Thought of the Week: Crowdsourcing of the Best Kind

April Jones, from Machynlleth in Wales; five years old, and missing.

About a week or so ago, I learned that a young girl named April Jones was abducted from a small village in central Wales. I don’t follow news, for various reasons, so it’s surprising that I would have learned about something like this at all.

The truth is, I learned about it from Facebook. I wasn’t even particularly on the lookout for anything like this; one of my friends shared the post.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. Then, I wondered even more, given that I don’t live in the United Kingdom any longer. Though possible, I thought it was pretty unlikely that I’d come across a kidnapped Welsh girl in northern New Jersey. It then occurred to me, however, that though I didn’t live there anymore, a large number of my Facebook friends do.

There are great, raging debates about the concept of crowdsourcing lately. It’s funny, because it isn’t really anything new. In 1857, a call was made to the denizens of the United Kingdom to submit words they knew from their own usage and dialects to a ground of people in London, for the sake of cataloguing the entirety of the English language. Over the following seventy years, nearly six million individuals submitted their words, and in 1928, a ten-volume dictionary was unleashed upon the world. It’s called the Oxford English Dictionary.

This was incredibly innovative, and a lot less work for the folk in charge, who presumable would otherwise have had to read the complete works of Shakespeare instead. I imagine few, if any, of them lived to see the completion of their work, but I think they’d be proud to know that their work has endured as one of the defining catalogues of the English language to this day.

In more modern times, crowdsourcing has been used in a variety of other ways, and it is the advent of the internet, and the massive, global connections it entails, that have helped it become so powerful. In the past, if you wanted to know how much people liked your shampoo, you’d have to take a sample of opinions from a small collection of people (1,000 would be doing well), and extrapolate from there. Sometimes it worked well; sometimes it didn’t. Medications have been released upon the market, only to show severe and dangerous side-effects that hadn’t been anticipated. A larger sample size might have helped.

But now, it’s entirely possible to set up a website, and ask users of your product to go online and review it. This happens with online shopping companies all the time. In most cases, people don’t have a problem with this, because they’re in control of the information they provide.

However, the fears that have arisen lately seem to stem from the information that is gathered without direct input from the end user. People were infuriated to learn that their location might be tracked by a giant company without their permission. Or even with their permission; it honestly doesn’t seem to matter. People are shocked to discover that search engines track their searches, search patterns and even verbiage in their queries. Many see it as an invasion of their privacy.

In my line of work, I often have people asking me why my company insists on knowing where they are. I usually point out that I already know where they are.

The thing is, the more people get themselves worked up about what information is being collected about them, the less they think about the implications of it. The very nature of crowdsourcing is that the useful information is not in the individual, but the patterns of thousands and millions of people combined. A search engine couldn’t care less what you search for; their only interest is in what eighteen million people search for at 9:16 AM. And then what they search for at 10:02 AM.

The irony is that people often don’t even recognize when their location is being used. Anyone who’s used a satellite navigation system is having their location tracked. It’s how they can tell you when there’s traffic ahead, but seeing that a hundred other users of the same device haven’t moved for the past fifteen minutes. There’s nothing magical in it. It’s how a search engine knows to offers suggestions when you search for puss, but not if you add an extra letter.

Yes — crowdsourcing has implications of privacy. There is a measure of trust that we have to place in the people tracking our information not to abuse that power. A surprising example of this is a search engine offering different advertisements when you search on your home computer than when you search on the computer at the library. Wow — they know where you are.

Um, yes, they do. Big surprise.

But ultimately (and so far), I’ve yet to come across any examples where crowdsourcing has been used to the detriment of a large population of people. Many of the luxuries we take for granted, such as shopping recommendations and movie trailers, are possible because of crowdsourcing.

And of course, every once in a while, it can be used to educate over a billion people across the world that a little girl in Wales has gone missing. And there’s a good chance, if she’s still alive, that someone who’s seen her face on Facebook might see her face in real life, too. It’s increasingly likely she may no longer be alive, but I urge you nonetheless to go to the Facebook page set up for this, and click Share. I’m sure her parents will appreciate it.

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