Passive, Aggressive Crowdsourcing

I've been awed by the power of passive crowdsourcing -- harnessing the power of crowds without the crowd realizing it.

Here are three examples, all by Google (natch):

Free 411. Dial 1-800-GOOG-411 and you get directory assistance from Google for free. No ads, no charges. Why would that be? As Wired pointed out, when you request the number for your favorite pizza place, Google captures your voice and actions to build and refine a voice-recognition system. You provide the error correction by picking from a list of its guesses, or even spelling out the request. Once a match is made, you get the phone number and Google's software gets a tiny bit smarter. The result? Today, Google added voice-recognition to its popular iPhone application.

Flu Tracker. Google has been able to track the severity and geography of the flu by watching the frequency and location of people searching for "flu symptoms" and other telltale keywords. Google's results closely match the CDC's national tracking data, which are based on reports from health care providers nationwide.

Location, location, location. When I got my new GPS-enabled phone home, I did what any self-respecting geek would do: use Google Maps to pinpoint my apartment to a silly degree of accuracy. For comparison, I then did the same thing on my wife's phone -- which also has Google Maps, but no GPS. To my surprise, it pinpointed exactly where I was! After a while, I figured out what had happened: With the search on the first phone, I had "taught" Google's systems the exact location of our particular combination of nearby cell phone towers, wireless networks, maybe even a bluetooth signal from the guy next door. When it saw the combination again, even without the GPS signal, it knew where it was.

So is there a role for passive crowdsourcing in journalism? I think so, but still thinking.

The driving force in each of these examples is that participation by the crowd is driven by utility: getting a phone number, searching for flu information, finding one's location. Hard to imagine a utility that a newspaper or radio station might provide to attract a large enough data set for a particular purpose.

However, I do know that people respond to direct requests by radio personalities and newspaper columnists to participate in crowdsourcing projects. Might such a request lead people to actively participate in a passive collection of data?

My friend Daniel Liss and I have brainstormed some nifty ideas we hope to try out.

Do you have any?
1 response
Hi, I work as a web designer/info graphic artist at the REading Eagle Newspaper in Reading, Pa. Found you through the "Next Newsroom Project" Some fascinating examples here. Its creative ideas like this that the news industry needs. Ways to harness the power of all the data collection that we have been undertaking all these years.
Crowdsourcing often comes to mind while Im waiting in a long line. I cant help but wonder.. what if there is a biologist, an oncologist and physicist in this crowd.. and they each have a snippet of knowledge, that when combined, could cure cancer.. instead we're all waiting in line to get our 12 dollar bucket of popcorn with extra butter.