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Passive Crowdsourcing: 5 Ways We Do Work for Others Without Realizing It

In the future, we will all be a part of a hyper-connected global society, and the small footprint of our data’s contribution will make the network smarter than it was without it.

You may not know it, but you do work every day for different companies -- and even your city government. This is called passive crowdsourcing, or the distribution of work or tasks to individuals who are not consciously aware they are participating in a crowdsourced system. 

Here are five examples of how you participate in these systems almost daily.

1. You translate old books, newspapers and street signs

You may recognize the image below as an aspect of every new service you sign-up for or every time you get locked out of your e-mail account. Those strange characters, called CAPTCHAs, which you must meticulously enter, are actually words from real books, newspapers or other print publications that are too distorted for computers to read.


That’s where you come in. It turns out humans are much better at manually translating as part of a giant crowdsourced security tool. In fact, through reCAPTCHA, we currently solve 200 million of these each day, which equates to more than 150,000 man hours of work every day.

In fact, we've already helped translate the entire New York Times print circulation (which now goes back to 1851) and have now just begun translating every house and street number on Google Maps.

2. You tell social networks what to advertise to you

The days of traditional and over-generalized market research are over, because you are now the market research for every social network. Many people were up in arms with Facebook’s campaign to manipulate your emotions. But what many may fail to realize is that this type of experimentation was happening long before Facebook existed. Almost all social networks today collect your signals (likes, activities, interests, browsing history) so that they can do two things:

  • provide a more personalized and contextual user experience to make you addicted; and
  • study and learn from your behavior.
The end goal of both of these items is to advertise and sell you more products and services. Tying your social signals to your behavior is the Holy Grail for marketers because they can use the secret sauce they extract from your behavior to better sell to others like you. The screenshot below shows how detailed advertisers can target you on Facebook today.


We designed an example campaign to target individuals 21 years or older who live in Texas, make more than $100,000 per year, have made a political contribution or related action, like to barbecue and own their own home. This netted approximately 18,800 people to target with our advertisement. Imagine the possibilities.

So just remember, every like, post and comment you make online helps social networks better understand and target you with advertising.

3. You tell media companies what you want to see.

The media industry is currently in a period of uncertainty and rediscovery as many major players try to find new ways to capture and engage their audience. One of the major trends is contextual content delivery, which is content that is specifically recommended to users based on their interests, reading history, etc.

Content delivery systems, such as Zite, recently purchased by Flipboard (shown at left), have been set up to allow users to provide manual inputs (up or down votes) so the system can learn your interests and better make recommendations. Future systems will leverage how long you remain in an article, the sentiment of your comments, who you shared it with (and their relation to you) and, most importantly, what you do after you read it (did you go to another recommended article or leave?).

4. You help your government agency become more efficient

Numerous initiatives are designed to use crowdsourcing technologies to engage citizens. Most require these citizens to actively participate in some format; however, future participation will be as simple as using the city’s bike-sharing program or opening an app on your phone.

Take Street Bump, an app from Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics and Connected Bits -- it's one example of how citizens can be useful by doing nothing more than opening an app on their phones. After you install Street Bump, every time you take a drive through Boston, your data is aggregated and sent to the city for processing. The application uses an algorithm to determine whether or not the vibrations your phone recorded were street bumps, potholes or just regular road vibrations.

Another great example of passive crowdsourcing for government is found in Copenhagen, which ran a pilot with the MIT SENSEable City Lab to develop a connected bike wheel. When this wheel was added to the city’s ridesharing program, it became an instant sensor that mapped the city's environmental conditions. All of this while solving another problem for cities -- having a sustainable mode of transportation for the population to get around. Cities of the future will leverage passive crowdsourcing with their existing apps for utility payments, taxes, etc., so that citizens can "opt in" to let their phones becomes sensors for a much smarter city network.


5. You help other people commute to work

There used to be a time when we all tuned into the radio to hear traffic before and during our morning commute. It was almost a religious experience because it was so embedded in our daily routines.

But times changed, and many news organizations began experimenting with traffic predictions based on roadway cameras. This method only went as far as an individual’s ability to interpret a ton of live feeds. And today, everything has changed -- anytime you navigate to a restaurant or meeting, your commute shows you an estimated time of arrival based on other people. Applications like Waze, shown at left, use your location, speed and heading to help predict a more accurate commute for other people. You can even manually log accidents, police sightings and many other things.

The real beauty, however, is in the wealth of data the application provides without having to lift a finger. Installing Waze on your phone makes it a sensor within a much larger network, and every new person who joins makes the network more accurate for the other participants.

What’s to come? In the future, you will be a sensor for more than just your city; you will be a part of a hyper-connected global society, and the small footprint of your data’s contribution will make the network smarter than it was without it. The Internet is going to accelerate people using you and your data to create their own economic value.

The real question is, now that you know what’s happening, what are you going to do to take advantage of it?