Crowdsourcing takes center stage at DEMOfall '09

One unmistakable trend at this year's DEMOfall show is the number of Web sites and applications that rely to some degree on crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing –- a buzzword loosely defined as giving large crowds of users the ability to collaboratively create or change content on Web sites or applications -– was made popular by open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia and has since become a staple of Web 2.0 applications.

Among the new crowdsourcing technologies to debut at DEMO this fall are Article One Partners’ AOP Patent Studies, an open-source enterprise service that employs an online community of patent advisors to research patent claims; Waze, a mobile application that can be used to update traffic conditions in real time; TrafficTalk, a mobile application that is similar to Waze but also lets users provide traffic updates simply using their voice rather than typing into their mobile phone; Micello, a mobile app that aims to be the Google Maps of indoor spaces; and Answers.com, a Web site that combines established reference resources and crowdsourcing to create a comprehensive information database.

So why does crowdsourcing have such an appeal for developers?

“With all due respect it’s because developers are lazy,” laughs Micello founder and CEO Ankit Agarwal. “When I crowdsource it means that I don’t have to do the work to get data myself.”

But crowdsourcing does have perks beyond getting other people to do your work for you. Some crowdsourcing developers say if you can create an application that meets a common need and gives people a real stake for getting involved, then it can go a long way toward growing your product’s popularity. TrafficTalk founder Larry Greenfield, whose product is still currently in its alpha testing phase, says that he has found fertile crowdsourcing ground in the form of frustrated commuters during tests he has run of his software.

“For us, crowdsourcing has to create a sense of community among our users,” he says. “There has to be something that binds people together. It’s a shared pain of being frustrated by traffic jams and the like, but our goal is to resolve that pain and to minimize the wait during commutes.”

Greenfield says that while larger crowds are obviously better for an application such as TrafficTalk, the application can be relatively successful even if only two people who trust each other are using it. After all, he notes, if one friend who shares a commute route with another friend can notify that friend of a traffic accident using TrafficTalk, the application will have served its purpose. Even so, he says the application needs around a dozen or so people to really reach its potential.

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Answers.com, on the other hand, is a Web site that really does require massive participation if it is to meet its lofty goal of becoming a central hub for people seeking answers to their queries. Right now, the Web site lets users ask questions whose answers are partially provided by information culled from licensed professional encyclopedias and dictionaries and partially provided by user-generated Wiki-style content. Answers Corp. founder and CEO Robert Rosenschein says that as the Wiki portion of the Web site has grown over the past year, participation has snowballed to the point where the company doesn’t have to work as hard to promote itself. This past August, for instance, Answers.com got around 45 million unique visitors.

“Crowdsourcing for us really starts to work when you get to a certain scale,” he explains. “Right now we get 45,000 new questions asked each day and then about one third of those are answered every day. Those answers are the most valuable thing we have even though some are more detailed and some less so… When you start to get that sort of scale it just sort of happens. The more new questions you get, the more new answers you get.”

Of course, the paradox of success is that the more popular your crowdsourcing site is, the more likely it will become the target of vandals. As Rosenschein acknowledges, crowdsourced answers are far more likely to contain factual errors than are answers taken from professional sources. This is why, he says, it’s so important to foster a tight community that takes pride in keeping the site accurate and will work quickly to clean up any vandalism.

For AOP Patent Studies, developing a sense of community is also important, but it’s not the only incentive it uses to push its users toward greater accuracy. Because the service uses its online community to research the validity of patent claims – a time-consuming task if there ever was one – it pays money to users who are the first to come up with a correct solution to whether a patent is valid or not. It basically works like this: a company comes to AOP Patent Studies and pays them to look into a patent claim. The Web site then throws the case to its online community for research. The first two people to get results get paid a portion of the money.

Still, Article One Partners CEO Cheryl Milone thinks that monetary incentive can’t help your crowdsourcing site if you don’t first develop a strong sense of cooperation among users.

“There really has to be a sense of camaraderie and loyalty,” she says. “Whether people are brought to the site because they know a lot about a particular technology or because they feel strongly that the patent system needs to be strengthened, it’s the feedback they get from the community that keeps them coming back and is in itself compensation for their efforts.”

This story, "Crowdsourcing takes center stage at DEMOfall '09" was originally published by Network World.

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