After having been soured on the crowdsourcing phenomenon because of the shenanigans being pulled by crowdsourcing provider CloudCrowd and its CEO Alex Edelstein, my faith in the concept has been restored. All it took was a chat with Lukas Biewald, founder and CEO of CrowdFlower.
CloudCrowd's shenanigans were detailed in two previous blog posts, Note to CEOs of Web Ventures: Know Your Own Terms of Service and "<strong>An Open</strong> <strong><strong>Letter to CloudCrowd's CEO About Truthfulnesss</strong>,"</strong> so I won't get into any of that here. I'm much more interested in focusing on the cool stuff Biewald is doing with CrowdFlower.
What initially sparked my interest in crowdsourcing was the humanitarian work I wrote about in an April post, "Time for IT to Put Crowdsourcing in Its Bag of Tricks:"
But what really seemed to catch the attention of the crowd at the Gateway to Innovation event was the crowdsourcing work being accomplished by Samasource, a non-profit organization that taps the Internet to provide income-generating opportunities for people in need, including the victims of natural disasters and other refugees. [Samasource] is currently focusing its attention on Haiti, where, among other initiatives, it's enabling refugees who speak both English and Creole to earn an income. These individuals are translating emergency SMS messages written in Creole so that English-speaking relief workers can get aid to where it's needed.
It turns out that CrowdFlower partnered with Samasource to provide the crowdsourcing technology to make all of that happen. That a for-profit crowdsourcing company is engaged in humanitarian work was a welcome revelation, because I had my doubts about a business model in which companies make a profit off of labor performed by a worker pool that typically doesn't pay income tax. Biewald, one of those people who instantly come across as sincere and good-hearted, noted that there are a lot easier ways to make money than starting a business, and that doing business and doing good aren't mutually exclusive:
Our board has been nothing but excited about our partnership with Samasource, and about the work we did in Haiti. They expect a return, but these are human beings, and they don't want to hurt the world. Maybe as we get bigger it will become harder, but as long as I'm in control of this company, we'll hire people that care about the world; we'll think about our impact on the world.
CrowdFlower has also partnered with Samasource to create an iPhone app called "Give Work" that enables people to donate their time to perform tasks that create income for some of the neediest people on the planet. Here's an excerpt from the iTunes Store app description:
Ever wonder if you could use a few spare minutes to do good? Now, with Give Work, you can help fight poverty around the world using your iPhone. The beneficiaries of this program include refugees in Kenya and displaced people affected by the recent earthquake in Haiti. When you complete a task on your iPhone or iPod Touch, the same task is assigned to a person in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or Haiti. When your answers match and the task is verified, this person gets paid for the work you did together.
That app has been enormously popular, surprising no one more than Biewald:
That was incredibly successful for us, even though we had no money to market it-literally zero marketing dollars were put in. We had more than 30,000 downloads. We had no idea that there were going to be so many people willing to work for charity dollars.
Biewald pointed out that there are other companies using a crowdsourcing model to do important work in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. InnoCentive is offering rewards to its network of 200,000 R&D experts for ideas that will help solve the problem. Crisis Commons, meanwhile, has created Oil Reporter, a free iPhone/Android app that enables people to upload photographs and other information to help authorities monitor the spread and effects of the oil spill.
The bottom line is that while some crowdsourcing service providers will no doubt continue to take advantage of taxation, labor and other laws that have yet to catch up with the expansion of crowdsourcing, there's enough good work being done by companies like CrowdFlower to make crowdsourcing, on balance, a welcome development. What's needed are more people like Biewald to guide its growth.