Crowdsourcing is more than a buzzword. It's a new way to tap into the intelligence that comes from having thousands or millions of people sharing data. While some of the best known crowdsourced apps for consumers make weather reports more accurate, create intelligent traffic-aware routes and even find lower gas prices, the technology can also be used to drive research and innovation. Here are five mobile apps that are being used to drive innovation and research right now:
- Flu Tracking Applications. The granddaddy of this genre of applications is the Google Flu Trends application that tracks flu searches on the Internet to find where symptoms are emerging. Its data can beat the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's estimates by one two two weeks. Since the development of Flu Trends, developers have created apps like OutSmart Flu that let people directly report when they experience symptoms. As data flows into the application, it can generate an up-to-the second map of where flu symptoms pop up that is less likely to be influenced by outside stimuli.
- Tracking Economic Data. While the Consumer Price Index and its analogues in other countries have been around for decades, they tend to be incomplete and to lag the market. Crowdsourcing apps like Premise are changing the way that prices get measured. They're offering data that is both more granular and more current than what comes from the government. At the same time, they also include behind-the-scenes systems that scrub the data for accuracy and provide a verification system.
- Beta Testing. The newest and greatest software innovation isn't of much market value if it doesn't work. For years, companies have employed teams of testers to see if their software works. Now, crowdsourcing systems like those from Ubertesters allow companies to send their mobile apps right to beta testers. Those testers can run the apps in a secure setting that reports results back to the company. This lets a company get as many or as few testers as it wants so that it can ensure that its products work properly before releasing them to the public.
- Innovation Through Casual Computing. People playing the Foldit online game were able to solve an AIDS-research problem that had stumped researchers for over 10 years in just three weeks. Crowdsourcing applications can turn scientific and research problems into games or screensavers that either use the creativity of users or just tap into their unused CPU power to solve scientific problems. The SETI@Home Android application is another example of this.
- Corporate Innovation. Crowdsourcing as a tool for innovation doesn't just have to occur in scientific or research settings, though. One example for this is the Idea Hub component to the app for the 7-11 convenience store brand. In the Idea Hub, the company collects feedback from customers on how it can improve its app, its operations and its offerings. Customers can then vote on the feedback. This leverages crowdsourcing both to identify ideas and to create on-the-fly focus groups that the company can then use to make itself more appealing. Another similar tool is the "My Starbucks Idea" feature for that company.
Innovation can be achieved in many ways. Many great ideas and deep insights still come from brilliant minds burning midnight oil. Others come from collaborative teams of the best minds working together. Now, thanks to crowdsourcing applications, they can also come from everyone else, as well. The challenge is tapping into that collective intelligence and skill.