For a person sorting through this blog, you may have noticed a pattern: I rarely write about services founded on crowdsourcing as a business model.  I write about small experiments, or incidental crowdsourcing, but not on the myriad of crowdsourcing startups that have appeared since this blog began over a year ago.

There’s a reason for this: they rarely interest me.

There’s a time and a place for crowdsourcing, and what I love is when it is used to the achieve something that cannot otherwise be created.  There’s also a soft spot for cleverness in concept.  However, we increasingly see social for social’s sake.

Now, bad ideas are only a fraction of sites. Many others are simply not thought out in a way that the can be successful and, unfortunately for sites built on a foundation of crowds, success and usefulness are invariably linked.

I want crowdsourcing as business to suceed—I really do—but thus far it has been most successful by accident or by incident.  THAT is where the story is: in understanding this phenomenon.  Clearly we have the tools, but are still working on the trade.

Back in January, when I demonstrated the Mechanical Turk to my Crowdsourcing students, I would show to them one particularly cryptic project.  What it was was simply two boxes.  The one on the left held an apparently zoomed-in image, while the one on the right was blank.  With a simple brush, you were asked to redraw the image on the right.  Colours were chosen with a colour dropper, and an adjustable ghost image in the right box made tracing easy.   We all knew that we were creating a larger image, guessing it was an art project, but I did not think it could possibly turn out too effective.

I was wrong.  The results of that project have surfaced, in the form of “Ten Thousand Cents“.  TUrns out we were drawing a one hundred dollar bill.

The total labor cost to create the bill, the artwork being created, and the reproductions available for purchase are all $100. The work is presented as a video piece with all 10,000 parts being drawn simultaneously. The project explores the circumstances we live in, a new and uncharted combination of digital labor markets, “crowdsourcing,” “virtual economies,” and digital reproduction.

This project serves as a brilliant metaphor of the normalizing power of crowds.  When you open up a project to the masses, governance becomes extremely difficult.  Anybody is given the ability to contribute erroneous information.  However, as you gain a larger community of contributors, things balance out despite the fouls.  Consider opinion-based efforts, such as Digg and Travelocity: eventually, the best items shine through.  That is why Wikipedia is so reliable considering the circumstances: because thousands of editors are better than one.  So how is Ten Thousand Cents relevant?

Still Ben, right?

Delores Labs LogoDolores Labs is a new service that help clients crowdsource their projects online.  Specializing in Mechanical Turk, Dolores Labs has put online two fun example studies.

The first is a classification of Sports Illustrated covers over the past thirty years.  Covers were classified by race of the athletes featured and the sport featured.  Having recently led coding for a school study—involving a 2-week census of front page stories— I can certainly appreciate how appropriate the Turk is for coding with such straightforward, reliable variables.Dolores Labs Colour Cloud

The second example is even more fascinating.  Providing Turkers with thousands of random colours, Dolores simply asked each colour to be named by the worker.  What resulted is a fascinating dataset of human-interpreted colour descriptions.  You see the common colour names pop up, but more interesting are how the workers utilized language to describe those words that were more difficult to classify.

Essentially, Dolores Labs is a crowdsourcing consulting company.  Even though they provide deeper services than simply advice, their main commodity is the knowledge of how crowdsourcing works.  There are good ways to mobilize crowds and incorrect or useless ways to do so, and as we come to realize that, crowdsourcing moves beyond simply a trend and into a bona-fida tool.  The existence of a group that specializes in understanding the process shows a maturing of crowdsourcing within culture as a viable method for abstract analysis.

Dolores Labs LogoDolores Labs aren’t even the first ones selling their expertise on crowdsourcing. Amsterdam-based CreativeCrowds have been doing a similar thing for a while.  Like Delores Labs, they also give back to the public, not in the form of test data but in their phenomenal blog, CrowdSourcingDirectory.  Both companies are approaching this the right way, and I hope to see more from both in the future.


One of the most successful crowdsourcing initiatives, chances are that you’ve come across GasBuddy in the past. It is a crowd-updated collection of area gas prices, and perhaps the most accessible concept for the common person.

What is it?

In exchange for ‘points’, volunteers on GasBuddy’s sites post individually-confirmed gas prices. While these points can be later be redeemed for entries to contest drawing, the primary incentive is the pride of achievement goals. Usernames are accompanied by car icons representing their point level, and consecutive days of contribution are tracked (once one reaches 90 consecutive days of contributing, for example, their icon receives speed lines).

GasBuddy is separated into 178 local websites, usually with the url of (Your city) My urban area, for example, is found at

I recently created a course on Crowdsourcing for an Ontario publisher, and GasBuddy is one of the prominant tools covered. In working through the course, the client shared a story that, for me, embodies most of the benefits of crowdsourcing. In the past, when gas prices would go up, a reporter would sit down at his desk with a phone book, and call stations one by one to ask their prices. With one simple idea, GasBuddy improves upon this in every way, overcoming the time, material, and proximity restraints journalists work within. In addition the individual time and effort required, the single journalist’s effort cannot be sustained on a regular basis, and is already outdated by the time it goes to print. GasBuddy’s listings on the other hand, are continuous and nearly real-time. Also, eyewitness reports (the only type that GasBuddy rules allow) are more reliable than telephone calls.

A recurring criticism of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is that it is misused as a virtual sweatshop. In the Salon article titled I Make $1.45 a Week and Love It, it is pointed out that salaries under $600 do not have to be reported to the IRS by companies, but all earnings are supposed to by workers. “What Amazon is trying to do is create the virtual day laborer hiring hall on the global scale to bid down wage rates to the advantage of the employer,” labour activist Marcus Courtney says in the Salon article.

Blaming Amazon is pretty off the mark, as I truly believe the Turk was not founded for malicious business but rather as an academic pet project by CEO Jeff Bezos — consider his investment in human-powered search ChaCha as proof (Artificial Intelligence, With Help From Humans).

However, there’s no denying that there are misuse of the service for cheap labour is quite common. The most despicable example that I have seen in the past few weeks is that of APC’s teleclass transcription. Consider the following screenshot:

An hour’s content transcribed for $2.26?! Ridiculous. Even the most skilled typist would be probably making about a dollar an hour (my qualitative research professor a few years back estimated 4 hours transcription time for every hour of content).

Humourously, the company states on their website that “using the latest transcription equipment, (they) can accurately trascribe your teleclasses or webinar” (emphasis added by me). Sure, the company should not exist —it seems like one of those misguided attempts by lazier people not to get a real job after school, where a person prints some silly business cards and labels themselves “President and CEO”. Yet, this litter is an important thing to acknowledge in assessing micropayment crowdsourcing today, and how to continue it in the future.

The next ‘Cons of the Turk’ will look at Internet spam.

One last side note in defining “crowdsourcing”. Though its root word of ‘outsourcing’ often implies the transfer of work to cheaper employees, this is not a quality implicit in ‘crowdsourcing’. Rather, what it inherits from its root is the sense of displacing a traditional job, in this case by creating a crowd-modeled alternative meant to improve on it. Hopefully that clears up some confusion.