Monday, June 20, 2011

Ideas anyone? Anyone?

Note from Rowland: So far as I'm aware, this idea has never been applied to the Church/churches...

Katie Cincotta
June 19, 2011

Melbourne-born designer and technologist Haiyan Zhang says while crowdsourcing isn’t new, technology has given it a global scale.

Photo: Craig Sillitoe

Crowdsourcing is tapping, literally, into a world of ideas, and giving unsung genius the chance to shine.

THE voice of the crowd has never been louder. We're tweeting opinions, broadcasting amateur news footage, offering marketing ideas from the warehouse floor. Now businesses big and small are harnessing that collective creativity through crowdsourcing - a trend that is taking problem solving to the world.

Crowdsourcing is a call to the masses via the internet; an invitation to people to come up with ideas and solutions on anything from a new company logo to how to improve education in the developing world.

Decision-makers don't care whether you're the secretary or the CFO. When the call to create goes out, the best idea wins, regardless of your experience or your geographic location.

The most famous use of crowdsourcing was when online movie rental company Netflix offered $1 million to anyone who could come up with an algorithm that could outperform by 10 per cent its own in-house software CineMatch, which predicts film user ratings. In 2009, three years after the competition began, BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos, a seven-person team of statisticians and computer engineers from the US, Austria, Canada and Israel, claimed the prize.

Alec Lynch, founder and CEO of Australian-based, which crowdsources graphic designs from around the world, believes Australia has become the poster child for the movement, with up to a dozen crowdsourcing success stories reflecting our culture's desire to see an ''anybody'', a ''battler'' make good.

''I think Australia has become the thriving hub of crowdsourcing because it's based on the principle that a good idea can come from anyone, and that appeals to the Australian culture and mindset, and our egalitarian approach to business,'' he says.

Crowdsourcing uses the ''power in numbers'' philosophy to globalise the way we seek funds, designs, business ideas and emergency responses.

Most participants are lured by the competition prize money, the prestige and the sense of connection offered by this burgeoning trend for collaborative production; but it's also helping graduates to find work, and artists to hone their creative skills.

Melbourne-born designer and technologist Haiyan Zhang is the cofounder of, an open innovation platform that poses sponsored social challenges around health, nutrition and education.

She says while crowdsourcing isn't new, technology has given it a global scale. ''Organisations have been running competitions and tapping into the power of the crowd to come up with solutions for a long time, but the recent coining of the phrase refers to how technology is breaking down our barriers and enabling people to connect in more powerful ways,'' she says.

In just nine months, OpenIDEO - it has 16,000 members in 178 countries - has received 2000 ideas for eight challenges. Concepts that make the shortlist are brainstormed by the crowd, with the winning solutions developed into pilots and prototypes by the challenge host.

In one of the challenges, Sony, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund, asked: ''How can technology help us make the most of the planet's resources?''

From 399 ideas, the winner was a micro-volunteering application - an interactive online magazine that matches local people with local projects. It is now being developed by Sony.

In another success, Stanford University is increasing its registered bone marrow donors by using OpenIDEO's winning ideas, which include DIY cheek swab kits and Tupperware-style swab parties.
Zhang says crowdsourcing enables people to be innovative and develop new skills by encouraging them to step beyond their daily job labels. ''In the coming years, innovation and creativity will be those core skills you want to have for lots of different businesses and markets.''

But the idea of ''nobodies'' coming up with great ideas and handing them over to commercial operators who then capitalise on them does raise questions about due recognition.

Zhang argues that this is the compromise - the price individuals pay - to turn a great idea into a reality. She says inspiration often only gains momentum through collaboration.

''The innovation process is a little bit about relinquishing control to that sacred idea that you've never shared with the world, and it's only through sharing it that it morphs and changes and becomes something strong. Keeping it secretly under the pillow doesn't let it out to have real impact in the world,'' Zhang says.

Where crowdsourcing has really gathered momentum is in the design community. Lynch says his site's 32,000 designers are threatening traditional advertising agency structures, giving business a fresh, low-cost, world-wide talent pool.

''Crowdsourcing is outsourcing on steroids and it is disrupting traditional industries. I think of it as a triple threat because it tends to be faster, cheaper and more powerful,'' Lynch says.

He says in the design industry, a company would traditionally hire an agency and pay about $5000 for a handful of logo designs that might take a month to arrive. On sites such as DesignCrowd, clients can post a brief in minutes, choose a budget and typically expect 50 to 100 submissions within 10 days.

''Traditionally it's been expensive and risky to get design work done. Look at the London Olympics logo created by Wolff Olins for £250,000. It was absolutely panned when it was released … Crowdsourcing helps mitigate the risk,'' Lynch says.

A crowdsourced logo averages between $200 and $400, which Lynch believes is a price correction born of the globalised marketplace. ''Over half of our community comes from Australia and the US, but in the past decade it's also become much easier and safer to access workers in places like Eastern Europe, India and the Philippines who are talented, have strong English skills and are willing to provide amazing customer service, and don't charge very much when compared to local providers. That's competition, and that's a healthy thing.''

Social media researcher Associate Professor Angelina Russo, of RMIT's media and communication department, regards sites like 99designs and DesignCrowd as important launching pads for graduates. ''They're a fantastic way for young designers to build their portfolio, to promote themselves in a way that was not possible before. Even if you don't win, the feedback is good.''
She admits crowdsource contributors often trade control for opportunity and that many people still struggle with that aspect of the trend but, she says, these reservations are likely to subside as cultural partnerships develop.

As a seller herself on handicraft site Etsy, which asks buyers through online conversations what exactly they want to buy/have made, Russo says established designers are using crowdsourcing to bypass retailers and connect directly with customers.

''Crowdsourcing is a really good model for sustainable and ethical design. By using the web for market research and allowing people to vote on designs you can avoid having to make a whole lot of stuff that just sits in shops,'' she says.

San Franciscan fashion designer Derek Lam posted designs from his 2011 spring/summer collection on eBay for people to vote on, then produced the five most popular pieces.

After bravely withdrawing her label from six Myer stores and more than 50 boutiques, Sydney-based designer Nina Maya did the same on Facebook with a Shape the Range voting page. Maya says the experiment has paid off, with the 10 most popular dresses to go on sale online in July for about $260 each, 30 per cent less than the retail price tag.

She feels crowdsourcing has become a game-changer for the fashion industry because consumers now feel they can influence what is being made. ''It's listening to what the buyers want, and interestingly, what people wanted was quite different to what the shop owners ordered,'' Maya says.

She says the next step is co-creation - taking suggestions from fans of her brand - but she's determined not to compromise her original inspiration. ''As a designer, you want to keep the essence coming from the design source, but there's room for collaboration on maybe fabric choices or hem lengths.'' Crowdsourcing is not only about reaching out into the world for ideas; many corporations are using it to uncover untapped talent within their own workforces.

Digital strategist Bryony Cole recently worked with accounting giant Deloitte to set up enterprise social network tool Yammer, which is like Facebook for business and is used by 90,000 companies around the world for marketing, training and posting ''water-cooler'' buzz.

One of Deloitte's most successful projects was a competition to create a new marketing tagline around the green dot that appears on its logo. ''They're all accountants, so you wouldn't think they could be creative,'' admits Cole.

But breaking down stereotypes is exactly where crowdsourcing excels. Deloitte Digital's CEO, Peter Williams, says of the 1500 submissions made by staff in just 24 hours, eight people submitted the ''Let's Go'' slogan with a green traffic light, which ran as an ad in The Financial Review. Each person who submitted that idea was given a framed copy of the ad.

Williams says the project saved on advertising agency fees, taught staff how to use social media, and helped drive career progress for the winning creators.

What's critical with crowdsourcing, however, is for someone to steer the crowd so projects don't sink under their own weight, says Cole.

''People get so excited about crowdsourcing, but it can become like too many cooks in the kitchen and go off track so it's important to have someone leading the tribe,'' she says.

While mass collaboration raises the chances of finding a solution, it also requires rigorous filtering of the flotsam. ''There could be gold nuggets but it's buried in the dirt,'' she says. ''Data prediction platforms like Kaggle use scientists and data nerds to filter out all the crap.''

Services such as Kaggle offer competition organisers a sorting mechanism, where scientists organise entries to make assessing them more manageable.

During the recent spate of natural disasters around the world, the second-by-second reporting of people on the ground using digital media outstripped government updates on rising water levels, road blockages and approaching fires.

In response to Black Saturday, the Victorian government has found a way to aggregate and authenticate that material with BushfireConnect, a crowdsourcing-in-crisis platform which acts as a live central website.

Using a tool called Ushahidi, developed in Kenya to map post-election violence, the crowdsourced information is combined with data from official sources to provide an accurate news point for both citizens and journalists.

''For government, there's the issue of verification, so with Ushahidi you can upload photos, details and location, and pull in all the social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, so it uses the crowd to map the crisis live,'' Cole says.

Iin another example of the power of the crowd, event promoters have started offering fans a commission to sell concert tickets. Former artist manager Rebekah Campbell started after she saw an off-line version of the model work to fill a venue.

''Evermore's show in Perth had only sold a few hundred tickets for a 2000-seat venue so it was a disaster. I had the idea of turning fans into official promoters, paying them $3 commission on each ticket and before we knew it the show had sold out,'' she says.

Campbell spent the $28,000 she'd saved as a deposit on a house to purchase her domain name, hired an ex-Google Wave developer to build the site and is now set to launch in the UK in July and the US in August.

Posse's highest-earning spruiker so far pocketed just over $4000 after selling 502 tickets to Sydney's Field Day festival. ''The old model of marketing is that you spend money to get eyeballs to something. The new way of marketing is to create rewards, community and status to get people to push out to the people they know,'' says Campbell.

Then there's crowdfunding. This initiative is paving the way for new artists by raising project money on sites such as, founded by Rick Chen.

He says Pozible has launched projects ranging from music albums to travel plans, including a $20,000 biofuel expedition which offered naming rights on the boat for the Darwin to Malaysia leg.
''We had four Australian blokes want to travel from Tasmania to Norway driving a van without stopping at petrol stations. They've already started their trip and are about to hit Indonesia,'' he says.

Chen says many of these obscure projects wouldn't get started without crowdfunding. ''People have so many hidden dreams but they can't raise the resources to get them off the ground. We fit into the gap between government funding and business investment for more creative projects.''

Zhang believes the open-playing field created by crowdsourcing is blending diverse experience and initiative to help our rapid-fire society do things better, together.

''Our original principle was to enable people from all different backgrounds and different skill sets to come together and contribute to the innovation process … Because great ideas don't just come from an individual; they come from this collaborative effort, from these many different perspectives.''

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