Alone in a Crowd

Güera asked “how does crowdsourcing differ from collaboration?”. I dare not offer an answer as such – I would need to ask around and find some consensus first – but I will offer some personal observations…

‘Crowdsourcing’ is jargon. It is one of those buzzwords that make it sound like people know something about the information era. We can infer crowdsourcing must be different to collaboration because people have long been able to collaborate, but have only recently started to crowdsource. Wherein lies the difference? If crowdsourcing is new, then the difference must lie in using new technology to combine the efforts of many people who would not otherwise be able to work together.

Really easy examples of crowdsourcing involve asking people about numbers, for example to make economic predictions, and then treating the average result as a new and useful piece of information in its own right. Of course, the same result can be achieved with a traditional survey. At the low end, crowdsourcing is no more than taking a survey, though it sounds sexier. Indeed, a lot of ‘crowdsourcing’ is nothing other than taking suggestions over the internet and perhaps letting people vote on whether they like suggestions that were taken previously. So there is little genuinely new here, except that the internet makes it a lot easier. At the low end, crowdsourcing is just a virtual suggestion box or an online opinion poll.

At the high end… well, that is one problem with the concept of crowdsourcing. The high end cannot be too high, because the idea is that a large number of people contribute to the collective task. People could collaborate before, without technology. Technology just changes the scale and spread, meaning more can participate in a collective activity. Having a large number of unpaid people volunteer to contribute to a task assumes a high degree of common motivation and that the task is straightforward and consistent enough that the people responding can be relied upon to do a consistent job. Tasks that involve subjectivity, specialized knowledge and judgement do not lend themselves to crowdsourcing. For example, think of how you might get people to draw a picture together. One children’s game involves drawing a person in stages, with the paper folded so each kid can only see their part of the drawing. One child draws a head and folds the paper so the next child can only see where the neck should join to the torso. That next child draws the body and the arms, and leaves lines to join the legs, before they fold the paper and pass to the last child. The last child draws the legs, ignorant of how the rest of the drawing looks. When finished, they unfold the paper, to see the funny result of three independent drawings being joined together to make one odd-looking portrait.

With crowdsourcing, everyone works independently, with nobody directing or coordinating what is done by each individual in the crowd. This is unlike collaboration, which involves some common agreement and push-and-pull about who does what and how the individual pieces are meant to join together. The best examples of crowdsourcing I can think of are where newspapers ask readers to help them analyse large volumes of public documents. Just such a campaign occurred in the UK when a Freedom of Information request resulted in the publication of lots of paperwork about politicians’ expenses. The general public could be relied upon to analyse the expense forms because all they needed to do was read something and point out if they found anything interesting. A high degree of conformity could be assumed in what people found interesting – people care if politicians make big and/or dodgy expense claims. But looking at the current progress of that particular crowdsourcing project is a reminder of the importance of maintaining the interest of the crowd. The documents were made available last year, but at date of writing, the crowd is still less than half way through reviewing them!

Collaboration does occasionally exist in revenue assurance, but it is not the norm, and I increasingly doubt it should be. The obstacles to collaboration are difficult to overcome; they make crowdsourcing of RA impossible. Just take a look at the opinion polls about how much leakage the industry suffers. Poll twenty people new to RA and they will tell you leakage in their business is terribly high. Assuming they stay in the same job for the next five years, imagine asking them the same question after that time. After that length of time, some might say their leakage is high; others will be less keen to point out that five years of their life seemingly made no difference.

In its early days, people shared their RA knowledge relatively freely. They did so just because they did RA and they wanted to talk to others about doing RA. Those were more innocent times. Things have changed, though some people continue to be innocent to the point of naivety. These days, RA is normalizing on a different model to develop and propagate information – the buying and selling of information. If collaboration can be rewarding because of the give-and-take with peers, imagine a scenario where most want to take, or where most want to receive knowledge so it can be validated against some pre-determined scale. Those are not fertile conditions for collaboration, and certainly not for crowdsourcing.

Collaboration and crowdsourcing imply the group works to create something new and valuable. The free market can also promote the creation of something new, but in the free market, people create not to share but to sell. Creating in order to sell discourages collaboration, unless collaboration also involves a sharing of the rewards. That is why you will never see a GRAPA publication marked as ‘copyright GRAPA’. They are all the copyright of Papa Rob Mattison. But we should not be surprised if people try to spice up a business model with some old-fashioned appeals to a community. The clue is in the word ‘crowdsourcing’. It is derived from the word ‘outsourcing’. In many cases, crowdsourcing should be called ‘freesourcing’. If you outsource, you expect to pay your supplier. Crowdsourcing assumes that if you ask enough people, some will volunteer to work for free, out of altruism or a sense of common interest. Hence it is inevitable that some – whether newspapers or self-proclaimed gurus – will appeal to the notion of community in order to supplement their essentially profit-driven business model. There is no question about why they do it: they get something for free, and they can use it to make things that can be sold at a profit. There is only one question that needs to be asked: what benefit does the crowd receive? That is a question where I would like to see the crowdsourced answer…

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.