Harnessing power of the people online and for free


WIRED:Crowdsourcing can be an effective means of getting labour-intensive work done online if the motivation is not money, writes QUINN NORTON

CROWDSOURCING, letting an anonymous group of people online do work that’s expensive in human labour and impossible for computers, is one of those internet-era ideas that seems to be alternately trumpeted and trashed. The most famous example is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a web application that lets you allot work to anyone on the net that wants to do it for the money you have promised to pay.

It works, but it’s not a huge success. But a recently launched project called TransparencyCorps may be getting closer to an effective model – and the trick may be replacing financial incentives with good causes.

TransparencyCorps is the brainchild of Sunlight Foundation, a group that focuses on increasing US government accountability through data transparency. When you log in at TransparencyCorps.org you are given a choice of tasks. There are currently three – an advocacy task asking for the US Congress’s legislative Bills to be posted online 72 hours before they are voted on; a project to find state politicians’ Twitter accounts; and reading and transcribing earmark data for 2009. Earmarks are a controversial tool legislators use to get money to programmes, often in near secrecy. While many earmarks seem to be good ideas, like funding treatment, some have turned out to be clearly corrupt – meant to do nothing more than to enrich a district or put state cash in the hands of politicians’ friends.

Current rules require letters requesting earmarks be made available to the public. But this is often done in formats unreadable by computers and prohibitively hard to track. TransparencyCorps members pick out information about the earmarks from the letters and enter them into a database – a fairly simple task for a human that’s impossible for a computer. Though it would seem boring, this data entry task has pulled in many new corps members. “Right now we’re just trying to keep up with the users, which is a nice problem to have,” says Clay Johnson, head of Sunlight Labs, which created the open source TransparencyCorps platform.

Joining TransparencyCorps gives a glimpse into the inner workings of American power, along with something to do about it. Even if the glimpse is fleeting and the action small, the hope is that with a crowd, it will build a powerful accountability tool.

It’s nice to think of Sunlight getting all this data, but perhaps more important is people suddenly poking their noses into government. You cannot transcribe these earmarks without thinking about them. Some look very good, some seem just a bit off. Scariest, some of them obviously have not been thought about by anyone between the requester and you – completely sliding through the government system as a form letter.

TransparencyCorps is more than regular crowdsourcing, it’s a community – you join the corps, and the corps does the tasks.

Every task gives you points, and if you have the most points you get listed on a leaderboard. The identity as part of a community that does the action (in this case the corps) rather than the goal of the action (Get those earmarks watched!) is important.

“We’re timing it actually, and we’ve actually received hundreds of hours of volunteer time from hundreds of users,” says Johnson, “People get addicted to it.” In the world of non-profits, this kind of time and effort is precious.

While Amazon’s Mechanical Turk also has something of a community, psychology studies would suggest an important difference: the Turk is ruined by money. Studies have consistently shown that tasks people do because they enjoy them lose their charm as soon as people doing the tasks get paid for them. Being paid once can take away the pleasure forever.

Counterintuitively, it may be the lack of pay that makes TransparencyCorps so empowering. Regarding why people give so much time to the earmark project, Johnson says: “I think it is a sense of duty.”

By asking for volunteers, Sunlight spends less and gets better quality data.

Johnson says next up will be a project from LittleSis.org, described as an involuntary Facebook of powerful Americans.

LittleSis seeks to map both the social and professional affiliations of the powerful, to make clear potential conflicts of interest.