UPDATE: An Introduction to Crowdsourcing

February 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm Leave a comment

Last year, the City Program hosted a session on crowdsourcing – how to use new technologies and social media to address design and engagement issues in clever new ways.

Here’s a summary and some commentary on that session by Siobhan Murphy that remains relevant, notably given the progress of PlaceSpeak, a home-grown platform just launched and already being used in the Lower Mainland.

Crowd Sourcing:  New approaches in Virtual Engagement

To most, the concept of crowdsourcing is still a bit fuzzy. SFU’s City Program provided an introduction to the concept and its implications for planning and city building at the lecture “Crowd Sourced City” on May 10, 2011. Three presenters at the forefront of virtual engagement spoke about three products challenging the current philosophy and technology of public engagement. 

Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.

The first presentation, Vaughn Hester from Crowdflower helped to clear up the concept behind crowdsourcing and its emerging roles in the both the virtual and real economies. She showed how her company’s access to a crowdsourced micro-task workforce could be used to analyse packets of data, and deal with scientific queries, like a real-live SETI@Home[1], and use advanced algorithms to test accuracy and veracity. As a segue into the planning and public policy context of this tool, she featured Crowdflower’s cooperative efforts in Haiti after the earthquake, which used crowdsourcing to take emergency SMS messages, geolocate them, translate them and redirect them to the most appropriate and nearest emergency service provider.

The power of the crowd was brought into sharp relief through before and after images of the online mapping available for Port au Prince. Before the quake, digital information on the city was slim. Google Maps showed only the 20 or 30 major streets across this town of 700,000. It’s easy to forget how vital a map can be to seeking, finding and tackling the crisis of a city in ruins. There were audible gasps from the crowd after the results of a rush of volunteers built a digital map literally from the ground up. OpenStreetMap.org rallied the crowd and mapped thousands more streets and alleys in the two weeks following, providing the definitive digital maps to emergency service providers to help locate and reach the thousands trapped or injured. 

Turning to the practical challenges at home, Crowdbrite’s Darrin Dinsmore drew the attending crowd in with his digital answer to the traditional suite of community engagement tools. Crowdbrite provides a platform for display, comment and evaluation of designs and urban plans in a virtual space. The potential to complement and simplify consultation was immediately evident. Crowdbrite operates like a microblogging desktop within a browser. Statements, photos or media from any user in the form of virtual post-its, or sticky-dots and voting can be uploaded and placed on the canvas and in turn commented on by anyone else. All of these elements are compiled for easy review after the workshop and help to accelerate the feedback loop and development of ideas and alternatives. 

One of the central questions about moving consultation into the virtual was around digital divide. As food for thought, Dinsmore noted that in Canada 70 percent of people have access to technology and the resources to harness this service. Given the challenges of taking time from family, work, getting daycare, dealing with the politics of public meetings, and so much more, public consultation today reaches only a fraction of the community, and even with the digital divide promises potential access to more people. Traditional consultation skews toward community leaders, activists, older participants and a NIMBY mentality. Virtual collaboration promises access for those who are younger, and mobile,  with the potential of a longer-term view of their neighbourhood and community. He also argued that there is opportunity for Crowdbrite to supplement, rather than replace, local real-space consultation. 

Finally, PlaceSpeak developer Colleen Hardwick demonstrated the early capacities of her online venture. Her intention with this project was to calm the trolls of anonymous online commentary and legitimize project input. PlaceSpeak is based on the premise that decision makers should focus on the opinions of people directly affected proposed changes – namely those that live nearby. The site helps to localize the ever-widening online dialogue and demands on planning consultation through an extensive authentication process that matches your real world location to your virtual presence. The audience discussed the relative merits of connecting new technology to “old” ways of thinking about consultation, but acknowledged the merits of understanding who is saying what and encouraging people to step out of virtual anonymity. 

What these sites underline is the desire to adapt a never-quite-comprehensive, never-sufficiently-representative planning process into one that makes greater strides toward community inclusion. The internet and its virtual commentary is here to stay. It is radically changing the way we work and interact. Our expectations and presumptions around development are subject to whole new sources and velocities of influence that the statutory process alone is failing to engage and capitalize on. These tools are helping to harness and mold these changes into a better way to make places, which is ultimately what we are all working toward.


[1] SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).link:  http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/

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