The Life-Saving Power Of Crowdsourcing

Russ Linden | Governing | January 23, 2013

It's hard to imagine a better demonstration of its potential than the worldwide volunteer effort that helped rescue thousands of people after the earthquake in Haiti.

"The future is already here--it's just not very evenly distributed." There's a good deal of truth in science-fiction author William Gibson's observation. One of the most interesting and powerful aspects of our future--a tool that has the potential to take us a long way toward distributing information to where it can do the most good--is the phenomenon known as "crowdsourcing."

The use of crowdsourcing--inviting large numbers of people to help solve a problem or make a decision via the Internet--has exploded as creative problem-solvers have found new ways to exploit its power. Most of us are familiar with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which relies on the public to create and edit its content and has fewer than 90 paid employees. Open-source software is another example: Thousands of people with programming skills freely spend their time joining communities that form to develop and improve it.

Government agencies are moving quickly to make the most of social media for crowdsourcing. The Los Angeles fire department, for example, uses Twitter to gather crucial information from residents. People who spot fires tweet the LAFD, sending real-time information that can help save lives and reduce damage...