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What I learned from Monica Hamburg about Crowd Sourcing – A Third Tuesday recap April 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in Vancouver.

First of all, my congratulations to Monica Hamburg for an excellent talk, to Rebecca for a phenomenal live-blog (AND for the prize giveaway, even though I didn’t win – great to see GusF win though!) and to Tanya for organizing. Hat tips to The Network Hub for hosting Third Tuesday. You should check out The Network Hub, seriously.

Third Tuesday April 15 2008-12
Photo credit: Raul on Flickr.

I have a tendency to try and distill the lessons of what I have learned in an attempt to (a) make more sense and keep my notes organized and (b) perhaps help my readers AND the presenter gather the main points. For example, when I have given talks, it’s always nice to hear other perspectives on what the audience learned, and I figured these notes could complement an already great job in the live blog by Rebecca.

So here is what I learned on Crowd Sourcing, from the always lovable and extremely brilliant, Monica Hamburg:

* Crowdsourcing is basically taking a job and outsourcing it as an open call. It is a form of mass collaboration, tapping into a collective pool of knowledge, creative potential and artistic prowess. The fact that you outsource a job to (pretty much) the world allows you to broaden the scope, and since the job is “out there”, it’s basically a process that is repeated until you find the right product for whatever you are crowdsourcing, and then you stop (I hope my geeky friends love this), something basically like this:

WHILE product NOT EQUAL TO specifications
DO outsource WITHIN target population

Three business examples provided by Monica are summarized on Rebecca’s liveblog (Threadless, NetFlix and Sell A Band), and two non-business examples are Wikipedia (a volunteer-written and edited online encyclopedia) and NowPublic (a volunteer, citizen-journalist site). [UPDATE – Corinna can tell you more about the Threadless t-shirt as she owns one! and Monica indeed said “if Corinna was here, I could show you how cool these shirts are”. But Corinna was taking care of Adam, so no go on Third Tuesday!]

Two different types of participants in the crowdsourcing process are solvers (of problems), and seekers (of solutions). Most solvers will tackle a particular problem because (a) they are passionate about it, primarily and (b) they see a gain (that may actually be purely non-monetary). In some of these cases, the only gain is a recognition as an expert in the field.

Important factors that you might want to consider when crowdsourcing:
1) The project needs a style of leadership without a heavy hand
2) The project owners need to be really open to feedback
3) You have to be very transparent in regards to what it is that (a) you are seeking and (b) the gains that participants in the crowdsourced project will gain
4) You have to be very upfront (see item 3) and establish all the rules very clearly.

Potential problems that you can have with crowdsourcing
1) Exploitation (which in other fields is called a race to the bottom): “Well, you do this project for $1,000, I got someone else who can do it for $ 500).
2) Low quality of submissions (Sturgeon’s law – 90% of everything is crap)
3) It can’t be done short term, requires more time so that the project is crowdsourced during a long enough period of time that it actually can be properly done.
4) It isn’t the answer to everything: And a lot of people can see it as a panacea.

The Pa-Co-Re Hamburg Law of Crowdsourcing
Be PAssionate, build a COmmunity, and have REspect for every actor
involved in the crowdsourcing project.


A lot of people seemed to get the impression from a comment I made that I hate Wikipedia or that I think it is absolutely crappy. It is indeed important to explain exactly what is my pet peeve with it, as it can lead to misunderstandings. I do not think Wikipedia is absolutely crappy, but I do see a problems with it.

Wikipedia seen as an authoritative source instead as a first source. – This relates to the transparency and being upfront comments from Monica, shown above. I haven’t been able to find anywhere on Wikipedia (or on any treatise on the encyclopedia) any mention to the fact that quality control still is required. I find that, in some of my own realms of expertise, the available Wikipedia information is absolutely crappy (and sometimes entirely wrong from a factual viewpoint). In other realms, particularly those where I am NOT an expert, I find Wikipedia an excellent first source. Note what I said: FIRST. The problem is that many people (and some of my former students have committed this mistake) take Wikipedia as the one and all source of knowledge. It’s not. It is a great first approximation, and in some fields, I could bet you it IS indeed the authoritative source. But unless you have a LOT of experts participating as writers AND editors, you will have a resource whose quality can be questionable. All I ask is for anyone who praises Wikipedia to be upfront about the potential challenges and drawbacks that the source has. Anybody who reads my blog knows that I link to Wikipedia constantly. I find it valuable and interesting. But I can’t say that it is the most authoritative source out there, that’s all.

This leads me to my next pet peeve: NowPublic.

NowPublic seen as the authoritative source of information: I have read some of NowPublic reports, and I can absolutely value the fact that a lot of people contribute to it in a self-less way, as volunteer citizen reporters. That’s the next thing that worries me, and it’s linked to my criticism of Wikipedia. Think about it… if you have seen the movie “Gossip” with Lena Headey, James Marsden, Joshua Jackson and Kate Hudson, you’ll recognize the phrase “People are people, we do what we do… and then we gossip about it“. That is precisely the risk with NowPublic. Unless there is some sort of third-party audit, the quality of submissions can be fairly low and there *is* an inherent risk. Take the recent lock-down of UBC. I read about it on NowPublic… I read a LOT of commentary on it, and pretty much nobody really knew anything, and the discussion just contributed to a general state of concern for the security of students and faculty members at the university. That is the problem with citizen journalism… that there is no specific standards that you can subject the citizen journalists to. Codes of ethics? Nowhere to be found (unless somebody knows more about NowPublic than I do, which they probably do, so I’d be more than happy to be enlightened).

The thing is, both Wikipedia and NowPublic should be taken, I think, for what they are… first approximations that should be taken with a grain of salt. Great crowdsourcing projects, however, and I do have praise for both. I don’t intend to diminish the value of either, I just voice my concerns (which I think are pretty legitimate).

After a *really* long explanation, I should get back to the paper I am currently writing. Kudos again to Monica Hamburg for doing a great job with this talk. As I said in my speech, I *did* learn a lot, and I’ll make sure that if I ever crowdsource, I will make good use of the PaCoRe Hamburg Law of Crowdsourcing.



1. Jenn - April 16, 2008

It was great seeing you again last night. You’ve done a great job of covering the event and my boots look hot in that picture:) I thought that Monica was awesome. I thought that the Q&A was the best part of the night, I love when a room of intelligent people get together and discuss interesting topics

2. Raul - April 16, 2008

Same here, Jenn. I am glad you liked the recap 😉

3. 3Ts - Hoorray! « Me Like The Interweb: - April 16, 2008

[…] also gave a very nice summary on his blog. And Greg Scott Twittered the talk (Wow!) – I’ll get a link for that and others a bit later […]

4. ThirdTuesday: CrowdSourcing with Monica Hamburg - April 16, 2008

[…] Congrats Monica! If you want to read some more great coverage of the event, you can find it here – From Raul – there is also and awesome pic of me in my boots, here – From Rebecca, here – From […]

5. Reflecting on the future of my blog « Random Thoughts of a Student of the Environment - April 19, 2008

[…] week, I have had a very, very, very intense work/socializing week. I attended Third Tuesday on Tuesday night, Green Drinks on Wednesday night, Vancouver Tweetup on Thursday night, and had the […]

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