Crowdsourcing for Government: Turning Crowds into Communities

Jul 28

Over the past week, I helped world renowned scientists from Carnegie Mellon University discover new ways to fold RNA molecules, adding to their understanding of RNA’s biological activity and contributing to the storehouse of knowledge that may eventually shed light on the origins of life. What did you do?

I did this playing an online video game (in my spare time) called EteRNA, which I learned about at Crowdsourcing: The Art and Science of Open Innovation – an event held at the NIH last week. The video game harnesses the wisdom and enthusiasm of amateur biologists by asking them to compete against each other to create the best synthetic RNA molecule designs. Players are rewarded with increased rankings and bragging rights. Top designs are chosen weekly and the molecules are actually synthesized by scientists at Stanford and scored based on their ability to function properly in real life environments. The EteRNA community’s collective effort could have significant medical and scientific applications.

According to research lead Dr. Adrien Treuille, the success of the game was built largely upon the enthusiasm and connectedness of the community of gamers, not just their collective brainpower.  They chat, talk trash, share ideas and best practices on forums, contribute to the visibility of the University and its RNA research, and are “part of the RNA revolution”. Without the ongoing engagement of the community, Treuille’s research would not be as successful (he acknowledged this last year by crediting his players as a contributing author in a peer-reviewed article in Nature).

As more government agencies use crowdsourcing to solve problems and innovate, it’s important to look at how they can harness crowds, not just to accelerate innovation, but for building networks of new, perhaps unexpected, communities of passionate advocates, problem solvers and thought leaders?

Here are a few tips and best practices in creating communities out of your challenge participants:

Include People Outside of Your Core Discipline/Establishment

People with “technical or social marginality” (i.e. those outside the established avenues of innovation) are more likely to solve your problem than the usual suspects. For instance, a biologist is less likely to win a biology challenge than a chemist or physicist. The reason for this effect has been attributed to the tendency of people to carry around a surplus of knowledge and enthusiasm for subjects other than those they have chosen as a career path.  In other words, make sure your crowd is truly a crowd.

Give them feedback

Scientific challenges can require thesis-sized entries – don’t ignore the losers.  If they are given feedback, they are more likely to remain involved in your organization even if their proposal was not a winner or didn’t solve your problem. Even summary feedback can be effective in promoting an ongoing relationship.

Give them a chance to get involved

Give them the opportunity to get involved in your other activities. If they answer your challenge, they may want to get involved with your organization in other ways – volunteering, donating, joining your existing online or offline communities.  Don’t use their participation as a chance to market to them, but offer them an outlet for the enthusiasm they’ve already demonstrated.

Make it fun

Provide ways for participants to engage with each other in forums, chats or other social media channels. Give them an outlet for chronicling their successes and failures and discussing their progress. The worst thing you can do for your audience is bore them.

So, as you design challenges make sure that you are not just out to get free labor. Plan on taking steps to uncover an unexpected audience and provide them with an outlet to express and activate their knowledge and enthusiasm for your organization’s mission.

What other ways can organizations help turn crowd into communities?

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 at 8:30 am and is filed under Best Practices. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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