I must admit – I had never heard of “crowdsourcing” before reading the assigned article this week, Jeff Howe’s The Rise of Crowdsourcing from Wired Magazine. The article fascinated me – what a clever and potentially disturbing idea. I say “clever” because what better way to reduce costs at big technology firms than to cheaply have people like Ed Melcarek, a brilliant and sometimes employed scientist, solve their perplexing problems. I say “potentially disturbing” because I feel like this could be a recipe for disaster if not used appropriately and with correct controls. After all, people become experts for a reason and are employed at these companies because they are good at what they do.
I was interested to find a worst and best example of crowdsourcing and to brainstorm on how crowdsourcing might be appropriately used in public health. Business Insider did a piece in 2009 on the Top 5 Entertaining Crowdsourcing Disasters, and my favorite example was NASA’s decision to let the public name the new space station. Stephen Colbert heard about this contest and decided to tell his fans to write in his name – with predictable results. NASA ended up ignoring the vote and picking the name Tranquility (but happy ending, they offered to name their exercise treadmill on Tranquility “C.O.L.B.E.R.T.” standing for “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill”).
A more successful example is from Lays Potato Chips, who a couple of years ago first offered a $1 million dollar prize to the person who could come up with the next flavor of Lays Potato Chips. The incentive the public is obvious – the chance to win a million dollars – but for Lays there is also a lot to gain from this idea, and gain they did with traffic on their Facebook page increasing significantly due to their “Do Us a Flavor” campaign. In 2013, the winning flavor was cheesy garlic bread after generating one million and beating out 3.8 million rival flavors, all suggested by the public. The finalists this year are Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese, Mango Salsa, Wasabi Ginger and Cappuccino – yum?
When the public isn’t busy picking the names of space stations or choosing new favors of potato chips, what are some ways that crowdsourcing can be used to address public health issues? The government is already considering crowdsourcing ideas – an article just posted on Bloomberg.com states that “California Assemblyman Mike Gatto is promoting a bill offering $75,000 in rewards to hatch ideas for such challenges as reducing wait times for drivers’ licenses and car registrations. If approved, it would make his state the first to use crowdsourcing to improve its operations.” I believe that public health problems can be brainstormed in similar ways, but I do think we need to be cautious with the approach. Ben Popper’s article on Business Insider, “Top 10 Tips for Crowdsourcing Business Ideas,” has some great ideas for businesses that can easily applied to public health and the non-profit sector. We need to make sure that extreme opinions and ideas are filtered out, and the organizers of any such campaign needs to make sure there are clear guidelines and boundaries from the start. Crowdsourcing cannot replace having someone at the top making the ultimate decisions and leading the conversations, but certainly tapping into the great diversity of talent our communities have to offer is now easier than ever and may just help us to solve public health issues in ways we just haven’t thought of yet.