Why the mob rules

Why the most valuable technology products do crowdsourcing

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Some of the coolest innovations in crowdsourcing tend to be invisible to the user. For example, Google owns a service called reCAPTCHA, which it acquired four years ago. You probably use reCAPTCHA all the time. Its primary purpose is to prove you're human. reCAPTCHA shows you two words with distorted lettering that make it hard for computers to recognize but relatively easy for humans to do so.

Here's the magic part: One of those words presented to you is a word scanned by Google from a library book or from the archives of The New York Times. Questionable scanned words are inserted into the reCAPTCHA rotation, and large numbers of users are shown the same word. When enough users type in the same word, that word is accepted as the correct one for the digital copy that will be stored and indexed for all time.

Google is using the amazing pattern recognition capabilities of millions of distributed human brains to perfect its optical character recognition software.

Other astonishing applications of the crowdsourcing idea can be found in CrowdMed, Deliv, Nike+ Places, Metwit, RideShip, Root Metrics, Quora and Weathermob.

The trouble with crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has been getting some bad press lately, and for bad reasons.

For example, Google built a site called Google Flu Trends, which ideally can track and even predict the spread of flu across the world. In the past, Flu Trends has been accurate. But during the most recent flu season, Flu Trends "wildly overestimated" the outbreak.

Flu Trends crowdsources search queries for information about flu and thereby is supposed to indicate actual flu.

The problem with this assumption is that it doesn't measure actual flu at all -- it measures public anxiety about flu, which is subject to media manipulation. People go rushing to the search engines to find out about flu symptoms when the news is hyped about a coming outbreak.

Another supposed failure is the crowdsourcing on the social network Reddit of the manhunt for the Boston Bomber terrorist suspects. While actual events were unfolding, many on Reddit falsely identified a young man as a suspect. The man had been missing before the Boston bombing and was later found dead.

In general, crowdsourcing that tracks actual behavior is more useful and accurate than crowdsourcing that tracks opinions and attitudes.

Crowdsourcing is great for surfacing options to choose from (as I did with my crowdsourcing for this article). It's great for brainstorming and getting ideas. And it's great for gathering large numbers of data points and applying algorithms to that data.

Crowdsourcing isn't so great when you assume a weak correlation between measured attitudes and something else. It's important to remember that all you're really crowdsourcing is the attitudes, which can be manipulated, either by the media or by the crowd itself.

In other words, there's nothing wrong with crowdsourcing as an idea. In fact, it's one of the most powerful and useful and even life-saving concepts in technology today.

As we enter the era of Big Data, we'll increasingly benefit from data harvested from the actions or input from big crowds. These benefits will range from finding cures for diseases to finding your lost TV remote.

Let's hope the crowdsourcing space gets even more crowded.

Correction: This article has been changed to remove a reference to the Tile project's having a Kickstarter campaign, which was incorrect.

This article, Why the mob rules, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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