Social networking

You want to reach outside your established community for fresh ideas in dealing with your business challenges. Is your website enough? Can you do it with social media? Do you need a platform designed especially for crowdsourcing?

The technology choices are an important element of a successful crowdsourcing operation, not just in reaching the right people, but in ensuring that the end-to-end process works effectively.

According to Alph Bingham, founder and director of crowdsourcing specialist company Innocentive, you can legitimately crowdsource through a page on an organisation's website, by exploiting social media or using a more specific platform; but the results could differ dramatically and would not be equally appropriate to the challenge.

He says: "If I'm trying to establish if the Beatles are more popular than the Rolling Stones among 20-somethings, I might accomplish it very well on Facebook. But if I'm looking for a new material for bonding glass and metal, then I suspect Facebook wouldn't be so good.

"For one it doesn't have the access to the minds in a way that meets that need. Some of it is down to the way their minds are focused when using Facebook, and some of it is down to the underlying architecture. For instance, how is Facebook going to manage any intellectual property issues that arise? It would require something different."

Depending on the project, other factors can be important, such as having mechanisms for managing the submissions, evaluations and payments of awards, and protecting intellectual property. The bigger the challenge the more likely these are going to come into play, and an organisation will either have to build a platform itself or turn to a specialist provider.

This points towards dedicated crowdsourcing platforms, such as those provided by Innocentive or Mindjet.

Olivier Delarue, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's lead for innovation, says the Mindjet Spigit Engage platform that it is using for crowdsourcing provides a handful of advantages. It is a secure space for participants to submit ideas, can be connected to social networks, and is run a cloud service, a cheaper option than building a platform.

There are also individual factors that organisations may want to take into account. One reason the UNHCR went for Spigit Engage was that it was accessible through mobile phones, the only channel for many refugees to connect to a cloud service.

It may also be important to accept images as submissions. Stefan Haefliger of the Centre for New Technologies, Innovation and Enterprise at the Cass Business School, says this is important for crystal manufacturer Swarovski in crowdsourcing designs, and points to T-shirt company Threadless, which has a design submission page on its website.

The technology takes another direction when crowdsourcing becomes operational rather than focused on big challenges. It may only apply to certain types of business in the long term, but it is emerging in internet security as most organisations have to be aware of the threats from attackers.

The Open Threat Exchange (OTX), run by Alien Vault, makes use of a crowdsourcing approach to identifying online threats. It is open to the company's customers and a wider group of open source users.

"If we didn't have that open source base the whole crowdsourcing thing wouldn't work," says Roger Thornton, Alien Vault's CTO. "There wouldn't be enough nodes out there on the network to supply the data that makes it useful."

OTE enables users to share details of the attacks – the methods, how it was detected and, if possible, the identity of the attacker  –without revealing the user identities. It also provides details of malicious IP addresses and warnings when an address is compromised.

In contrast with crowdsourcing on business issues it has to be close to real time, and the whole process is automated so users can react quickly to a threat. Data is uploaded to the OTX database, where it is run through analysis algorithms based on the data itself, the reputation of the reporter and confirmation from others. This determines if it is a genuine threat, and while there is provision for a manual review, Thornton says that 99.99% flows through without one.

The system only flags up dangers – it does not provide any guidance on trust – and Thornton says that to date there have been no false alerts.

"When people think of crowd sourcing they tend to think of manual contributions, but we have people operating on a security platform that does the sharing and automates everything," Thornton says.

"People should not just look at crowd sourcing as human to human, but that it can be machine to machine. They can think about how many algorithms they have running that they can share to be better off."

He adds: "I can imagine that in IT there are areas of processing, computation and analytics that companies could share with each other and benefit enormously."

There is still a long way to go; Alph Bingham says that crowdsourcing is still on the edges of business, but its potential is much broader. Making the right technology choices will be a step in fulfilling the potential.