Sunday, March 14, 2010

Crowdsourcing Social Change

You’re a small, scrappy social change organization. You crowdsource. [Yeah, yeah, we know. It’s cheaper. Diversity solves problems faster. There is greater wisdom in numbers. Engagement builds collaboration and collaboration brings in money and volunteers.] But that’s not all. Crowdsourcing also turns Establishment philanthropy on its ear. “There’s not a lot of openness in traditional philanthropy,” Nonprofit Technology Network's Holly Ross told the crowd that came to hear her, Beth Kanter, Netsquared's Amy Sample Ward, video consultant David J. Neff and the Case Foundation's Kari Saratovsky talk about disruptive change in the sector. Part of SxSW’s Crowdsourcing Innovative Social Change panel, Ross added: “Crowdsourcing is an ethos that the nonprofit industry needs to adopt to better itself.”

To be sure, open philanthropy – the movement for more open collaboration and transparency in the giving sector – is an urgent mission by itself. Thanks to the Web’s ability to produce ever-faster and larger outpourings of free information, knowledge is no longer scarce and sharing is becoming the most efficient approach to social problem-solving. [See our SxSW2010 report on Clay Shirky’s conference keynote, also today, on the “problem” with (information) abundance. “It tends to break things,” he says.]

So what are some of the better examples of high-impact crowdsourcing? Here's the panel's short list, mostly of mobile startups. [Kanter asked her considerable social network back in January to start aggregating examples; SxSW attendees added some examples on the spot.]

* Open Green Map, offered up by Ross, helps communities map their eco-friendly spots, whether it's a bike rack or a solar-heated apartment complex or a public herb garden. Using this open source collaborative platform, the Manhattan-based nonprofit has so far engaged more than 600 communities in 55 countries in creating citizen maps to catalyze new environmental projects, large and small. The maps are made by community members. OGM helps.

*NPR’s online community manager Andy Carvin cited Project NOAH; the acronym stands for Networked Organisms and Habitats. NOAH, now in beta, is a free iPhone application that helps people discover their local plants and animals and document them onto a common tech platform for review by research groups and others. In this way, citizen scientists can help to track new species or changes in the environment.

* Carvin also mentioned Open Street Map, a collaborative project to create a free, editable map of the world with the help of people using data from portable GPS devices. OSM has been used recently by disaster/crisis relief organizations to share such information as which roads are accessible and which are blocked in the wake of disasters or civil strife. [Ushahidi, another example, enables users to crowdsource crisis information that is then used to make dynamic, real-time maps of public health outbreaks, street rioting, food drops and emergency facilities during crisis situations.]

* The UpTake is a Minnesota-based citizen journalist nonprofit that crowdsources the news and helps editors filter hours of raw videotape for the best clips. [Think C-SPAN meets Ghost Hunters meets CNN’s iReport.] Everything is time-stamped; the UpTake's profile increased during the disputed 2008 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota. [UpTake provided full coverage of the recount process, earning it plaudits for accuracy from established and online news organizations.]

* Seattle Free School, suggested by Ward, uses social media to organize classes and teach students. “The owners found each other via social media and the project was born from the interaction,” Ward said. “This is ‘for the community by the community’ education and engages the best local experts to share their knowledge and experience for free."

* Invisible People, an nonprofit that uses video storytelling to help de-stigmatize homeless people. "Our hope is that you'll get mad enough to do something," its Website reads. Invisible People uses crowdsourcing to select the best stories and interviews.

There are numerous other examples, but what are the lessons that can be shared from them?

Among the takeaways:

* Mix it up. Crowd-sourcing that harvests input from both experts and non-experts seems to work best for groups with a lot of in-house knowledge, said Saratovsky. “We do it this way [at Case] so it doesn’t become simply a popularity contest,” she said. Ross said Free Range StudiosYoutopia project is another example of targeted crowdsourcing. Free Range decided to give away $30,000 worth of free consulting to the most innovative social change groups, and used the crowd to help staff narrow the field to 20 finalists. Ward urged attendees to differentiate between an open, unvetted "crowd" and a group's "community" crowd -- suggesting that tapping into an organization's social network is a more strategic and manageable form of crowdsourcing for some initiatives.

* Small organizations with skimpy budgets have the most to gain. Said Ross: “It’s about realizing that if I want to create the most value for my cause and organization, then that value is going to come from beyond me. As a nonprofit, I am a gardener in the process." Added Kanter: "An expert now is someone with a great network. Crowd-sourcing lets you tap into a wider range of talent and skills than you may have inside your organization.”

* Start slowly. “You can't go from nothing to a lightbulb overnight,” said Ward. Use crowds to help you innovate in iterative steps over time.

* Don’t expect miracles."Crowdsourcing is just another shiny object unless you can tie it to outcomes," Kanter said. “Millions of crowd-sourced ideas don't produce anything.” Be very clear about what you want the crowd to help you achieve and deliver before you get started, then be able to measure the impact of those efforts.

* Make it fun and keep it simple. “People don’t want to do a lot of heavy lifting but they do want to do good,” said Ward. At its best, crowd-sourcing can be a form of civic engagement. At its worst, it can be exploitative. Be careful that you don’t ask crowds for too much.

Okay, dear readers. Now it's your turn. How do you use crowdsourcing and what lessons can you share with the crowd?

For more on the panel, see a summary of its presentation on slideshare.

-- By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo-collage of Italian residential facades by

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Blogger Beth's Blog said...

Wow, were you in the audience I didn't get to meet you? Thanks for the terrific notes!

March 16, 2010 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks Beth! Great job moderating; great panel! Will definitely meet you the next time!

March 16, 2010 at 12:31 PM  
Blogger Marcella Chamorro said...

Great notes! Being from Nicaragua, I couldn't make it to SXSWi, but this post really gave me a sense of the panel.

I currently work at a small-ish NGO, so the take-aways really hit home. Need to start implementing this soon...

March 16, 2010 at 5:05 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Marcella! Glad it was able to give you a sense of the room and the energy!

March 16, 2010 at 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Scott Annan said...

Great review of the presentations. Thanks!

April 23, 2010 at 11:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This blog is abundant with useful nuggets! Thank you for the helpful curation of what sounds like an amazing panel.

September 28, 2014 at 8:42 AM  

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