Ten Quirky Crowdsourcing Projects - dummies

Ten Quirky Crowdsourcing Projects

By David Alan Grier

In any crowd, you can find thousands of strange crowdsourcing concepts, impossible projects, odd activities and decidedly weird goals. The quirky nature of the crowd comes from the fact that it’s so big and diverse. Members of the crowd have done things that you’d never consider doing. They’ve discovered ideas that weren’t part of your education. They’ve built accomplished things that are beyond your dreams. No matter the source, this vast diversity is yours to use.

Here are ten quirky cases that just may provide inspiration.

Crowdsourcing the audience

Crowdsource the audience by hiring a member of the crowd to go to a public event for you. So instead of missing out on an event, you can crowdsource so you can “attend” multiple functions during your busy schedule.

When you talk to a group of students, or attend a scholarly conference or a press conference at a government office, you may find that the front row of the audience is filled with people holding mobile phones and tablet computers to face the speaker. These people are members of the crowd who are offering audience services. They take notes, provide a video feedback to their crowdsourcer, and occasionally ask questions.

‘I’m representing a very busy person,’ they usually say, ‘who really wanted to come to your event but can’t because she has too many meetings. She’d like to know . . .’

Of course, crowdsourced audiences are nothing new. College fraternities in the United States have done it for generations. Older frat members have hired, usually with little financial compensation, younger siblings to attend class for them and even take tests. Crowdsourcing has expanded this idea and put it on a firmer footing.

You can now crowdsource a variety of personal services at sites such as TaskRabbit. The crowd can pick up your laundry at the cleaners, stand in the queue for you at the post office, shop for groceries or sit in your chair at a lecture. As members of the audience, crowd members can stream the talk to you on

Microtasking a video for “The Man in Black”

The country singer Johnny Cash was a great man of the people and may easily have come to love crowdsourcing. He performed for people wherever he found them, including in prisons. He had a great appreciation of songs that had passed from voice to voice in the great folk tradition. He loved the contributions of individual musicians to a song. So it seems appropriate to celebrate this great artist by microtasking a video for his song ‘Ain’t No Grave’.

Of course, many ways of crowdsourcing a music video aren’t quirky at all. The simplest method is to run a crowdcontest. Put the song on a website. Describe the nature of the video that you want, and encourage the crowd to submit entries. You then assemble a team of judges and let them choose the best submission. You reward that submission with a prize.

A more conventional approach is to macrotask the video. Again, you post the song on a website and describe what you’d like. This time, you encourage directors to assemble a team to create the video. You choose a team based on a storyboard from the director and then fund the production of the video.

However, the Johnny Cash Project took a different approach and microtasked its video. The project asked each potential contributor to draw a single frame for an animated movie. Visitors to the site can vote on their favourite frames. You can view all the contributions and assemble them in any combination you want. It’s a dynamic tribute to “The Man in Black.”

Erecting a Robocop statue

The city of Detroit has a long history of working with aggregated labour and aggregated jobs. The ability to aggregate labour, through the moving assembly line, created the modern motor vehicle industry and built those giant plants that employed hundreds of thousands of workers. The jobs of Detroit brought people to the area in one the largest social migrations in history. When the residents of the city turned their thoughts to the arts, they created the Hit Factory, a humble building that aggregated the talents of musicians to produce the music of Motown.

In recent years, as these industries have left the city, residents have turned to crowdfunding as a way to strengthen their economic base. Detroit Soup has used crowdfunding to raise money to rehabilitate an old movie studio, to find new uses for the old Michigan Central railroad station, and to build a life-size statue of Robocop.

Robocop is a character from an old science fiction movie that’s set in Detroit. The character encounters a lawless city that’s dominated by gangs and crime. He restores order and lives by the motto ‘Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the awesome.’ For those who’ve stayed in the city, Robocop is a symbol of strength, of taking charge of life, and being in a place that inspires pride.

A group of movie fans decided that Robocop is the perfect character to inspire a city that had experienced decades of bad economic conditions.

Although they had little experience in fundraising and no knowledge of how to construct a metal statue, they were able to raise $68,000 (£42,840). A bronze statue of Robocop is being cast in a Detroit foundry, and the supporters are negotiating with the city to find a place for it. If there’s no place in a city park, the supporters can always buy an abandoned urban space and create a park of their own. Crowdsourcing can help with that, too.

Macrotasking on the farm

Traditionally, farming has long been a crowdsourcing activity. Every spring and autumn, farmers travelled to the local labour market in their version of macrotasking. At these markets, they hired contract labourers to help plant and harvest the crops.

Farmers also crowdsourced the construction of barns and outbuildings. They not only gathered the local residents to help build the new structures, but also devised ways of using the experience to train others how to construct such buildings.

Finally, farmers tended to crowdsource the major decisions of farm management. Sitting in a local café or a common kitchen, they told stories, swapped lies and listened to each other’s advice on which crops to plant and which animals to breed.

In the age of the Internet, farms can now crowdsource their business decisions globally. The National Trust, a British conservation organisation, ran a crowdsourced farm for 18 months. The owners created a web page, invited members of the public to join the project, and asked them to help make decisions about running the farm.

The crowd participated in farm decisions through a series of votes. They voted on the kinds of cows to include in the milking herd, the castration of breeding stock, the creation of a hedge and the rotation of plants in a field. These votes gave the farmers an opportunity to explain the issues at hand and the consequences of the decisions.

The project was, in part, a form of crowdfunding. Members of the crowd paid $48 (£30) to join the project. In all, it raised $8,000 (£30,000) and gave the National Trust the opportunity to communicate the issues of farming and land stewardship to the public.

The farm didn’t use crowdsourcing for long enough to test it as a means of making decisions. However, the project was a good way of demonstrating the nature of modern agriculture.

Innovating for new cars

Cars are complicated devices that require careful engineering. The large motor manufacturers — Ford, Toyota, General Motors and BMW — all employ large design teams that create and test new cars years before they’re offered to the public.

But one company, Local Motors, builds cars through a crowdsourcing process. The company supports an innovation process in which it runs crowdcontests for new ideas for specific items, and lets the crowd choose the best. You get a basic prize if the crowd thinks your idea is best. You get a more substantial prize if your idea’s actually used.

The company provides a number of services to help the crowd produce professional designs. It offers a low-cost engineering design software to the crowd and has a prototype facility that converts designs into actual parts. When you purchase a new car, you can take part in the final assembly.

In doing crowdsourcing, Local Motors is attempting to tap into micro-markets, markets that mass production can’t easily serve. The people in these markets are interested in custom engineering but can’t afford the costs of traditional production methods. By aggregating the crowd’s ideas in crowdsourcing, Local Motors is able to build custom cars at costs people can afford.

Turning the crowd into wedding photographers

Some aspects of weddings may never be completely crowdsourced. A strong tradition exists of giving decisions to a handful of people: the bride, the bride’s mother and a small group of trusted advisors. However, crowdsourced wedding photography may soon be the common means of recording the day’s events.

Traditional wedding photography has well-known flaws. It can be too formal, too conservative and too expensive. Furthermore, it rarely captures the most meaningful moments of the day. It misses the joy of old friends who haven’t seen each other in years. It misses the wistful expression on the face of the bride’s father as he dances with his daughter. It overlooks the intent conversation of the newly introduced couple in the corner who, as history will eventually tell, are going to trace their marriage to the wedding of their friends. These images are most commonly captured only by the guests on their cameras and mobile phones.

To obtain such images of your wedding, you give your guests an app for their mobile phones and ask them to take pictures. (WedPics offers one, but many others exist.) You then serve as the crowdsourcer and editor. The result, in common with that of other forms of crowdsourcing, is a record of the event as the crowd saw it, not as a single professional saw it.

Singing in the crowd

Crowdsourced performance art tends to be similar to the old flashmobs. Assemble a group of people in one place. Give them a few instructions. Film the results. Some of these activities are stunning, such as the dance to Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Do Re Mi’ in Antwerp Station.

However, crowdsourced art has moved beyond such activities to complex performances that are coordinated over the Internet. An example of such a performance is Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 3. Whitacre is a classical composer living in the United Kingdom. He organises crowdsourced choirs by distributing his music to volunteers and asking them to record themselves singing it. He collects the videos and then edits them into a single performance with all the voices.

The Virtual Choir 3 had 2,945 people from 73 countries. They sang Whitacre’s piece ‘Water Night’. It’s a romantic melodic piece, although it has a few modernist touches. The final video is a composer’s fantasy: a single conductor surrounded by a curved screen that shows all 2,945 individual contributors singing into their computers. Occasionally, words from the lyrics appear in the air, only to vanish in a moment. The music ebbs and flows effortlessly, belying all the technical work behind the performance.

Raging against machines

In theory, democratic government is a crowdsourced activity. Governments are meant to derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. However, the offices and agencies of government often need to take special steps to employ the talents and ideas of the citizens they govern. Elections can’t always transmit talent to the government. Neither can town meetings or public opinion polls. So, the one institution that’s founded on the crowd must take time to obtain the ideas it needs from the crowd.

Many governments, large and small, are creating crowd innovation sites. The United States government maintains a site called Challenge.gov. Like many forms of crowdsourcing, Challenge.gov follows an old tradition. For generations, the U.S. government invited inventors to bring ideas that it could use to support the military. Challenge.gov deals with a broader collection of problems, although many of them indeed attempt to address military problems. However, one of the more prominent challenges of recent years deals with the problem of robocalls.

Robocalls are pre-recorded sales calls. They come at bad times. They’re not really a military attack, but they’re difficult to stop. In the U.S., any citizen can put her name on a public register to block such calls. However, doing so doesn’t always stop the calls from coming.

The government crowd challenge is looking for a technological solution that allows the blocking of robocalls on landlines and mobile phones. The prize is $50,000, and the inventor will retain the rights to any invention. This is a great example of the crowd supporting a government that derives its powers from the crowd.

Tracking a train project

A single citizen can’t easily keep track of a large government project, but the crowd can watch that project as it unfolds across the land.

As you travel to work by train, you may cover a great distance but you only see a small slice of activity. When you see the signs that the government’s renovating the railway line, you can’t always know what it’s doing, how long the work will take, or how much progress the project has made. When the Chicago Transit Authority announced that it would be renovating one of its major lines, a group of regular passengers decided they’d keep track of the project and inform their fellow passengers of the progress via CTA Station Watch.

The crowdsourcing activity was more of a form of mass journalism than a citizen watch group. ‘By tapping the eyes and ears of the riders and neighbourhood residents,’ reported one of the founders, ‘we’ll be able to track the action on a day-to-day basis.’ The crowd used a collection of commercial software products to support its efforts. The crowd members posted messages to a blog, tweeted observations on Twitter and pasted photographs to Flickr. They put together the big picture while waiting for the train.

Finding the sole in crowdsourcing

Perhaps shoes aren’t a quirky example of crowdsourcing. After all, almost everyone wears shoes. However, the Canadian shoe company Fluevog is a quirky company. Its website suggests that the founder, John Fluevog, is roughly as old as Methuselah, notes that he has the same birthday as Barbra Streisand, gives a brief description of how the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton joined the Benny Goodman Jazz band in 1936, and claims that Fluevog shoes can protect you from the devil. It also does a lot of crowdsourcing.

Fluevog uses crowdcontests to design advertisements, to conduct market research, and to design high-fashion shoes. It has created 15 designs in 10 years. The company uses the standard crowd-innovation process. It solicits ideas, asks for comments and calls for votes. ‘Is your imagination ahead of the whole shoe industry and you’re sick of waiting for them to catch up?’ asks Fluevog’s innovation page. ‘Here’s your chance to go over their heads and deal with someone who actually cares what you want.’

Fluevog is yet another example of how a company can use crowdsourcing to reach a small market and be successful. Crowdsourcing helps the company understand what interests its customers have and enables it to meet the needs of those customers.