Tech trends

How Crowdsourcing is changing the world

When working together, humans can create magnificent things. The power of people is far greater than that of the individual and can make dreams reality and the impossible achievable. The internet itself is a triumph of human achievement, which has already become so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted.

By Reason Digital · November 11, 2013

Just think how difficult it would have been to arrange a conversation between an English person, an American, and a Chinese person, as little as 20 years ago. Now forums and message boards across the web are teeming with people from different cultures, nationalities and backgrounds.

Today we have an online community that spans the globe, that encompasses the whole diversity of human existence, and with the shared knowledge of our species accessible easily to anyone with a computer or even phone, we are doing some remarkable things with crowdsourcing.

Preserving history

old books

History is being made every second; everything we do may one day be documented by future historians. Yet all the while, the ravages of time are destroying our artifacts of past times. The papers and scrolls that books and histories are written on will, in time, decompose; and their contents will be lost to time.

In an attempt to give our written histories an extended lifetime, Google is harnessing the power of the crowd to digitise all the books and newspapers in its Google Books catalogue and are doing so in such a subtle way that many individuals don’t even realise they are helping – via reCAPTCHA. The reCAPTCHA system, an anti-spam device that every internet user will recognise, stops spam by forcing users to write out two words. The first is a word scanned from a book, which the system doesn’t know, the second one is one the system does and that has to be matched. When a user enters the two words, the system checks to see if the one it knows is correct, and if it is it “learns” the first one. Through this system over 100 million words are identified and 1562 books transcribed every single day.

More obvious attempts at preserving history are also being undertaken by Oxford University, who are encouraging people to help transcribe and digitise ancient Greek scrolls, and the World Memory project, who have had over 2.2 million documents surrounding the Holocaust added to its online archive.

Exploring space


With the internet and globalisation making our planet seem a progressively smaller place, people are looking to the stars in the hope of finding new places to explore.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence not-for-profit organisation (SETI) has been searching the skies for the past thirty years in the hopes of further understanding our existence in the universe and finding out whether or not we are alone in the cosmos. To aid in their studies they’ve set up SETILive – a website that allows users to interpret data received by the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and hunt for anomalies that might suggest the presence of beings not of this planet.

SETI are not alone in this endeavour. Using the Zooniverse website, numerous other organisations, such as NASA, are harnessing the power of crowdsourcing to identify gravitational lensesmap the surface of the moonlocate planets that may support intelligent life forms, and much more. After a brief tutorial, anyone with a computer can help further humanity’s exploration into the wild unknowns of space.

Curing diseases

Though humans have conquered Earth we are not without our weaknesses. Illness still affects us all, taking loved ones from each and every one of us. In the UK, it is estimated that more that one in three people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime and many of those diagnosed will sadly not survive it.

There are many of our most intelligent fighting for a cure, but thanks to Cancer Research UK and their Cellslider application even those with no medical knowledge whatsoever can lend a hand. All one needs is the internet and the ability to analyse images. On the application, after a brief tutorial on what to look for, users are shown images of cells and are asked to identify the spread, severity and colour of the cancerous cells. Already over 1.6 million images have been analysed and Cancer Research UK hope to use the data gathered to help combat cancer in the future.

Folding@Home are also using a vast network of volunteers to conduct medical research, though they are not asking for people’s eyes but their computing power. Folding@Home is a computing software that uses the idle processing power of PCs to perform complex protein folding. Together each PC combines across the internet to form a network that is now the most powerful in the world and computes an astounding number of calculations.

Removing language barriers

What’s the point of a worldwide communication service like the internet if the majority of people on it cannot understand each other? With people from around the world now just a click of a button away, the world has become a much smaller place. Now internet neighbours may be hundreds of miles away and speaking an entirely different language. To help people communicate there are many language learning tools that are harnessing the power of the crowd.

For instance, Lang-8 is an international social network for language learners. Users upload written journals in the language they wish to learn and then native speakers of that language then correct it. Then in return the uses their native language to correct other people’s journals. Busuu and Livemocha also use this principle, but instead of working on writing skills, these two work on conversational ones. Both partner people up so they can help each other learn the other’s native language via conversations on Skype.

world map

To help build learners’ vocabulary Anki & Memrise both use flashcards. The former is entirely user created, with all the flashcards submitted by learners, while Memrise has a more curated approach with the framework already set and content then added by users.

Finally, there is Duolingo. This totally free web and mobile app teaches users language using a variety of gamification and memory techniques. The benefit isn’t just for those learning though, all the users working together actually provides a good translation service. Good enough that Duolingo provides translations for the international news website CNN. So by working together, not only have users made it easier to learn and new language but are also making so that those who don’t want to can indulge in content from other continents.

Compiling human knowledge

Never has knowledge been so accessible. We have an unbelievable wealth of information at our very fingertips. Within seconds we can find out how fast the speed of light is (299,792,458 metres per second), discover the date that Shakespeare died (23 April 1616) or view a complete list of Batman comic villains (there’s a separate list for TV and film exclusive ones). The internet itself is a stunning example of how individuals can come together to create a compendium of human knowledge, but one website exemplifies that ideal – Wikipedia.

Though often maligned for its perceived inaccuracy (even though studies have show its overall accuracy on par with that of the Encyclopedia Britannica) Wikipedia is the number one stop for over 518 million information-seeking people every month. And it’s easy to see why. With over 27 million articles in over 285 languages, all of which were written by volunteers, Wikipedia is a truly monolithic source of knowledge. It’s a powerful example of what people can do when working together.

All of these examples show the amazing power that people have when they come together for a cause. So imagine the things that could be done if you encourage your supporters to help your cause.

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