Why the mob rules

Why the most valuable technology products do crowdsourcing

A Kickstarter project called Tile set out to raise $US20,000 to create small, flat, battery-powered stickers that you attach to your stuff, enabling you to find anything with your smartphone.

They've raised more than $US1.6 million so far.

But why?

Tracker gadgets have been around for years. They're useful for finding your lost remote control, keys and other objects. But Tile does something incredible that no other tracking product can. Here's how it works.

You attach a tile to your tablet, remote control, dog's collar or you drop it into your purse, backpack or briefcase. Use the smartphone app to register each Tile device -- basically tell the Tile cloud service what object each Tile is associated with.

To find an item, you use the app to make it "ring," then follow the noise. Or you can walk around looking at a proximity display showing you when you're getting closer or farther away. It basically turns your phone into a divining rod.

But here's the awesome feature that drove Kickstarter contributions through the roof: If you lose something -- say, your bike is stolen or you leave your phone in a taxi, you log into your online Tile account and report the item as lost.

At that point, every Tile gadget in the world keeps a lookout for your lost item. If your dog or phone or car or bike gets within 50 to 150 feet of any other Tile owned by any user, you'll get a notification showing you where on a map your Tile was detected.

How cool is that?

Crowdsourcing makes Tile different from any other tracking device. Tile leverages "network effect" like cell phones do, meaning that the value of Tile as a product gets higher as more people become users.

Come to think of it, so many of today's hottest products do something similar -- they get their value from the collective actions of users.

The most important web-based services on the Internet -- specifically social networks and search engines -- are spectacularly valuable and enjoyable sites precisely because they represent sorting algorithms applied to crowdsourced data.

Look what Silicon Valley giants are spending the truly big bucks for these days: Apps and services that do smart things with the data generated by massive numbers of users.

Facebook paid a billion dollars for Instagram, a service that's fun to join because it's full of awesome photos provided not by Instagram, but by other users.

Googlepaid a billion dollars for a tiny Israeli startup called Waze, which is all about crowdsourcing. Waze is a navigation service that you can use to get directions similar to Google Maps.

But Waze is also an engine of crowdsourcing. For example, the location of every opted-in user is uploaded anonymously to the servers. Waze then determines how fast each phone -- and by extension, each car -- is moving. That gives you real-time information about the speed of traffic. Waze also lets users report things like gas prices, observations about why traffic is jammed and the location of police cars.

You'll notice that both these billion-dollar startups are social networks acquired by bigger social networks. That's because social networks get all their juice from crowdsourcing.

Social network crowdsourcing is valuable to users because not only can individuals use social networks to do crowdsourcing of their own -- for example, I crowdsourced ideas for this very column -- but social action surfaces the best content on the social networks, either through Google+'s "What's Hot" list, Facebook's EdgeRank or Twitter's Discover page.

The two kinds of crowdsourcing

There are two basic kinds of crowdsourcing -- the kind where people consciously participate, and the kind where they don't.

Waze, for example, uses both kinds. The reporting of observations is conscious, the uploading of speed and location data is not.

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. It's 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.

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.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.

Tags Mobile/WirelessInternet-based applications and servicesNetworkingKickstarterwirelesslocation-based servicesTrackerinternetsocial mediamobile

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