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

of responses that came in from different points around the globe, it really started giving us all an idea that people care and have the intellectual capacity to add quality in a solution to something of public interest."

In fact, the challenge yielded 125 proposed solutions, with participation from every populated continent. Everyone involved in the chamber's challenge was stunned - not only by the number of solutions offered, but also by their worth.

"The quality of the submissions was impressive. We didn't know what to expect, but there were some really thoughtful people," Pressl said. "[InnoCentive has] 180,000 solvers from around the world in its community. It would be very hard to cut through the clutter to get people to look at it if we were going to do [a challenge] individually. They bring 180,000 solvers to the table immediately. They have solvers who make a living just solving challenges. I was impressed with the fact that more than 50 percent of the solvers in their community are outside the United States."

Winning Solutions

Though there was global participation in the challenge, the winner and runner-up were Chicago-area residents. The winning entry came from Aaron Renn, a local writer who covers urban affairs. Renn's submission, which can be viewed at InnovateNow, is an exhaustively researched, 18-page work that details precisely how the Chicago Transit Authority can reach that billion riders mark. It's exactly what Pressl hoped would come out of the crowdsourcing experiment.

"We were impressed with his depth of knowledge of the system and his recommendations," Pressl said. "His writing was clear, precise and concise. He had a complete picture of what needed to happen to make the public transportation system more desirable to riders."

For a government agency, a crowdsourcing challenge could be an appealing approach to problem solving. But for these challenges to work, there must be a reward. Sure, some people may submit ideas because they take pleasure in it. But to reach the talent pool that's all of humanity, something beyond intellectual curiosity is needed. Unfortunately an agency procuring reward money from its budget for such a contest is likely a tall order - especially when the reward would go toward something called crowdsourcing.

But crowdsourcing is nearing credibility, if it hasn't reached it already, as a way to generate legitimate information. For example, Wikipedia has been a wildly successful experiment. It's not perfect, nor will it ever be. But Wikipedia has perhaps become something more important - reliable.

The way Pressl looks at it, a government agency funding a similar endeavor might not be an impossibility after all.

"I think once people begin to see the value of crowdsourcing - nothing against consultants - but you might spend $50,000 on consultants," Pressl said. "This might be an alternative, more cost-effective way to get some different ideas. The diversity of ideas by unique experiences is the real value here. For us, it was intoxicatingly addictive. The idea of being able to tap into 180,000 people is kind of cool."

The choice was spending $50,000 for a consulting firm to generate solutions or a quarter of that to ask the world. For the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the answer was in the crowds.


Chad Vander Veen  | 

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