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Can we crowdsource a better world?

July 28, 2011

In my previous posts I considered the concepts of crowdsourcing and co-creation for the purpose of product development. However, I have learnt that crowds can take on much broader purposes and challenges that  help to make our world a better place. On a daily basis we are confronted with problems people are facing in other countries, but how often do we really take action? In this post I describe some initiatives that are developed to empower local people, or to spur the rest of the world to action, with use of modern technologies and web 2.0.

Let’s focus on the possibilities!
“Pessimism is a luxury of good times. In difficult times, pessimism is a self-fulfilling,
self-inflicted death sentence.”  Norwegian social scientist Evelin Lindner

Realtime action

Up-to-date information and a quick response is crucial in emergency situations and crises. A couple of decades ago, we mostly relied on the authorities to start up initiatives and to inform us. Nowadays we have real-time data and advanced technologies that can take on important roles in information provision. Social tools such as Twitter provide us with the most recent news updates, and smartphone applications can be used to immediately alert people of your location.

Empowering the crowd

Some smartphone apps and open source tools are especially developed to empower the crowd in facing complex challenges. One of the most recent examples is the ‘Water Canary‘, an open source device that can be used to rapidly test water and transmit this information in real-time. As presented at the TED Global Conference this month, the device can alert users to possible infections and is easy to use. Researchers aim to contribute in decreasing the amount of deaths because of poor water quality, which kills about 3 million people each year. They aim to give the units away for free.

In order to publish and use the collected data to its fullest, a well-functioning and accessible platform is needed. One of the most important platforms fueling early-response power of the crowd is“Ushahidi” (meaning “testimony” is Swahili). This website was developed in 2008 to report post-election violence in Kenya. Since then the platform has expanded throughout the world and is used to map the 2009 Indian elections, the worldwide swine flue outbreaks, harassment of women in Egypt, this year’s earthquake in New Zealand and the earthquake in Eastern-Japan.

Mapping data after the earthquake in Japan

One of the main problems after the earthquake in Japan, was that there was no clear data available and people were running risks of being exposed to high radiation. Websites were launched quickly to provide realtime information about radiations levels in different regions (e.g. and The data is kept up-to-date by people who share the readings from their radiation detection devices. These devices can cost 100 to 3,000 euros, so unfortunately not everybody can afford such a kit. Mapping the available data helps to keep people informed as much as possible.

Power from the crowd

People who are not close to the problem area, or who don’t have a lot of time and money, can also contribute to the social good. Some online communities have been especially developed to serve society in general or third world countries in specific. I will discuss some of these initiatives here. You can contribute to the community effort with by sharing your own knowledge, experience and skills.

Why would I contribute? I just can’t see myself of being any use?

Haiyan, One of the designers of the openIDEO platform answers this common question in his blogpost. “The answer is that an online community isn’t a mob that forms a single entity with a single set of goals and expectations” he argues. “A community is an ecosystem of many user types, driven by varying motivations”, Haiyan explains. He further illustrates this point with a comprehensive visual, showing that it all starts with a social interaction across the different users and visitors. ‘Passionate Contributors’ and ‘Collaborators’ often create conversations, that are returned to the crowd by ‘Regulars’ and ‘Visitors’.  He argues that all interactions, ranging from bite-sized actions (click to applaud) to more involved interactions (submitting a concept), fuel the effectiveness of the community effort.

Get started!

  • OpenIDEO
    OpenIDEO, the platform Haiyan blogged about, is a community where designers and creatives from different disciplines design together. Individuals or organizations can sponsor a design challenge, as long as it’s for social good. The platform is always in Beta, to allow continuous improvement and iteration. Here’s an overview of some of the challenges and their progress, or read about the final results of one of the openIDEO projects.

    Nonprofits can post small projects on the platform – such as “Can you design a new logo for our nonprofit?” or “How can we dig a well in Kenya?” Sparked uses a ‘challenge-matching engine’  to recommend a series of challenges based on your skills and interests profile. With this same engine they select and email a “Weekly Challenge” to all microvolunteers.

  • Have a nice idea of your own? Get it done 
    The ‘Get it Done’ website allows everybody to set up a development project and then tap into online social networks such as Hyves and Facebook. Each selected project is given a webpage and a widget (a mobile mini-website). You can place the widget on your personal profile page and share it with your friends. You can post your own updates and receive donations free of any charge.
  • Just a little bit of spare time? Join the 1%CLUB
    The 1%CLUB is the online market place for small-scale development projects, where individuals and businesses can directly offer 1% of their time, knowledge and income to a project of their choice. You can choose to give only money, but you can also share your skills, expertise and knowledge. The people that run the projects keep everybody informed on the progress by blogging and uploading photos and videos. Also nice: they keep track of their projects and how many have been realised: 7.973 members / 109 projects/ 195 realized projects / 60 countries  / Euro 475.629 donated (as of 28th July)

I am curious to find out more about such initiatives, do you know any? What do you think about it? What are your experience with this? So please feel free to comment!To finalize this blogpost, here’s an interesting TED talk about cognitive surplus and crowdsourcing initiatives for a better, more cooperative, world

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2011 11:33 am

    Hi Joyce,

    Sure we can crowdsource a better world! Thanks for mentioning these great examples. Surely you’ve also heard of another (somewhat older) example in Estonia:

  2. June 13, 2012 8:19 pm

    Hi Joyce,

    Cocreation Award Winner 2011 is ChristChurch. Met Share an Idea heeft de crowd deze stad, na een aardbeving, opnieuw opgebouwd. Een mooi voorbeeld!

    Meer informatie:

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