From Netsourcing to Crowdsourcing to Turksourcing Crisis Information

The near real-time crisis mapping of the disasters in Haiti and Chile using Ushahidi required a substantial number of student volunteers. These volunteers were not the proverbial crowd but rather members of pre-existing, highly-connected social networks: universities. How do we move from netsourcing to crowdsourcing and on to turksourcing?

Student volunteers from Fletcher/Tufts, SIPA/Columbia and the Graduate Institute in Geneva all represent established social networks and not an anonymous crowd. They contributed over ten thousand free hours over the past 3 months to monitor hundreds of sources on the web and map actionable information on an ongoing basis. The Core Team at Fletcher spent dozens of hours training volunteers on media monitoring and mapping.

Netsourcing presents some important advantages. Pre-existing social ties can help mobilize a trusted volunteer network. I  just sent one email to the Fletcher list-serve and because the Fletcher student body is a tight community, this eventually let do hundreds of volunteers being trained and contributing to the crisis mapping of Haiti.

The first call for volunteers

At the same time, however, netsourcing is bounded crowdsourcing. In other words, netsourcing is scale-constrained. Imagine if Wikipedia contributions had been limited to professors only—that too would be bounded crowdsourcing. So how do we move from netsourcing to crowdsourcing crisis information? How do we move from having 300 volunteers connected via existing social networks to 300,000 or even 3,000,000 anonymous volunteers?

This was one of the many questions that my colleague Riley Crane, a friend of his and I discussed for almost 4 hours over dinner. (Riley recently rose to fame when he and his team at MIT that won DARPA’s Red Balloon competition). The answer, we think, is to develop a Mechanical Turk Service plug-in for Ushahidi. I’m calling this turksourcing. The two most time-consuming tasks that volunteers labored on was media monitoring and geo-location. Both processes can be disaggregated into human intelligence tasks (HITs) combined with some automation, like Swift River. And none of this would require prior training.

This is a conversation I very much look forward to continuing with Riley and one that I also plan to bring up at Nathan Eagle‘s Symposium on Artificial Intelligence for Development (AI-D) at Stanford next Monday. There is another related conversation that I’m excited to continue—namely the use of distributed, mobile gaming as an incentive catalytic for collective action, an area that Riley has spent a lot of time thinking about.

In terms of Ushahidi, If turksourcing crisis information can be combined with gaming, users could compete for altruism points, e.g., for how many HITs they contributed to a disaster response. This could be a proxy for how “good” a person is; a kind of public social ranking score for those who opt in. I imagine having individuals include their score and ranking on their blog (much like the number of Twitter followers they have). Who knows, a high altruism score could even get you more dates on

Patrick Philippe Meier

12 responses to “From Netsourcing to Crowdsourcing to Turksourcing Crisis Information

  1. Hi Patrick,

    The Mechanical Turk Service is a great idea. The main challenge however lies in chunking the data into very simple bits. The Swift River initiative is aiming to do just that. The question would what kind of computation, natural language processing, tagging etc. you can do your own and for what tasks you need the crowd. Keeping the task simple is the main goal.

    I would suggest to use the crowd to train the algorithms and get the basic tasks done, like translation and tagging. The algorithm output can then be used to optimize the mechanical turk service and speed up it’s performance by adding near perfect classification.

    Using social systems like games, social networks is a great idea. However, to implement such a new concept into existing platforms and to get people to want it, is quite a challenge I would assume. Starting with services like facebook might be a good way to go.

    Finally, take a look at Amazon’s mechanical turk interface, which is paid. For these kind of programs there might be some sponsorship options there?



  2. Patrick,

    I think you have nailed it with the concept of an Ultruism Score. Often times people would like to volunteer but do not know how to, so they “almost volunteer”. Bringing a social gaming aspect to harness the wisdom of the crowds during disasters is a brilliant idea. And attaching a point aspect to it is even more brilliant.

    My day job is in social media monitoring, where we are working on assigning Influence Scores to social profiles because an ascertaining a person’s Influence Score is valuable businesses interface with anyone outside their wall. On the other hand , I think an Ultruism Score will be very valuable for identifying volunteers and like the For Profit sector, the Ultruism Score has the potential to become currency for Non-Profit Organizations when they interface with anyone outside their walls.

    Sign me up for this one, I want to participate. You have my email.


  3. Great ideas Patrick! With Swift we’ve been working on the idea of a ‘portable’ profile that can be carried with you around various Swift instances, it would be somewhat federated. This is one of the last things we’ll implement (because it requires a stable platform supporting it). Anyways, the idea is that someone who’s always helping to verify information within Swift can then take their score with them to help verify in other instances. This way they aren’t always starting from scratch. We call it the Swift ID . It’s taking the idea of something like Open ID or Twitter’s @Anywhere and applying it to altruism. I think at some point we could extend this all back across all the Ushahidi products/platforms.

  4. Pingback: Using Massive Multiplayer Games to Turksource Crisis Information « iRevolution

  5. Creating another option for online involvement is a critical way of getting people involved in social movements beyond merely donating or spreading awareness. As Jane McGonigal points out, this is the language of so many young people.

    Not only do we need to conceptualize gaming and other crowd-based skills during crisis, but before and after. Scavenger hunts to develop maps and the like.

    In addition to gaming for “points” considering incentives-based opportunities like “badges” as in foursquare. If people are great mappers, getting credit for that or social media makers, for that as well.

  6. Over time I hope that these concepts will conflate into efforts like BOINC, Grid Republic, Progress Thru Processors, World Community Grid, etc.

  7. Patrick –

    I highly recommend getting in touch with renown game designer, Jane McGonigal (@avantgame), about your ideas if you haven’t already. McGonigal is passionate about the vast potential gaming has to affect social change.

    More background here:

    See her inspirational TED talk, ‘Gaming can make a better world,’ here: here:

    I’m continually inspired by and grateful for the amazing work you do. Thank you.


  8. Hey there! Help! Writing from New Orleans where we are trying to get Ushahidi in action for this Gulf Oil Spill. We almost have it up but really need some guidance and practical advice.
    (504) 452 – 4909

  9. Pingback: Wanted for Pakistan: A Turksourcing Plugin for Crisis Mapping | iRevolution

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