Beyond X PRIZE: The 10 Best Crowdsourcing Tools and Technologies

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Peter Diamandis explaining X PRIZE economics. (Photo: Hubert Burda)

Dr. Peter H. Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, and co-Founder and Chairman of the Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based institution partnered with NASA, Google, Autodesk and Nokia. Dr. Diamandis attended MIT, where he received his degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering, as well as Harvard Medical School where he received his M.D.

He’s no underachiever.

I’ve known Peter for several years, both as a friend and as advising faculty at Singularity University. He is known for being incredibly resourceful. And, true as this may be, it’s his ability to teach resourcefulness that impresses me most…

The following guest post offers an optimistic look at the tools and technologies he believes will change this world for the better, which you can harness. If you like this small sample and the resources at the end, I highly encourage you take a look at his new book on this subject, Abundance.

In it, Diamandis and co-author Kotler challenge us all to solve humanity’s grand challenges. The timing is right; innovative small teams are now able to accomplish what only governments and large corporations could once fathom.

I hope this excites you as much as it excites me. With a little planning and a little technology, you–yes, you–can create a domino effect that changes the world.

Enter Peter

In 1861 William Russell, one of the biggest investors in the Pony Express, decided to use the previous year’s presidential election for promotional purposes.

His goal was to deliver Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address from the eastern end of the telegraph line, located in Fort Kearny, Nebraska, to the western end of the telegraph line, in Fort Churchill, Nevada, as fast as possible. To pull this off, he spent a small fortune, hired hundreds of extra men, and positioned fresh relay horses every ten miles. As a result, California read Lincoln’s words a blistering seventeen days and seven hours after he spoke them.

By comparison, in 2008 the entire country learned that Barack Obama had become the forty-fourth president of the United States the instant he was declared the winner. When Obama gave his inaugural address, his words traveled from Washington, DC, to Sacramento, California, 14,939,040 seconds faster than Lincoln’s speech. But his words also hit Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and Karachi, Pakistan, less than a second later. In fact, barring some combination of precognition and global telepathy, this is just about the very fastest such information could possibly travel.

Such rapid progress becomes even more impressive when you consider that our species has been sending messages to one another for 150,000 years. While smoke signals were innovative, and air mail even more so, in the last century, we’ve gotten so good at this game that no matter the distances involved, and with little more than a smart phone and a Twitter account, anyone’s words can reach everyone’s screen in an instant. This can happen without additional expenses, extra employees, or a moment of pre- planning. It can happen whenever we please and why-ever we please. With an upgrade to a webcam and a laptop, it can happen live and in color. Heck, with the right equipment, it can even happen in 3-D.

This is yet another example of the self-amplifying, positive feedback loop that has been the hallmark of life for billions of years. From the mitochondria-enabled eukaryote to the mobile-phone-enabled Masai warrior, improved technology enables increasing specialization that leads to more opportunities for cooperation. It’s a self-amplifying mechanism. In the same way that Moore’s law is the result of faster computers being used to design the next generation of faster computers, the tools of cooperation always beget the next generation of tools of cooperation. Obama’s speech went instantly global because, during the twentieth century, this same positive feedback loop reached an apex of sorts, producing the two most powerful cooperative tools the world has ever seen.

The first of these tools was the transportation revolution that brought us from beasts of burden to planes, trains, and automobiles in less than two hundred years. In that time, we built highways and skyways and, to borrow Thomas Friedman’s phrase, “flattened the world.” When famine struck the Sudan, Americans didn’t hear about it years later. They got real-time reports and immediately decided to lend a hand. And because that hand could be lent via a C-130 Hercules transport plane rather than a guy on a horse, a whole lot of people went a lot less hungry in a hurry.

If you want to measure the change in cooperative capabilities illustrated here, you can start with the 18,800-fold increase in horsepower between a horse and a Hercules. Total carrying capacity over time is perhaps a better metric, and there the gains are larger. A horse can lug two hundred pounds more than thirty miles in a day, but a C-130 carries forty-two thousand pounds over eight thousand miles during those same twenty-four hours. This makes for a 56,000-fold improvement in our ability to cooperate with one another.

The second cooperative tool is the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution we’ve already documented. This has produced even larger gains during this same two-hundred-year period.

ICT’s impact doesn’t end with novel ways to spread information or share material resources. As Rob McEwen discovered when he went looking for gold in the hills of northwestern Ontario, the tools of cooperation can also create new possibilities for sharing mental resources—and this may be a far more significant boost for abundance.

Gold in Dem Hills

A dapper Canadian in his mid-fifties, Rob McEwen bought the disparate collection of gold mining companies known as Goldcorp in 1989. A decade later, he’d unified those companies and was ready for expansion—a process he wanted to start by building a new refinery. To determine exactly what size refinery to build, McEwen took the logical step of asking his geologists and engineers how much gold was hidden in his mine. No one knew. He was employing the very best people he could hire, yet none of them could answer his question.

About the same time, while attending an executive program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, McEwen heard about Linux. This open- source computer operating system got its start in 1991, when Linus Torvalds, then a twenty-one-year-old student at the University of Helsinki, Finland, posted a short message on Usenet:

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/ dislike in minix…

So many people responded to his post that the first version of that operating system was completed in just three years. Linux 1.0 was made publicly available in March 1994, but this wasn’t the end of the project. Afterward, support kept pouring in. And pouring in. In 2006 a study funded by the European Union put the redevelopment cost of Linux version 2.6.8 at $1.14 billion. By 2008, the revenue of all servers, desktops, and software packages running on Linux was $35.7 billion.

McEwen was astounded by all this. Linux has over ten thousand lines of code. He couldn’t believe that hundreds of programmers could collaborate on a system so complex. He couldn’t believe that most would do it for free. He returned to Goldcorp’s offices with a wild idea: rather than ask his own engineers to estimate the amount of gold he had underground, he would take his company’s most prized asset—the geological data normally locked in the safe—and make it freely available to the public. He also decided to incentivize the effort, trying to see if he could get Torvald’s results in a com- pressed time period. In March 2000 McEwen announced the Goldcorp Challenge: “Show me where I can find the next six million ounces of gold, and I will pay you five hundred thousand dollars.”

Over the next few months, Goldcorp received over 1,400 requests for its 400 megabytes of geological data. Ultimately, 125 teams entered the competition. A year later, it was over. Three teams were declared winners. Two were from New Zealand, one was from Russia. None had ever visited McEwen’s mine. Yet so good had the tools of cooperation become and so ripe was our willingness to use them that by 2001, the gold pinpointed by these teams (at a cost of $500,000) was worth billions of dollars on the open market.

When McEwen couldn’t determine the amount of ore he had under- ground, he was suffering from “knowledge scarcity.” This is not an uncommon problem in our modern world. Yet the tools of cooperation have become so powerful that once properly incentivized, it’s possible to bring the brightest minds to bear on the hardest problems. This is critical, as Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy famously pointed out: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

Our new cooperative capabilities have given individuals the ability to understand and affect global issues as never before, changing both their sphere of caring and their sphere of influence by orders of magnitude. We can now work all day with our hands in California, yet spend our evenings lending our brains to Mongolia. NYU professor of communication Clay Shirky uses the term “cognitive surplus” to describe this process. He defines it as “the ability of the world’s population to volunteer and to contribute and collaborate on large, sometimes global, projects.”

“Wikipedia took one hundred million hours of volunteer time to create,” says Shirky. “How do we measure this relative to other uses of time? Well, TV watching, which is the largest use of time, takes two hundred billion hours every year—in the US alone. To put this in perspective, we spend a Wikipedia worth of time every weekend in the US watching advertisements alone. If we were to forgo our television addiction for just one year, the world would have over a trillion hours of cognitive surplus to commit to share projects.” Imagine what we could do for the world’s grand challenges with a trillion hours of focused attention.

An Affordable Android

Until now, we’ve kept our examination of the tools of cooperation rooted in the past, but what’s already been is no match for what’s soon to arrive. It can be argued that because of the nonzero nature of information, the healthiest global economy is built upon the exchange of information. But this becomes possible only when our best information-sharing devices— specifically devices that are portable, affordable, and hooked up to the Internet—become globally available.

That problem has now been solved.

In early 2011, the Chinese firm Huawei unveiled an affordable $80 Android smart phone through Kenya’s telecom titan Safaricom. In less than six months, sales skyrocketed past 350,000 handsets, an impressive figure for a country where 60 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Even better than the price are the 300,000-plus apps these users can now access. And if that’s not dramatic enough, in the fall of 2011 the Indian government partnered with the Canada-based company Datawind and announced a seven-inch Android tablet with a base cost of $35.

But here’s the bigger kicker. Because information-spreading technology has traditionally been expensive, the ideas that have been quickest to spread have usually emerged from the wealthier, dominant powers—those nations with access to the latest and greatest technology. Yet because of the cost reductions associated with exponential price-performance curves, those rules are changing rapidly. Think about how this shift has impacted Hollywood. For most of the twentieth century, Tinseltown was the nexus of the entertainment world: the best films, the brightest stars, an entertainment hegemony unrivalled in history. But in less than twenty-five years, digital technology has rearranged these facts.

On average, Hollywood produces five hundred films per year and reaches a worldwide audience of 2.6 billion. If the average length of those films is two hours, then Hollywood produces one thousand hours of content per year. YouTube users, on the other hand, upload forty-eight hours’ worth of videos every minute. This means, every twenty-one minutes, YouTube provides more novel entertainment than Hollywood does in twelve months. And the YouTube audience? In 2009 it received 129 million views a day, so in twenty-one days, the site reached more people than Hollywood does in a year. Since content creators in the developing world now outnumber content creators in the developed world, it’s safe to say that the tools of cooperation have enabled the world’s real silent majority to finally find its voice.

And that voice is being heard like never before. “The global deployment of ICT has utterly democratized the tools of cooperation,” says Salim Ismail, SU’s founding executive director and now its global ambassador. “We saw this in sharp relief during the Arab Spring. The aggregated self- publishing capabilities of the everyman enabled radical transparency and transformed the political landscape. As more and more people learn how to use these tools, they’ll quickly start applying them to all sorts of grand challenges.”

Resources and Next Steps

This is where you come in.

All of these cooperative tools and exponential technologies are reshaping our globe. But you no longer have to sit on the sidelines and wait for the future to happen. You are now empowered to get involved. To change the world. If you’re sick of the doom and gloom and ready to get in the game, explore the resources below. If you feel inspired to delve deeper, the Abundance book offers many more options.

Today’s 10 best crowdsourcing and collaboration tools on the web:

So given these powerful tools of collaboration, how do you use them to solve your corporate challenges? Here’s a few of the cutting edge organizations that have been created to help you.

1. X PRIZE Foundation (www.xprize.org): The X PRIZE focuses on designing and running incentive competitions in the $1M – $30M arena focused on solving grand challenges.

2. CoFundos (cofundos.org): cheap and really good platform for the development of open-source software.

3. Genius Rocket (geniusrocket.com): solid crowdsourced creative design agency composed solely of vetted video production professionals producing content as a fraction of the cost of a traditional ad agency.

4. Amazon Mechanical Turk (mturk.com): popular and powerful crowdsourcing platform for simple tasks that computers cannot perform(yet), such as podcasts transcribing or text editing. There are also companies, like CrowdFlower, that leverage Mechanical Turk (and similar tools) for even more elegant solutions.

5. Innocentive (www.innocentive.com): one of today’s best online platform for open innovation, crowdsourcing and innovation contests. This is where organizations access the world’s brightest problem solvers.

6. UTest (http://www.utest.com): the world’s largest marketplace for software testing services.

7. IdeaConnection (www.ideaconnection.com): open innovation challenge site for new inventions, innovations and products.

8. NineSigma (www.ninesigma.com): open innovation service provider, connecting clients with a global innovation network of experts.

9. Ennovent (www.ennovent.com): worldwide expert platform seeking solutions for sustainable development in energy, food, water, health and education in rural India.

10. TopCoder (www.topcoder.com): the world’s largest competitive software development & creative design community, with over 200,000 at your fingertips.

Today’s best crowd-funding tools on the web:

In addition to getting people to help solve your problems, what about getting people to help fund your work? Here’s a few of the key sites that can help you raise money:

1. CrowdRise (www.crowdrise.com): Crowdrise is an innovative, crowd-sourced community of volunteers and online fundraisers that have come together to support online fundraising for charity, events and special projects. It’s a way to raise money in new ways, turning participants and supporters into effective online fundraisers.

2. Kickstarter (www.Kickstarter.com): Kickstarter is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. In 2011 the platform raised over $100 million for projects from the worlds of music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields. Uniquely, on Kickstarter, a project must reach its funding goal before time runs out or no money changes hands, it’s an “all or nothing model”.

3. IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com): IndieGoGo you can create a funding campaign to raise money quickly and securely. This trusted platform has helped to raise millions of dollars for over 65,000 campaigns, across 211 countries.

Posted on: February 20, 2012.

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69 comments on “Beyond X PRIZE: The 10 Best Crowdsourcing Tools and Technologies

  1. Tim,

    Great resource on one of the most exciting categories of companies these days. Speaking of which, I’ve just left a start up that had great products/ poor management. How do you vet the management team before agreeing to get involved? It seems like the amount of exposure one might need to see their true colors is more than one has when deciding whether to come aboard.

    Like

  2. Great read and I definitely plan on adding this book to the stack.

    Interestingly, I just launched my first project on Kickstarter — kolstom carbon fiber sunglasses — rather than the usual lengthy (and risky) development of products that go straight to the store shelf.

    We’ll see how it goes!!! :)

    Like

  3. Crowdrise.com looks awesome. We need more and more companies that are involved in volunteering and fundraising. I feel like things such as this are our best chance of saving the planet and the other species that live on Earth. I’m a big animal rights guy and the rhino story on their front page sold me.

    Like

  4. Wow, Tim, this IS pure inspiration!.. Neat and motivating – resonates with my long term values and goals so deeply that I already arranged the meeting for tomorrow with few brilliant guys from one startup: to brainstorm actions on the “evil plan that will save the earth”.

    I’ve been carrrying this plan for a year or so and also shared it with others on occasion (and the feedback was fantastic) but now I’m ready to kick it to another level – and your post was a tipping impuls for me.

    Thanks and good luck as always!

    Pura vida,

    Linas;)

    Like

  5. Great article Tim. We’ve been doing a lot with crowdsourcing (White House, VA, Wired, etc) and its great to see an article from you about it.

    We actually just released a crowd funding module in Beta on IdeaScale (uses PayPal). Ping me if any of your readers would like a demo and free pilot license.

    Cheers

    Rob Hoehn
    Co-Founder
    IdeaScale.com

    Like

  6. Great list of sources. I’ve used a couple of these over the years. Topcoder is unique compared to some of the companies out there. They have some very strict rules on documentation which allows them to maintain a high degree of control with a large virtual workforce.

    Like

  7. Awesome, I use a lot of outsourcing in my business, but have read a lot about crwodsourcing lately, and think I’ll have to give it a shot. Seems it could be the way to go with design work.

    Cheers

    Like

  8. There also is RocketHub, it works great and you can promote your idea no matter where you live, with Kickstarter you need to be US resident because of Amazon Payments requirements.

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  9. Thanks to Tim and Peter. We’re definitely in an era where negativity is fed to us on a consistent basis and hearing ‘good news’ about the future is reassuring. Peter co-hosted a webinar with Jonathan Budd that was pretty fantastic and gives a little more insight into his teachings from his new book. Google ‘budd abundance’ to get to his page where it is posted (I’m not spamming this guy so I won’t insert his link in the post). I’m curious to know which sites Tim would add to this list.

    Like

  10. Hey Tim and Dr. Diamandis,

    Thanks for an insightful and inspirational article that challenges the reader to dream big and make the most of the power of collaborative creative problem solving.

    Truly mindblowing. This blog is a continuous source of inspiration for me, really thanks!

    PS Got the kindle version of the extended 4hww recently (had already read the original one), it´s pretty amazing! I´m working on my muse, making it happen. It will be showcased in your blog soon, it´s a dream of mine and it will come true.

    Thanks!!!!

    Like