How to Leverage Your Crowd

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Clay Shirky uses Flickr as a prime example of “organizing without organizations” in his book Here Comes Everybody. The idea is that a community of interested users will take on work for free that is inefficient or unrealistic for an organization to take on as paid work. (See also: Wikipedia.) I had only ever thought of Flickr as a place for photo buffs to connect with one another and share photography tips. So I was a little amazed to come across this article on the Smithsonian’s website this week: Astronomers Are Doing Real Science with Space Photos They Found on Flickr

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are utilizing astronomy photos on Flickr to compile a more robust portrait of a faraway galaxy. This low-cost practice of layering many photos to get a detailed look at the same patch of sky sure beats securing time on a high-powered telescope. This story highlights an idea also shared in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, and embraced by the InnoCentive program. Alone, our efforts may not amount to much (unless, of course, you’re a brilliant independent thinker – of which there are precious few in this world). But when we pool our efforts, our knowledge, and our experiences, the result is better than anything we could have done on our own. What do photos of the night sky have to do with public health? As we explore how to produce innovative communications for our sector, the lessons from Carnegie Mellon’s Flickr experiment remind us that we don’t have to do it alone – and when we collaborate, we often come up with something better. Think about your work:

  • Is there a topic you’ve wanted to include on your organization’s blog, but feel you don’t have the requisite expertise? Invite someone with more experience – a colleague, mentor, or professor – to be a guest blogger.
  • Maybe there’s a complex issue you’d like to explore. Why not assemble a panel with diverse experience of the issue and conduct a group interview to post on your site?
  • Do you want to see what the latest conversation is around a current issue? Search hashtags on Twitter. Once you see who’s talking about it, explore their profiles and start following those with expertise in the area.

I used to be wary of relying on “the crowd” when I need high quality information. My husband, a high school teacher, frequently reminds his students that printed work trumps the Internet when it comes to research papers. Any dope can write what they want online, especially on social media sites, but that doesn’t make it true. The challenge is to filter what’s already been published online, to use another one of Shirky’s ideas. We used to live in an era of “filter, then publish” – but as the Social Web takes over, we have both the privilege of publishing as well as the responsibility of filtering. When it comes to sharing timely, important, high quality health information with the public, let’s accept that challenge and show that two heads really are better than one.

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4 thoughts on “How to Leverage Your Crowd

  1. Kristen, this was really informative. I would have never thought that scientists at Carnegie Mellon University would utilize astronomy photos on Flickr. That is incredible to me. I think you did a great job of pulling together the concepts from the reading and applying them to this article.
    I totally agree with you in terms of relying on the internet for high quality information.

    • Caricia, this is fascinating! I had never heard of CrowdMed before. I have read the “Think Like a Doctor” feature of the New York Times Magazine for years (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/category/doctors/think-like-a-doctor-doctors/), and it looks like they’ve taken this idea and made it count. Think Like a Doctor asks readers to guess the correct diagnosis for a tough case that has already been solved, but CrowdMed is relying on the wisdom of the crowd to find the diagnosis to begin with. I’m interested to see how it does — I’ll be watching!

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