Crowd sourcing – who is it good for?

XKCD on crowdsourcingCrowd sourcing is a way of releasing work to a large group of people, often via an online platform. It tends to be used either for repetitive tasks, for collecting distributed information or for creative tasks.

The best known example of crowd sourcing for repetitive tasks is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Amazon itself hires people via the platform on the perpetual task of classifying products, for which it pays 6 cents for a 10 minute task. If that sounds like an attractive work option for you, I have bad news, you’re not qualified. But you can get qualified by performing some lesser tasks to prove your ability to classify chairs as furniture.

The biggest example of crowd sourcing distributed information is wikipedia, but it’s also used in many other fields including a project in the Netherlands to crowd source AED (defibrilator) locations as presented Lucien Engelen at TEDx Maastricht.

For creative tasks platforms such as 99Designs offer a marketplace to crowd source graphic designs. You submit your design brief and the amount you want to pay, the designers on the platform create options for you and you pay the winner. For a few hundred dollars you may have a choice of a hundred logos. Other platforms work by matching you to a designer with the skills for the work you’re posting.

These developments have been positive for many companies, I’ve been able to have simple design work done via Elance, a crowd sourcing platform, faster and for much less than using in house design options. We’ve also started an internal “crowd sourcing” platform, we found a staff member to create a brochure, once created we crowd sourced translations – and got 9 languages in 2 days.

What’s wrong with crowd sourcing?

At Amazon Mechanical Turk there’s a pretty big power imbalance between the worker and the employer; employers define the pay rate, describe the work, and have the right to refuse the work as unacceptable with no feedback. But the workers of Mechanical Turk are starting to turn this around, they’ve united around the work practices and are using a platform, called turkopticon to rate the employer. According to New Scientist, other platforms are trying to provide more worker-friendly options; MobileWorks sets the price for workers and aims to attract a qualified virtual workforce.

In creative industries such as photography and design, crowd sourcing is having a negative impact in at least two ways. It is threatening the income of freelancers, and freelancing is a common form of work in these fields. As Wired reported back in 2006 the rise of photography sites such as iStockphoto, and more recently Flickr (now licensing images via Getty) is impacting photographers’ ability to make money from their work.

99designwinnerIn the field of design it’s even more complicated, many of the sites run on a competition basis, so for the 100 designers submitting work, 99 do not get paid. This structure inherently puts professional designers off entering crowd source competitions. However the winners of many competitions, including the one featured at left for a Swiss hotel, do show skill in design and execution. While it’s not impossible to get a quality result, when I looked through a number of the competition entries it was pretty clear that some entrants were mistaking the ability to download photoshop for design talent.

The Logo Factory point to another disturbing aspect of crowd sourcing design; copyright. They’ve seen a number of entrants – including some winning entries – re-use logos created by their company. And sadly not even done well. Even big brands aren’t immune, Cadbury Ireland famously had to change the winner of a competition in 2010 due to plagiarism.

So who is crowd sourcing good for?

  • When it’s information being collated, probably all of us. Each contributor is volunteering a small amount of their knowledge and expertise for the greater good.
  • When it’s repetitive tasks, it’s currently benefiting the company – but as the balance of power shifts and workers gain some protection it can be a useful source of income.
  • When it’s creative tasks…. Good designers avoid the competition model, as the return for their work is low. If you’re a company look for platforms that match you to a designer rather than competition crowd sourcing options. You’ll pay a fair rate, and get better work.

crowdsourcing cartoon; Crowdsourcing /XKCD/ CC BY-NC 2.5

 

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