Crowdsourcing Social Problems

Article by   in Reason: “reCAPTCHA and Duolingo both represent a distinctly 21st-century form of distributed problem solving. These Internet-enabled approaches tend to be faster, far less expensive, and far more resilient than the heavyweight industrial-age methods of solving big social problems that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past century. They typically involve highly diverse resources-volunteer time, crowdfunding, the capabilities of multinational corporations, entrepreneurial capital, philanthropic funding-aligned around common objectives such as reducing congestion, providing safe drinking water, or promoting healthy living. Crowdsourcing offers not just a better way of doing things, but a radical challenge to the bureaucratic status quo.
Here are several ways public, private, and nonprofit organizations can use lightweight, distributed approaches to solve societal problems faster and cheaper than the existing sclerotic models.
Chunk the Problem
The genius of reCAPTCHA and Duolingo is that they divide labor into small increments, performed for free, often by people who are unaware of the project they’re helping to complete. This strategy has wide public-policy applications, even in dealing with potholes….
Meanwhile, Finland’s DigitalKoot project enlisted volunteers to digitize their own libraries by playing a computer game that challenged them to transcribe scans of antique manuscripts.
Governments can set up a microtasking platform, not just for citizen engagement but as a way to harness the knowledge and skills of public employees across multiple departments and agencies. If microtasking can work to connect people outside the “four walls” of an organization, think of its potential as a platform to connect people and conduct work inside an organization-even an organization as bureaucratic as government.

Decentralize Service to the Self
A young woman slices her finger on a knife. As she compresses the bleeding with gauze, she needs to know if her wound warrants stitches. So she calls up Blue Cross’ 24-hour nurse hotline, where patients call to learn if they should see a doctor. The nurse asks her to describe the depth of the cut. He explains she should compress it with gauze and skip the ER. In aggregate, savings like this amount to millions of dollars of avoided emergency room visits.
Since 2003, Blue Cross has been shifting the work of basic triage and risk mitigation to customers. Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) implemented a similar program, NHS Direct, in 1998. NHS estimates that the innovation has saved it £44 million a year….
Gamify Drudgery
Finland’s national library houses an enormous archive of antique texts, which officials hoped to scan and digitize into ordinary, searchable text documents. Rather than simply hire people for the tedium of correcting garbled OCR scans, the library invited the public to play a game. An online program called DigitalKoot lets people transcribe scanned words, and by typing accurately, usher a series of cartoon moles safely across a bridge….
Build a Two-Sided Market
Road infrastructure costs government five cents per driver per mile, according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. “That’s a dollar the government paid for the paving of that road and the maintaining of that infrastructure…just for you, not the other 3,000 people that travelled that same segment of highway in that same hour that you did,” says Sean O’Sullivan, founder of Carma, a ridesharing application.
Ridesharing companies such as Carma, Lyft, and Zimride are attempting to recruit private cars for the public transit network, by letting riders pay a small fee to carpool. A passenger waits at a designated stop, and the app alerts drivers, who can scan a profile of their potential rider. It’s a prime example of a potent new business model…
Remove the Middleman
John McNair dropped out of high school at age 16. By his thirties, he became an entrepreneur, producing and selling handmade guitars, but carpentry alone wouldn’t grow his business. So the founder of Red Dog Guitars enrolled in a $20 class on, taught by the illustrator John Contino, to learn to brand his work with hand lettered product labels. Soon, a fellow businessman was asking McNair for labels to market guitar pickups.
Traditionally, the U.S. government might invest in retraining someone like John. Instead, peer-to-peer technology has allowed a community of designers to help John develop his skills. Peer-to-peer strategies enable citizens to meet each other’s needs, cheaply. Peer-to-peer solutions can help fix problems, deliver services, and supplement traditional approaches.
Peer-to-peer can lessen our dependence on big finance. Kickstarter lets companies skip the energy of convincing a banker that their product is viable. They just need to convince customers…”