Many hands make light work

Writing this weekly column is rewarding but very time-consuming due to the fact that I invariably get side-tracked into things that I didn’t expect and, quite frankly, haven’t really got the time for.

I recently read an article in an overseas publication on Wikinomics and never for one minute imagined that this would lead me to such diverse topics as food preservation, finding Steve Fosset, and how ships came to be able to calculate their positions using longitude.

Wikinomics is all about large-scale collaboration to get things done and it’s being punted by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams on their website www.wikinomics.com and in a book. The two argue in favour of businesses using the Internet to invite solutions from all and sundry to problems they are experiencing.

They believe that it is more likely for a business to get a solution when thousands of brains are working on a problem than when there are only a couple of company employees doing so.

Among many other examples, they point to a Canadian mining operation which revitalised itself by posting all its survey data online and inviting people to use this to determine where the company would be most likely to find gold.

A number of suggestions were made and, apparently, gold was found in a large percentage of the suggested areas. There is apparently quite a lot of this sort of mass collaboration going on including at a website called InnoCentive (innocentive.com).

The website is used by large companies, such as Proctor and Gamble, to advertise problems that they would like solved. Cash is offered for the best solutions received and you could pick up $20000, for example, if you could come up for an idea for a stove that could run on pure vegetable oil.

Another word for the process whereby an organisation throws open a problem to the general public is crowdsourcing. The Internet has made this much easier and more common in recent years but the practice has been around for a long time, as I found to my surprise.

Napoleon apparently offered a prize in 1800 to the first person who could come up with a way of preserving food to feed his armies on the march. It was won in 1809 by Nicolas Appert, whose idea of sealing food into glass jars and cooking it at high temperature was found to work very well.

Another successful early example of crowdsourcing was in 1714 when the British Government offered a prize for a simple way for ships to determine their longitude. John Harrison realised that the easiest way would be by using an accurate chronometer which could keep the time of the ship’s home port and allow mariners to know their longitude by the difference between that and local time. He built a chronometer, accurate to less than half a degree, by 1761 and received several awards.

If you look up crowdsourcing at wikipedia.com, you’ll find many current examples including one run by online retail giant Amazon. It’s called Amazon Mechanical Turk (mturk.com) and it allows people to post tasks which would be difficult, if not impossible, for a computer to do.

Each task is known as a Human Intelligence Task (HIT) and most offer payment on acceptance by the person who listed the task. There are thousands and thousands of tasks listed but one of the most interesting, even if unpaid, is to help in the search for the missing Steve Fosset.

You get allocated sections of aerial photographs to scan for signs of Steve Fosset’s plane. There are even sample pictures of aeroplanes and aeroplane crash sites to give you an idea of the sort of thing to look out for.

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