What Is the Next Step for Crowdsourcing?

27/10/2011 17:02 BST | Updated 18/01/2012 14:24 GMT

Trawling through entries to The Good Web Guide's third Website of the Year Award recently, it was gratifying to see an overall improvement in the quality of website entering our award and intriguing to note an increased number of sites entered that are using crowdsourcing as their model.

Defined by Wikipedia - the crowdsourced encyclopaedia - as "sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to an undefined large group of people or community (crowd) through an open call," crowdsourcing uses the web to invite small contributions from multiple people and, in doing so, fund projects, build content, create ideas, solve problems or perform tasks that traditionally would have been completed by one person or organisation, or, in some cases, may not have been achieved at all.

Driven by the rise in and uptake of Web 2.0, crowdsourcing embraces social media as a way of directing communication and encouraging collaboration that can be advantageous when applied to many different scenarios. This has been particularly true for the consumer, who - via sites such as Groupon and Crowdity - can now enjoy much larger discounts on events, products and services than they could before by simply spreading the word amongst their friends and using the power of the group or crowd to drive down prices.

In Australia, an interesting development of this idea is currently being applied to energy companies via a new crowdsourcing business, One Big Switch, which uses "the power of group switching" to help consumers get the best possible deals on their energy bills. As British energy companies continue to hike prices in the UK, despite increases in their profit margins and many people facing fuel poverty this winter, this is something that is clearly needed in the UK.

But crowdsourcing is not just a positive thing for consumers. It can also help entrepreneurs, inventors and other creative people get ideas off the ground that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. This is evident in sites such as WeFund, which helps new creative projects gain funding by swapping perks for pledges; Unbound, which invites readers to pledge their support for book ideas submitted to the site, the most popular of which it publishes; and American site, Quirky, which invites people to submit ideas for products and collaborate on how they could be improved before putting the best ones into production, selling them on the site, and paying out 30¢ of every dollar made to those who have co-operated along the way.

The potential of crowdsourcing is increasingly being seen by politicians, who, in the midst of more financial turmoil and an increasing lack of public faith in their judgement, are turning to the public themselves to help make decisions and have their say. Last year, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg embarked on an exercise in crowdsourcing politics when he invited the British public to help decide which laws should be repealed via the government sponsored website 'Your Freedom.' Meanwhile, in April this year, Iceland chose to rewrite its constitution by crowdsourcing ideas and suggestions from its citizens via social media. Thorvaldur Gylfason, a member of Iceland's constitutional council, told the BBC: "The public have added much to our debate. Their comments have been quite helpful and they have had a positive effect on the outcome."

Science,too, is looking at crowdsourcing as a way to open up possibilities and pool ideas in the name of advancement. This can be seen at the website, Zooniverse, which offers a collection of 'citizen science' projects, aimed at encouraging members of the public to participate in scientific research. By establishing links and collaborating with the general public, crowdsourcing, it suggests, can allow scientists to work at greater speed and increase the scope and reach of their work.

While there are clearly many benefits to crowdsourcing as a means of pooling resources, knowledge, money and/or time as a way of achieving results, there are, of course, certain serious issues to be considered. The first is that those contributing to citizen projects have no proof of expertise and no individual viewpoint, which poses a problem for those seeking solutions or information of a quality that can be relied upon. The second - and this is connected to the first - is that, by using mass collaboration as a way of achieving business goals - be that writing content, doing design work or generating ideas - costs are driven down or eliminated to an extent that the role of individual experts and professionals is threatened. As Florian Schmidt wrote in his article Is the design industry at risk thanks to hordes of Web-savvy amateurs for Eye magazine recently: "From a designer's perspective, crowdsourcing or spec-work is tantamount to slave-driving, a highly unethical way to raid the market."

2011 has seen a large number of crowdsourcing initiatives spring up and, no doubt, 2012 will see many more. For the most part, these are looking to use collaboration and altruism - the key tenets of crowdsourcing - as a way of benefitting all. But attention needs to be paid to quality and those people that can deliver that quality. Without this, what might at first seem like the wisdom of crowds can quickly become mob rule - and the potential of crowdsourcing as a tool for important human advancements is thrown away.

The Good Web Guide Website of the Year 2011 Award Shortlist has been announced. To vote for your favourite site in The People's Choice award, click here.