The advent of the Internet allowed individuals separated by geography and by cultural differences to form robust communities online. Virtual societies now form around nearly any issue, and people with common interests have been able to exchange information and forge unlikely social ties in ways previously unimaginable. Innovations such as Wikipedia and Facebook further opened up the Internet to users wishing to exchange knowledge and opinions with a broader community. And now, spurred by more participatory, user-oriented web 2.0 applications, the phenomenon of "crowdsourcing," or engaging the web community in a particular project or problem, has become a popular means of online interaction.

Essentially, crowdsourcing describes the phenomenon of harnessing the collective knowledge of everyday Internet users for a purpose that would otherwise be left to experts. One example of successful crowdsourcing is Threadless, an online apparel company specializing in hip T-shirts. Threadless cultivated a community of registered users who may upload original shirt designs, vote on user-supplied designs, and ultimately purchase the winning designs. Threadless has amassed a talented and eager crowd to source from, resulting in a profitable business model that manages to maintain an "indie" allure.

Crowdsourcing can be used to mine established or original data and solutions, solicit feedback, improve organizational transparency and build consensus through a more interactive process, or even harness the labor of the crowd (for example, Amazon's Mechanical Turk). While crowdsourcing has been used by creative businesses such as Threadless and 99designs, how can this strategy translate to the community development sector, including government and nonprofits?

There have been several successful attempts to employ crowdsourcing in a community development context. For example, local governments in San Francisco and Portland use a system called ParkScan to monitor and manage public space. The site allows users to post issues, which park department employees address in public responses. Interested citizens can also use the map-based application to locate and view detailed information about their neighborhood parks. Concerned citizens in the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans created a tool on to crowdsource ideas for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. While activity on the site has waned over time, the 136 members offered useful input on neighborhood needs and preferences in the site's online forums. In New York City, the site Change by Us NYC collects resident ideas, such as infrastructure improvements and tree planting, and encourages users to create and promote project teams. The site also provides links to funding and other resources. A developer in Bristol, Connecticut, used the crowdsourcing concept to solicit ideas and even votes from citizens living or working within an hour radius on the preferred type of redevelopment for a 17-acre site of a former shopping mall. The Bristol Rising initiative used an online community platform with a voting tool to facilitate idea sharing with a strong visual component.

Crowdsourcing has also been used by academics and nonprofits for disaster response after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Sites like CrisisCommons, OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi, and GeoCommons collected on-the-ground information on survivors, shelters, and structural damage. In addition, nonprofits have used crowdsourcing during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution through mapping geo-referenced, real-time Twitter feeds (HyperCities Egypt) and by creating an "interactive documentary" of user-uploaded content (18 Days in Egypt).

Crowdsourcing has many potential benefits. First, it derives creative solutions from a community—which may not have been conceived of by experts—virtually free of cost. It promotes communication within the community and with decision makers in an interactive and transparent manner. It also makes information and discourse constantly and conveniently available, unlike traditional, prescheduled public meetings. Crowdsourcing allows differing levels of participation based on individuals' levels of interest or engagement. Finally, crowdsourcing can increase buy-in through interactive commentary and voting.

There are drawbacks with crowdsourcing, however. Most for-profit crowdsourcing uses payment to increase participation, which may not be feasible for government and nonprofit organizations. The fidelity of information may be poor if the crowd is not sufficiently large and representative. It also may be difficult to attract enough people to have an impact on a project with a small geographic scope. Participants may also self-select. In particular, because of the "digital divide" that limits access to the Internet among poor, minority, and other disenfranchised populations, the crowd may not correspond to the demographic profile of the actual community and may trend more affluent and less diverse. Finally, technical expertise is needed to create an online interface for crowdsourcing and to interpret the feedback.

Clearly, there are strengths and weaknesses inherent in a crowdsourcing approach to community development. However, the innovations of the private sector and the communities noted should not be discounted. Crowdsourcing may prove to be a valuable tool for decision making among cash-strapped government and nonprofit entities. A crowdsourcing technique that promotes engagement and creative problem solving can empower citizens and maximize benefits to the community.

By Ann Carpenter, research associate, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's community and economic development department.


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