In today’s inter-connected world some of the most innovative models for social innovation will become those that can modularize, “crowdsource,” and aggregate small tasks. Philanthropy was once one-to-many in direction and amplitude, but today facilitated means of communication and synthesis Online are enabling many-to-many philanthropic models to become widespread and increasingly powerful.
Crowdsourcing is by no means a new concept, though its form has changed. Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) began in 1999 with a screensaver download, SETI@home, a program that utilized idle CPU power to scan through radio telescope data in search of life beyond Earth. By 2005 over 5 million unique users had downloaded SETI@home, and were contributing to the search. In 2001 NASA created the experimental Clickworkers project to locate and categorize craters on the surface of Mars. NASA was able to partition the mapping into bite-sized tasks, make high-resolution photographs of the Martian surface available online, and syndicate this task to 85,000 crowdsourced volunteers online. Though each person performed only a few minutes of pro-bono work, in aggregate NASA was able to map and categorize craters on Mars, and achieve this with minimal error due to overlapped tasking and aggregation. Crowdsourcing critics exist, but as for NASA, perhaps Rawlsian “overlapping –crowd– consensus” through iterative tasking can minimize its downside risk.
Yochai Benkler, Harvard Law School Professor and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, writes on the “Networked Public Sphere,” and how secure relationships can elicit human behavior that deviates from homo economicus, and the assumed selfish actor. Many examples, such as Wikipedia.org and Kiva.org point to the cooperative behavior of individual actors willingly collaborating in the pursuit of a larger goal, a digital application of what Benkler argues to be pervasive human behavior. In the case of Wikipedia.org users donate their hard-earned time to edit the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia, and on Kiva.org users pool money with others they don’t know to provide risky, zero-interest international loans to remote entrepreneurs.
Thus, within a context of norms and trust, humans online will behave in coordinated ways, addressing collective problems through knowledge-constrained, coordinated individual actions. Empirically, users do this for both social and remunerative compensation, but prolific communities such as YouTube are grounded in community rather than compensation. Contrarily, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) has created a labor market for remunerated micro tasking, a platform in which “Turkers” perform Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) for pennies at a time. Such platforms can both enable large-scale, syndicated problem solving not attainable through algorithms, and concurrently circumvent labor laws by offering compensation below statutory hourly wages. New models are exciting in their application, and destabilizing in their misuse.
With rapid mobile penetration, and the capacity to cohere decentralized knowledge around coordinated tasks, the potential for networked philanthropy is growing. Today over 85 percent of Americans carry a mobile phone, and an increasing percentage of them are Internet-capable. To this end, a San Francisco-based start-up called The Extraordinaries has pioneered the iPhone application space by allowing users to donate their idle moments working toward the attainment of broad-based social missions.
Along with The Extrordinaries, organizations such as BRUTE Labs, are attempting to build platforms of “Open Source Altruism.” Open source altruism is rooted in the prioritization of quick-win, modular ideas, packaged as “kits” in adoptable formats, and provided free of charge. The recent launch of Mchopa.com, a website featuring the Masai art of Gregory Mchopa, uses a fungible back-end infrastructure that will soon support a small business in Guatemala aiming to bridge the digital divide by selling computers to the poor. BRUTE’s success is rooted in its volunteerism, its cross-functional competency in engineering and management, and in its emphasis on design. The recipient of numerous design awards, BRUTE extends its reach by appealing to an appreciation of aesthetics, or “the substance of style;” Design empowers and facilitates communication.
Soon, one-to-many philanthropy will be supplemented by overlapping consensus, crowd-sourced, many-to-many social ventures that leverage the networked public sphere. To the extent that design can help communicate ideas, new models can be fungible, open-source, and free, and that new platforms can convert networked individuals into micro-activists, social entrepreneurs can supplement hope with human cooperation.