Thursday, April 26, 2007

Critical mass

Can a big group of amateurs outsmart a handful of experts? Dan Kaufman reports on the 'crowdsourcing' phenomenon.

If you loved Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew detective novels as a child then the Dutch police have the site for you. In an attempt to solve a murder case from 1995 they put up details of the investigation online (the English version is http://www.politieonderzoeken.nl/gerwig-engels/gerwig.html) in the hope citizens will suggest new angles or ideas. The site allows anyone to examine photos of evidence for clues, study a map of the crime scene and even pore over illustrations of the victim's wounds in order to work out what kind of weapon could have inflicted them.

The police website is just one example of an online phenomenon called crowdsourcing, where companies and authorities ask the public to help with specific problems or tasks. A play on the word "outsourcing", the term was coined by Jeff Howe in an article he wrote in the June 2006 issue of Wired and since then it has become the latest buzzword - and the number of crowdsourcing applications keeps rising.

"A year ago I had to root around in every nook and cranny to dig up five or six examples [of crowdsourcing] but we're now tracking some 150 examples," Howe says.

Since a couple of years of blogging I have had an casual interest in how different organizations can come up with solutions and what solutions are best for which organization.

But it seems that they are expanding this idea to include just media advertising of events (ie posting crimes on YouTube), and citizen journalism.

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