Kevin Armstrong, Sarah Chan

Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, content or data by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, typically via an online platform, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers (Merriam-Webster). Crowdsourcing goes beyond traditional surveys, citizen engagement, and the routine use of social media. There are many different types of crowdsourcing.

Examples include:

  • Micro-tasking splits a large body of work into smaller tasks to be distributed, typically over the internet (e.g. Galaxy Zoo, Mechanical Turk
  • Soliciting ideas/feedback (ideation) from users/stakeholders to improve an existing service or generate new service offers (e.g. UK’s Patient Feedback Challenge)
  • Collecting data from the public to improve decision-making, service delivery or regulatory enforcement (e.g. Street Bump, I Paid A Bribe).


  • Avoid group think
  • Gather innovative ideas and solutions
  • Identify additional stakeholders and map external talent
  • Generate citizen awareness, engagement and excitement
  • Accelerate progress towards ambitious goals by levering the crowd (many ‘challenges’ can be executed in a couple of weeks)
  • Lever outside perspectives, competencies and data collection capabilities (asking one expert to solve a problem will give you one answer while asking the crowd will give you a variety of perspectives from which you can choose; with certain types of tasks, like user experience design, the variety of options may be quite compelling)
  • Facilitate cross-sector knowledge mobilization and collaboration, and build the field
  • Deliver at a lower cost than traditional approaches (although the cost of the crowd is not always cheaper when you consider the overhead to fire up and manage the ‘challenge’)


  • Results could be too wide ranging and/or shallow to be useful if the process is not well designed.
  • There may be little to no direct interaction with the participants, and it may be limited to electronic communication at certain intervals. About this, crowdsourcing is often (wrongly) seen as an inexpensive alternative to robust public consultation and/or confused with routine social media communications.
  • Vulnerable to being co-opted or hijacked by hostile parties and used for purposes other than those that were intended (especially online platforms) if there isn’t strong curation.
  • Requires sufficiently sophisticated objectives, engagement strategy, expertise and attention to motivate people outside the organization (and its traditional management levers) to perform the work.
  • Procurement rules still apply! Using the crowd will not get around the rules, although there are some creative approaches to consider.

Policy Opportunity

  • The major value proposition in support of policy is the speed-to-solution. Using the crowd (e.g., ask stakeholders policy questions, test hypotheses, check facts, gather data, complete tasks, generate options) can be quite fast and also, due to the rigour required to run a challenge, it encourages your organization to make decisions quickly – which should ultimately lead to a speedier implementation of new policies.
  • It may also allow to:
    • Move beyond the “usual suspects” by attracting participation from a wider range of individuals, groups and organizations
    • Improve trust between government, citizens and stakeholders by providing more opportunities for public participation


  • Maturity of the community and stakeholder readiness
  • Availability of tried and true crowdsourcing platforms with an already active user base
  • Access to appropriate technology and expertise (either in-house or through outsourcing): There are many crowdsourcing provider options, and most excel at specific types of tasks – choose the right one for the task!
  • Sufficiently defined problem for stakeholders to ensure proper alignment between the scope of input to desired outcomes:
  • Level of organizational commitment to follow through with the process and give consideration to options generated outside traditional operational imperatives
  • Willingness to explain to stakeholders why a popular recommendation was not taken (i.e. public interest litmus test)
  • Clarity of purpose and appropriateness of sub-instrument choice (e.g. micro-tasking, ideation, data collection
  • The crowd is usually best used for components of a project rather than the entire project. For example, if you are building a mobile application, you may run a challenge for the wireframe design. Then you may work traditionally with your team to complete the detailed design and development and then go back to the crowd for a ‘bug hunt’ challenge to supplement testing.
  • Intellectual property, security and privacy, risk and independence, and non-disclosure

Government of Canada

  • Did you feel it? (NRCan) questionnaire crowdsources earthquake experiences to improve earthquake science at NRCan.
  • DesignCrowd (NRCan) was used to micro-task graphic design elements for IN-spire’s Micro-missions; the process took a week to complete at a total cost of $275.
  • Play Exchange (Public Health Agency of Canada) consisted of a national call for ideas and solutions to improve health outcomes through a prize challenge
  • Project Naming (Library and Archives Canada) has successfully deployed crowdsourcing to identify thousands of northern residents, activities and places pictured in their photographic archives from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century.
  • Minister of Environment and Climate Change, used Twitter to solicit video submissions on how to tackle climate change in the lead-up to the #COP21 conference in Paris in December 2015, promising to share the best submissions at the conference.

Best in Class

  • Galaxy Zoo is an interactive citizen-science crowdsourcing project that allows individuals to contribute to a large-scale project of scientific research by helping to classify a large number of galaxies.
  • Peer To Patent is a crowdsourcing initiative led by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in collaboration with academic and corporate partners and sponsors that opens the patent examination process to public participation. It was the first social-software project directly linked to decision-making by the US federal government.
  • The Security Jam is a 77-hour online brainstorm on global security and defence challenges such as the rise of Daesh or the international criminal and trafficking networks. Held every two years since 2010, it brings together several thousand participants worldwide to discuss security in real time on a state-of the-art online platform.
  • I.B.M. has been using online brainstorming Jams since 2001. Notably, a 2006 Jam was used to guide the company's strategy for investing in new growth fields, attracting about 150,000 participants, including employees, clients, business partners and academics. The best ideas were selected for further development, with an initial investment of about $100 million.
  • NASA, considered the most risk adverse of public sector organizations, has also used crowdsourcing for Open Innovation Contracts.
  • Minister of Environment and Climate Change, used Twitter to solicit video submissions on how to tackle climate change in the lead-up to the #COP21 conference in Paris in December 2015, promising to share the best submissions at the conference.