crowdsourcing for a cause

How can crowdsourcing help people in need, or help further a good cause?

Crowdsourcing is a buzzword in industry right now, and large groups of people are earning money online doing everything from verifying business listings to designing logos.  There’s plenty of debate about whether crowdsourcing is fair to workers, and how to make these platforms most effective and fair.  But crowdsourcing be also be used in a number of not-for-profit situations.  The projects below are examples of several innovative ways that people are reaching out to help others via crowdsourcing technologies–and ways that you can, too.

Online volunteering: Sparked helps you find microvolunteering tasks that fit your own particular skills and interests, and which you can do from any time and any place that is convenient for you (the skills they offer to match are necessarily limited by the kinds of volunteer tasks that can easily be done remotely/online).  People often feel that they don’t have time to volunteer. But many of these tasks could be done during a subway commute or while waiting at the doctor’s office (e.g., giving feedback on a new science education blog; brainstorming social media strategies for a non-profit; giving feedback on others’ answers).

Of course, not all volunteer work can be distributed and done online by people with no training.  But hopefully Sparked (and similar sites, like the emerging Brightworks) will get more people volunteering and will make a substantial difference for some causes.  And the more people volunteer, the better then answers will be — if people rate each other’s solutions/designs/answers (as on Sparked) and/or there is redundancy in the system (multiple people complete the same task), that helps overcome the issue of having an untrained, unvetted volunteer force.

Fundraising: Kickstarter has helped popularize the idea of crowdfunding, especially for creative projects; in many Kickstarter campaigns, funders receive a product such as a t-shirt or game in exchange for their contribution to a project.  The Point works similarly, but enables people to start crowdfunding campaigns for causes or community projects (people can also donate actions instead of money, when appropriate).  The site also protects the identities of organizers and contributors until critical mass is reached.

Dave Eggers was inspired by sites like Kickstarter to start crowdsourcing scholarships for students who need financial assistance to attend college.  ScholarMatch connects scholars with donors interested in funding their education and helps pay students’ tuition and expenses.  Another site, DonorsChoose, also let’s donors from all over help fund education for younger children.  U.S. public school teachers post detailed proposals for classroom projects, and the supplies they need.  If donors contribute enough to fund a project, the organization buys the supplies for the teacher.

Disaster relief: New technologies have made crowdsourcing an important part of disaster relief.  People send requests and important information from on the ground, and volunteers can help coordinate information from afar.   After the recent earthquake in Haiti, several companies and non-profits teamed up to crowdsource the translation and sorting of texts from Haitians.  People all over Haiti sent information about their location and status, and crowdsourcing rapidly got that information in a format that could be used to dispense help.  Other volunteers searched for and sorted through alternate sources of information about Haiti and organized this data for aid workers.

Ushahidi, one of the cooperating organizations of the Haitian response team, is an open source, non-profit tech organization that enables crisis mapping and information coordination based on Twitter, email, SMS, and other reports.  You can use their products to coordinate information locally as well — as happened recently in Oakland, where I live, when residents feared race-related riots after the trial of the police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant.  Other organizations have followed the lead in looking for ways to organize spatial information after a disaster.  After the Christchurch quake in New Zealand, residents all over have been able to chip in to help document the damage using a tool called Tomnod disaster mapper.

Crowdsourcing is also being used by non-profit organizations in a number of other interesting ways — to outsource work to people living in poverty globally, to distribute tasks that can only be done in the developing world (e.g., data collection about local prices) via mobile phone, to improve health and disaster preparedness underdeveloped nations, and more.  There is also more I could say about the pros and cons of crowdsourcing tools, and when they are most likely to be effective.  But for now, I wanted to cover some sites and tools that give all of us the opportunity to chip in.  I hope something catches your attention.

How have you seen crowdsourcing tools being used to help others or support a cause?  What are your thoughts on these tools?

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