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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dark Side of the Force - Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing can be beautiful. In fact, it's got a touch of classic fantasy sci-fi charm about it. I'm thinking Alderon, before the Death Star (back in the first Star Wars release) blew up the entire planet.

Massive numbers of photos need the human touch.  A volunteer army of citizen scientists peruse these images working to differentiate cancer cells from normal blood and tissue cells. Can't you just see the people of that one-time tiny peaceful planet making similar contributions to those that are being made today in our own world?

Crowdsourcers contribute vital genetic information to Alzheimer research by contributing their own memory and attention test data. Other folks share information that is pooled in a database used by breast and ovarian cancer research. This isn't fantasy. It's reality.

Thousands of volunteers scour detailed satellite photos of the Indian Ocean, helping hugely in the effort to find a missing Malaysian Airlines jet. Crowdsourcing helps rescue workers to both avoid less likely search zones, as well as target areas where they are more likely to be successful. It's not just in movies when people come together in response to the suffering of others.

Other folks are involved in massive translation efforts. The goal of Duolingo is to “… get millions of people worldwide to translate the Internet.” (*). C-3PO himself, couldn't have done better.

People in Santa Cruz – ten percent of the population in fact – pooled their ideas and abilities to eliminate a $9.2 million shortfall for their city. The plans these people made continue raise money for the city and benefit local programs. Several other cities, both large and small, follow these same successful citizen government crowdsourcing patterns. Government of the people isn't a leftover from old time films.

Crowdsourcing sounds like a wonderful dream come true. We’re harnessing the good energy of thousands or even millions of people to create a righteous universe. It's something Star Warrior heroes like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would totally get behind. We are talking the power of The Force here!

So what’s not to like about crowdsourcing?

How about the ability to send work offshore to be completed by desperate people earning a dollar or even pennies an hour? The author of the “Digital Sweatshop” Wikipedia page says “…digital sweatshops represent a phenomenon in a recent trend that offers workers and the employers the freedom to accept and request services. However, some believe that completing repetitive tasks for very small amount of money is an act of exploitation, hence the term sweatshop. A notable example is the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a marketplace dedicated to crowdsourcing.”

With Mechanical Turk, amazon has access to an unlimited labor pool that will almost literally work for peanuts, doing basic tasks a machine can’t do, but that doesn’t require skilled human labor. And amazon isn’t the only player in this outsourcing field. Crowdsourcing of cheaply paid labor, has become a huge part of the digital economy. 

Who’s doing the work? Desperate people who’ll do whatever is required to survive. And yes, the potential for slave labor and child labor is there as well. Oh of course it isn’t only these folks. Skilled digital laborers in a number of third world countries are just as determined to make money. It’s not too hard to figure out that a lot of our software development, and tech support have been driven off shore. 

I can hear some funny breathing headed down the hall. Darth Vadar is on the loose. This kind of energy harnessing isn’t drawing Earth’s citizens into a collective sense of accomplishment. Nor is it a righteous universe we’re building here. It’s more like we’re headed straight into a real life sci-fi fantasy world, complete with an evil emperor.  

Do previously well-paid western workers plan to go to battle with their determined competitors in other countries? We all 
need to make a buck, a rupee or a yen. It’s a matter of coming together and figuring out how to we can all earn a decent living. 

Sounds like we need to get busy on some citizen-of-the-world crowdsourcing techniques to kick Lord Vadar and the dark side of The Force right back into fantasy land.

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Web Resources
Thanks to Fantasy Planet Art for making this postings image freely available

3 neat ways to participate in crowdsourced cancer and Alzheimer’s disease research

Crowdsourcing volunteers comb satellite photos for Malaysia Airlines jet

* Five Ways Crowdsourcing Can Transform the Public Sphere

GovFresh – Crowdsourcing Citizen Ideas

Wikipedia: Digital Sweatshop discusses not the concept, and also names names of companies who make use of the unlimited workforce of very low cost crowdsourcing

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk