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History of citizen science: crowdsourcing.

By Gabriel



Today we will discuss the rise of crowdsourcing.  Crowdsourcing is a relatively new term having been widely popularized by a 2006 Wired article by Jeff Howe.  Merriam-Webster defines crowdsourcing as “the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.”  Since its introduction in 2005, the term has exploded in use as shown in the above Google Ngram Viewer graph.  In comparison, the use of the term “citizen science” and "civic science" has fluctuated throughout the 20th century although the use of the term "citizen science" has risen sharply since 1990.

From its Merriam-Webster definition, it is clear that crowdsourcing owes its successes and popularization to the internet but that is just one technological piece that was required.  Rewinding to mid-2000’s, what other technological developments were taking place?  At this time, the idea of Web 2.0 was being popularized at the O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in late 2004.  Web 2.0 refers to the idea of the web evolving into a hub where users can generate content instead of simple passive viewing and consumption of content.  Think Facebook, Twitter, and other social media as clear examples.  In 2007, a company was building of the successes of a device called the iPod to evolve the Smartphone into the kind of device we are used to today.  The Apple iPhone has led to the growth of the smartphone market in which forecasts for 2016 suggest over 2 billion shipments worldwide.  The internet is now mobile.  It’s clear that the mid-2000’s was ripe for the idea of crowdsourcing to take hold and evolve into its current forms today.

Given its broad scope, crowdsourcing encompasses many approaches.  There are marketplace platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk or Crowdflower that are often used for microtasks or other discrete problems.  There are challenge models like Innocentive that can be particularly useful for a range of problems beyond microtasks up to and including solving complex problems involving multiple components.  There are gamification models such as the development of online web applications that utilize the competition/reward component of games to achieve goals.  An example of that approach for biomedical research is Eyewire.  You may have heard of DuoLingo which gamifies translation of languages.  Crowdsourcing requires careful thought on the part of anyone thinking of employing it as part of a project.  Who the target audience is, what the problem is, and how the problem might be solved are just some of the questions that need to be asked to hone in on a particular crowdsourcing approach.

It will be interesting to see how crowdsourcing continues to evolve in the coming years.

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