhone 3G would go under the electronics or smartphone section, not the computer section, he said.
In addition to looking for 90% agreement on tasks from contributors, CrowdFlower also scores workers on their performance and gives more credence to answers from workers who have gotten 90% or above on previous tasks.
The reason CrowdFlower can offer its service cheaply is that it farms out "small bits of work" to many people with quality results, Ferrier said. Workers can be stay-at-home moms in the U.S. or workers in an African city who are accustomed to finding unusual ways to top off a cell phone with more minutes.
Jobs that CrowdFlower might handle include finding three sentences of Web content on a financial tool such as a 401k, so that a 401K provider can see what is offered already or what it might consider offering.
One unusual opportunity comes from branding companies who want to aggregate what a company's customers are saying in their tweets about the company. It is fairly easy to see how many tweets are related to a company with existing tools, Ferrier said, but the CrowdFlower workers could be asked to find out what people are "actually saying" in their tweets by reported comments or categorizing them into favorable or unfavorable tweets.
"It's called sentiment detection," Ferrier said.
Another work-intensive task might be to hire CrowdFlower and its workers to scour business listings in a phone directory or some other listing to see whether a business has moved or gone out of business. Workers could then add in new information, such as adding hours of operation or a restaurant's menu items.
CrowdFlower's estimated pool of 1.5 million workers provide a million results (called "judgments") per day, Ferrier said.
CrowdFlower has revenues of between $5 million and $10 million a year, and expects to be profitable next year. The business began in 2008 and employs 65 workers, Ferrier said.
Customers are charged per unit of information being sought, though Ferrier didn't offer more pricing details.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.