Mar 22, 2012Science and Technology
Play to the crowd: Crowdsourcing works for science and businesses alike

Crowdsourcing is changing science.When you’re trained to be a scientist, you learn the fundamental process of experimentation: The scientific method. New-generation scientists see enormous potential in crowdsourcing this revered method. Their attempts to crowdsource science have been successful and even better than some traditional methods using super computers and standard practices. 

Here’s the best way to think about crowdsourcing. Simply put, the crowd is on the Internet. Consider your Facebook friends and Twitter followers as your crowd. When you post a question or comment to your crowd you are effectively crowdsourcing the response. Your source for input comes from the crowd. On a much more sophisticated scale, many industries including business and research are taking their problems to the crowd because the collective mind is better than one. 

A prime example of how crowdsourcing works is InnoCentive. This company was formed on the basis of crowdsourcing for environmental science, engineering, molecular biology, and other complex areas of research. Individuals from all walks of life and backgrounds can offer up innovative solutions, and the winning solution gets a cash prize. The company that supplies the cash reward remains confidential, and the solution becomes the intellectual property of that company. InnoCentive has been very successful, and has set the stage for open source innovation that works on the basis of crowdsourcing. 

A screenshot of the unsolved monkey virus protein Foldit puzzle.Another crowdsourcing scientist named Adrien Treuille from Carnegie Mellon University has made a name for himself by using computer games, simulation and animation to analyze protein folding and nanoenginnering. The young scientist and his team created two online computer games that utilize crowdsourcing to solve highly complex, biological engineering problems. The games, Foldit and EteRNA, challenge over 400,000 players worldwide to design and manipulate molecular structures.They compared computer-generated solutions to human-generated designs, and after six months of playing the game, the designs developed by humans via crowdsourcing were markedly better than computer-generated solutions. (Watch this video to learn more about Treuille.) 

There are some reservations about using crowdsourcing for scientific research, despite the success of InnoCentive, Foldit, and EteRNA. From a legal standpoint, it is absolutely essential that the individuals and companies involved in crowdsourcing are clear about the objectives and incentives. The fear is that a company will benefit from the input of the crowd without the crowd being appropriately credited. With 100 percent transparency, this can be avoided. 

Crowdsourcing has been a hot debate in Washington, too. Small businesses and entrepreneurs want to use crowdsourcing as an innovative fundraising strategy. Just last week, the US Senate announced a bill that would potentially allow self-employed individuals to raise up to $1 million per year via the crowd. Many self-employed organizations, including the National Association for the Self Employed (NASE) support this bill

What’s making crowdsourcing science popular is the fresh approach to traditional research methods, which even the most traditional researchers would appreciate. After all, if you want a different result, you must try a different method. Crowdsourcing also presents an innovative means of cutting costs without sacrificing leadership status in the marketplace.  

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