Crowdsourcing Helps Chicago Chamber of Commerce Find More Bus Riders/Screenshot Courtesy of Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Crowdsourcing Helps Chicago Chamber of Commerce Find More Bus Riders Screenshot Courtesy of Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce

"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals, and you know it," proclaimed Agent K, actor Tommy Lee Jones' character in the film Men in Black. Agent K was referring to the chaos that would ensue were the public made aware of aliens living among them. Because when people think and act in unison, the results are rarely productive, and occasionally they're catastrophic.

But what if you could take groupthink and eliminate the dumb, panicky and dangerous parts? That's the idea behind crowdsourcing: When you ask the whole world a question at the same time, it's safe to assume you'll end up, by default, with a reasonable answer.

And thanks to the Web, you really can ask the world a question and get individual answers in return. That's exactly what the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce did as part of its InnovateNow campaign. The chamber turned to the wisdom of the crowd to determine how to increase public transit ridership on reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One Billion Rides

Four years ago, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Economic Opportunity, the chamber launched InnovateNow, an effort to transform the Chicago metropolitan area into a global center of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. To achieve its goal, the chamber is working with state and local governments, schools and businesses on ideas for design and innovation that will spur economic growth and environmental sustainability.

During preparation for the 2009 Innovation Summit, the chamber was approached by InnoCentive, a company that specializes in using crowdsourcing to help clients solve problems, said Chicagoland Chamber Foundation President Lance Pressl. For a fee, InnoCentive helps its clients design a challenge, which can be related to any subject - from math and science to public policy. Once the challenge is finalized, the client (a.k.a., the "seeker") offers a reward for a workable solution and InnoCentive posts the challenge on its Web site. Once the challenge is posted, "solvers" from around the world can access it and attempt to devise a solution. Anyone can be a solver, and InnoCentive said it has around 180,000 people registered.

"As we were preparing for our third annual Innovation Summit, we were thinking about what the theme might be," Pressl said. "We seized upon 'How innovation plus design can equal sustainability.'

"We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we were able to link the theme of what we were doing with an InnoCentive challenge?'"

After some brainstorming, the chamber settled on a challenge that would ask how the Chicago Transit Authority could increase public transportation ridership and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge dovetailed with the already-established Billion Rides campaign - an effort to tally 1billion public transit rides in one year.

Last fall, Pressl and the chamber began working with InnoCentive's sales vice president, Jon Fredrickson, to devise a challenge they hoped would generate a blueprint for boosting public transit ridership to 1 billion. The chamber managed to get $5,000 for a reward and posted the challenge in November. Pressl presented the winning solution at the Innovation Summit in May 2009.

While it's not a government body, the not-for-profit Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce seeks to improve the Chicago region. The chamber was also the first organization with a public interest to work with InnoCentive. As such, both Pressl and Fredrickson said they weren't sure what interest there might be in solving a public-works problem. They were both pleasantly surprised.

"That people somewhere would have an opinion and be willing to use their intelligence to offer that opinion, idea or solution to a public body was pretty compelling," said Fredrickson. "And when you started looking at the number

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.