Crowdsourcing Lessons

The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, more RLG Partners and others have participated in the Flickr Commons, all to try to leverage what’s become known as “crowdsourcing” — “the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call,” as Wikipedia describes it. By posting content on the web in places where many people frequent, the Library of Congress and others are hoping to attract descriptions, subject labels, and other useful content to enrich their finding tools. And this has undeniably led to enriched descriptions.

But tossing something out on the “interwebs” and creating an effective crowdsourcing environment are two very different things. And this article, from the Nieman Journalism Lab, describes lessons from the Guardian newspaper in the UK that recently used crowdsourcing in their amazing unveiling of the British Parliament expenses scandal. The “four lessons” they point out include:

  1. “Your workers are unpaid, so make it fun.” Make it feel like a game, even if it seems like work to you.
  2. Public attention is fickle, so launch immediately.” If it is newsworthy, in other words, strike while the iron is hot.
  3. “Speed is mandatory, so use a framework.” Again, applies if something is newsworthy and has a limited span of time to attract attention. Luckily, there are fast ways you can get going with a site.
  4. “Participation will come in one big burst, so have servers ready.” Also important for when you have a short but intense focus of attention. The Guardian used Amazon’s EC2 infrastructure, for which during the brief span of their project they figure they spent somewhere under 60 pounds. Right, chump change.

Although these tips are definitely skewed toward a crowdsourcing opportunity tied to a newsworthy situation (and therefore of a short-lived attention span), libraries, museums, and archives are not immune from such events. Therefore, it would be good for us to be ready to exploit such opportunities when they arise. For example, what about the 100th anniversary of an author’s birth? That’s a newsworthy event, were an archive chock-full of that author’s content and papers able to exploit the crowd in some useful way. Just sayin’.

Note: Thanks to Rose Holley, of the Australian Newspapers Project and a member of our RLG Partnership Social Metadata Working Group, for pointing this out.

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