In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the coast of the Philippines, causing two billion dollars worth of property damage and affecting up to 11 million people. The project Tomnod, founded by several UCSD researchers, sought to improve the effectivity of disaster response by releasing thousands of square kilometers of satellite images to the public. Tomnod allowed users to peruse these images and tag damaged buildings. In the end, users identified over 400,000 damaged roads, bridges, and buildings.
Since then, Tomnod has been purchased by satellite company DigitalGlobe, and has helped assess the damage of almost 200 disasters per year. In March 2012, after the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, more than 8 million users flocked to the Tomnod website in a unified attempt to find the missing plane.
In this day and age, computers can operate at lightning speeds, but their algorithmic capacities have not reached the capabilities of the human brain. As of now, image detection is still an approximation- computers still cannot think for themselves. But living in the so-called Information Revolution, we are currently at a standstill. In this “Big Data” age, we have trillions and trillions of bytes of data and not enough time to process it. Analysis cannot keep up with data aggregation.
Thus, a new method arises. Crowdsourcing, a portmanteau of the words “crowd” and “outsourcing,” attempts to solve this widening gap between data and analysis. Coined in 2006 by Jeff Howe, this technique refers to the soliciting contributions or services from a large group of people rather than from traditional employers. Today, crowdsourcing has become extremely effective: it targets a large global audience to complete menial tasks in a short amount of time.
Crowdsourcing has its roots before the time of computers. In 1714, the British government offered “The Longitude Prize” to any citizen who developed a reliable way to compute longitude. As in any community which valued public input, crowdsourced beginnings involved contests and competitions targeted towards the general public in order to fuel progress.
But with the development of the Internet, such crowdsourcing tasks have revolutionized. People today have become even more connected through social media; thus businesses can crowdsource to an even larger audience. For instance, with the development of Amazon Mechanical Turk, users around the world can be paid several cents to complete tasks so simple that they can be accomplished with the click of a button. Illustrating the effectivity of social networking, the DARPA Network Challenge in 2009 released 10 weather balloons around the US, all of which were found in under 9 hours.
In 2014, studies found that 55% of companies around the world reported to utilizing crowdsourced services. Today, crowdsourcing has become ubiquitous; we no longer are surprised when we rely on the general public instead of specialized roles to drive us around (Uber), teach us (Wikipedia), and fuel disaster response (Tomnod). Not only has everything become accessible with the Internet, but so has everyone.