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9 examples of crowdsourcing, before ‘crowdsourcing’ existed

Crowdsourcing is the new black. Everyone’s doing it. Iceland is crowdsourcing its new constitution. Microsoft is crowdsourcing aspects of Windows 8. All this hype must mean it’s a new thing right? Surely it has to be a product of the web 2.0 or social media era?

This is a popular view. The term itself only goes as far back as 2006 when it was coined by Jeff Howe in a Wired Magazine article entitled “The Rise of Crowdsourcing“. However, if you think about the most basic definition of the term, this web-centric view starts to make a little less sense.

Crowdsourcing is defined as “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call”.

When you look at it like that, the web didn’t invent crowdsourcing, it just made it easier.

Memeburn decided to take a look at a few pre web examples which show that crowdsourcing has been around since www was just three w’s stuck together.

1. The Longitude Prize :
In the early 18th century, being able to navigate accurately was a pretty big deal. Getting lost on a transoceanic voyage didn’t just mean that a competing nation could lay claim to a new piece of empire before you. It was also a matter of life and death.

Latitude wasn’t a problem in that it could be found from the altitude of the sun at noon with the aid of a table giving the sun’s declination for the day.

Longitude, on the other hand, was such a problem that by 1714 the British government decided to throw it open to the public. Anyone who could offer a simple and practical method for precisely determining a ships longitude would win a cash prize.

Although no one would ever win one of the official prizes, many were rewarded for their work on the problem.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary:
Prior to the OED, most English dictionaries were inconsistent, lacking in historical context and about as far from comprehensive as it was possible to be.

One of the reasons the OED was able to change that was because hundreds of volunteers were assigned to particular books, copying passages illustrating word usage onto quotation slips. There were errors here and there but the project proved you could use the general public to make labour intensive tasks quicker and cheaper.

3. The Mass Observation movement:
Words are all well and good but what if you want to uncover the habits of a nation? Sure you could send out surveys but that just results in individuals telling you how they think they behave.

The Mass Observation movement was founded, in part, as a solution to this very problem. From its inception in 1937 until 1960, the organisation aimed to record everyday life in Britain. Although it paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, a large portion of the work was done by volunteers.

Around 500 of these untrained volunteers kept diaries filled with observations about their own lives, their friends and neighbours and even strangers walking on the street.

The works collected by the movement were used for everything from more accurately gauging public opinion on matters to arguing for tax policy changes.

4. The Sydney Opera House:
Lobbying for a dedicated opera house in Sydney began in the 1940s. It was only in 1955, however, that a design competition was launched. The criteria for the building specified a large hall seating 3000 and a small hall for 1200 people, each to be designed for different uses. Over 233 entries, representing architects from 32 countries were received by the competition committee.

Two years later, it was announced that the design of Danish architect JØrn Utzon had won. His sail-like arches would come to be a big part of what defines Sydney as a city. One has to wonder what would have happened if the authorities had just chosen a favoured architect.

5. Mathematical Tables Project:
What do you do with 450 out of work clerks in the middle of the great depression? Simple: Set them to work tabulating higher mathematical functions. Begun in 1938 as a part of a depression relief programme, the clerks tabulated exponential functions, logarithms and trigonometric functions amongst others.

The project was one of the largest and most sophisticated computing organisations prior to the invention of electronic computers.

Its greatest legacy is the “Handbook of Mathematical Functions, which was published 16 years after the group disbanded.

Edited by two veterans of the project, Milton Abramowitz and Irene Stegun, it became a widely circulated mathematical and scientific reference.

6. Canned Food:
In the early 19th century Napoleon was turning much of Europe into his personal empire. Doing that, however, required large armies, fighting long campaigns. Feeding such large armies throughout the year was made difficult by harsh European winters in which fresh produce was scarce.

In a bid to overcome such challenges, the French government offered a 12 000 franc prize to anyone who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food.

Peter Durand transferred a technique which had recently been discovered for preserving food in glass jars into cylindrical tin or wrought iron canisters. The cans were ideally suited to the army’s needs as they were lighter, cheaper and quicker to make, and hardier than any means of preserving food which had existed previously.

Unfortunately no one thought to crowdsource the can opener, which wouldn’t be invented for another 30 years.

7. Margarine:
In 1869, Emperor Louis Napoleon III faced a slightly different food problem to that of his famous ancestor. France couldn’t meet the demands for butter and its scarcity was pushing prices up.
The emperor offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. Within the year, the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès had patented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name “margarine“.

8. Zagat Survey
You know those user reviews you see on Amazon, or travel and restaurant review sites? Well those reviews are a form of crowdsourcing. Looking at it, this public review system seems like a form of crowdsourcing tailor-made for the internet.

It’s actually been around for quite a while though. In 1979 Tim and Nina Zagat established the guide bearing their name as a way to collect and correlate the ratings of restaurants by diners. For the first guide, the Zagats only surveyed their friends.

As of 2005, the Zagat Survey included over 70 cities with reviews based on the input of 250 000 individuals reporting over the years. The guides now rate everything from hotels to golf courses and zoos. And yes, they are now on the web.

9.The theatre of the oppressed:
In the 1960s, Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal decided to give the traditional dramatic arts a twist. Instead of the audience statically watching the actors perform they would become a part of the drama. Bringing together a number of forms, Boal called the new practise “the theatre of the oppressed”.

The audience become “spec-actors” transforming, exploring and analysing the reality which is being played out.

One technique for bringing this about, called “simultaneous dramaturgy” is crowdsourcing defined. In the middle of a performance, the actors will stop the play and ask the audience for solutions to their problems.

Image: Britta Bohlinger

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More