Tag Archives: Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing the Search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370

MALAYSIA AIRLINES flight 370 disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Malaysian authorities are presiding over a spiralling public relations disaster. The tragic loss of passengers and crew is exacerbated by seemingly inaccurate and untimely information. As the search widens, could Crowdsourcing using the internet help solve the mystery of the disappearance of flight 370?

Tomnod Crowdsourcing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

Crowdsourcing the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, Tomnod and DigitalGlobe

Crowdsourcing – as old as Civilisation Itself

Crowdsourcing is using the wisdom, experience and enthusiasm of a crowd to solve problems. It is as old as civilisation itself. In the digital world, Wikipedia is Crowdsourcing, the internet itself is Crowdsourcing – information provided and shaped by the crowd at unprecedented scale.

Getting Results From Crowds

The potential of “the Wisdom of Crowds” has long been recognised by problem solvers, product designers, businesses and governments. In the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, an ingenious solution from Tomnod (a subsidiary of DigitalGlobe) is attracting significant attention.

Tomnod, Crowdsourcing the Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

DigitalGlobe has positioned satellites over the primary search areas. It provides map data via the Tomnod website for volunteers to analyse. Tomnod subdivides the satellite image data into sets of ‘map tiles’ and displays them to volunteers to search for signs of wreckage, life rafts or oil slicks. Millions of volunteers are using Tomnod and DigitalGlobe’s technologies to search for the missing flight.

When a volunteer identifies an area warranting investigation, they mark the map tile. Each map tile is studied by successive volunteers and if others mark the same areas, expert resources use more detailed satellite images to confirm or rule out any ‘sighting’.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Tomnod Crowdsourcing

The search for flight 370

A key benefit of the Tomnod approach is that massive amounts of satellite imagery can be searched quickly by massively subdividing the task among volunteers. This is efficient and cost effective and allows more specialist resources to look at detailed images from areas highlighted by the large volunteer group.

As the search areas widen, Tomnod can ‘easily change’ focus by providing new satellite data. As the ocean is ‘ever-changing’ continuous re-searching is also necessary. Tides and drift may bring wreckage, life rafts or fuel slicks into previously ‘cleared areas’.

Challenges in Crowdsourcing this Type of Problem

The main challenges are the experience of the crowd, the quality of the images provided to them and the scalability of the web platform. As millions participate, it becomes hard to provide high-resolution images to huge numbers of participants. Bandwidth and server performance drop and outages occur.

Tomnod Crowdsourcing Technical Error

Technical issue on the Tomnod site (18th March 2014)

The experience and ability of the crowd matters. As flight MH370 has yet to be found, ‘all’ items marked by Tomnod volunteers are ‘false positives’. Looking at more detailed image data, the false positives come from volunteers identifying (what turns out to be) commercial shipping.

We talk about ‘searching for a needle in a haystack’. I think of the Tomnod Crowdsourcing approach as looking for the haystacks in which to look for the needles. Volunteers with low-resolution satellite images may find haystacks. Specialists with high-resolution images can look within those haystacks.

Is Crowdsourcing Better for Approximation?

The search for flight MH370 is binary, it is either found or it is not. Tomnod used its technology to good effect in Somalia when they mobilised a large volunteer network to search images for evidence of displaced populations. They tasked volunteers to look for temporary dwellings, which would indicate displacement of refugees fleeing conflict. The project was successful, but the problem itself was tolerant of ‘approximation error’.

The Somalia problem was one of ‘size and scale’, and Crowdsourcing the estimation of ‘size and scale’ is relatively simple. The search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is harder, as the outcome is not an approximation and therefore has no tolerance of error.

Keeping the Crowd Engaged and not Enraged

The size of Tomnod’s volunteer network is impressive, but keeping 3 million volunteers engaged is challenging. I mentioned in the opening that Crowdsourcing is as ‘old as civilisation itself’, but we have only started to ‘scratch the surface’ in terms of understanding how to best use (and motivate) massive crowds in online problem solving.

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice

Gamification shows enormous potential. Recent projects from Cancer Research UK, such as the ‘play to cure’ games are particularly interesting.

Crowdsourcing can also be dangerous if not adequately monitored and moderated. Crowds can turn into mobs and a mob with poor information, prejudice and social media can quickly become hysterical and uncontrollable. The search for the Boston Marathon bombers gave us insight into the potential dark side of Crowdsourcing.

It is uncertain whether the Tomnod project will help locate flight MH370. What is clear is that a massive number of volunteers want to help. Crowdsourcing on a massive scale has high potential but arguably needs more sophisticated models and tools.

As anguish for relatives and friends continues, it can only be hoped that the mystery of flight MH370 is resolved quickly. The ‘Power of the Crowd’ might prove to be a critical factor.

Books on Crowdsourcing, Gamification, Serious Gaming

  1. Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World
  2. Crowdsourcing (MIT Press Essential Knowledge)
  3. Gamification at Work: Designing Engaging Business Software
  4. Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things
  5. Serious Games for Business: Using Gamification to Fully Engage Customers, Employees and Partners

Innovation, Group Brainstorming and Ideation

Group Brainstorming Needs Expert Facilitation

I am a something of a cynic when it comes to group brainstorming, unless accompanied by excellent moderation and facilitation and an initial phase of ‘solo thinking’.

Group Dynamics

Group dynamics concern me, and there is significant evidence (from personal experience) and the innovation literature to substantiate the view that group dynamics skew (or at the very least have significant potential to skew) the group brainstorming process.

Group Brainstorming

I have written about the HIPPO Anti Pattern in a managerial and architectural context, and this Anti Pattern is a culprit in suppressing creativity in group brainstorming.

Dominant characters, internal politics, HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion), naysayers and myriad biases (anchoring, status quo bias etc.) act together to subvert the group’s collective potential.

Excellent facilitation and moderation is needed to tackle these problematic behaviours and the barriers they create. In a world of extroverts, how (for example) do you best engage the introvert? There is truth in the observation that great technological invention has come from many introverts.

In group brainstorming sessions the extroverts tend to drown out (potentially higher value) ideas from the introverts. Conversational detours or a tendency to fixate on single ideas, with group brainstorming sessions descending into ‘solutioning’ is common.

Effective moderation in the corporate world is not always (I would say commonly) present. Companies with significant experience in innovation will have recognised the weaknesses in group brainstorming and put in place the necessary measures for its avoidance. Group brainstorming also tends to happen in the office, over a fixed duration and surrounded by other pressures and distractions (email, phone calls etc.).

Precursors to Group Brainstorming

A multi-stage approach is more productive. I prefer ‘own voice first innovation’ as a precursor to group brainstorming. This allows participants to immerse themselves in the problem space, direct and filter their own thinking and research and to challenge themselves to generate a spread of ideas and rank them across various dimensions (such as impact, timescale, cost, risk, ability to execute etc.).

Recording the thought processes and key decisions (what was rejected and why, what was retained and why) is also highly useful when ‘presenting ideas as an ‘input set’ to group brainstorming.

I like mind maps as a ‘thinking medium’ as well as an approach for articulating decisions. I am not averse to mentoring in this phase, as long as the mentor understands that any advice should be carefully balanced to ensure they do not unduly influence the outcome.

An ‘own voice first’ innovation phase also frees up the creative thinking process. Many of my best ideas come to me on the train. Creativity cannot be forced and it is important to recognise that maximisation of creativity within a group requires accommodation of different thinking processes.

Group Brainstorming Quality Improvements

Higher quality ideas are generated when ‘own voice first’ innovation is applied before group brainstorming. Group brainstorming is a useful second step. Multiple juxtapositions and ‘builds’ on ideas can help shape them, combine their best (and unique) features, enhance strengths and remove weaknesses.

Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability

A cautionary note is ‘idea ownership’ and ‘not invented here syndrome’. Some participants in group brainstorming my resist accepting (what they perceive as) the personal ideas of others. Moving to ‘group ownership of the idea’ can be challenging. A potential disadvantage of an ‘own voice first’ approach is that ideas might be perpetually perceived to be owned by their originator.

The benefits of a hybrid (multi-phased) approach is substantiated by research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. In their paper “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea”, researchers determined that:

groups employing the hybrid process are able to generate more ideas, to generate better ideas, and to better discern their best ideas compared to teams that rely purely on group work. Moreover, we find that the frequently recommended brainstorming technique of building on each other’s ideas is counter-productive: teams exhibiting such build-up neither create more ideas nor are the ideas that build on previous ideas better.

Further Reading

Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea: University of Pennsylvania – Operations & Information Management Department December 8, 2009 INSEAD Business School Research Paper No. 2009/65/TOM.

Innovation and Brainstorming Books

Open Innovation Signposting


Thanks to my good friend and Open Innovation cohort Francisco De-araujo-roso Pinheiro, for signposting some interesting posts on the 15inno group on LinkedIn from Stefan Lindegaard, and some of the academic work he is guiding with EOI Innovation students.

Please read, ruminate, cogitate and feedback to Stefan (a prolific Open Innovation practitioner and commentator) as to the content of the 15inno articles.


Tap the brain of Stefan Lindegaard and network with corporate innovators!

Open Innovation, Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector – 11 Great Reads

Innovation That Works!

Statoil and Shell: Fighting for Innovation Partners

Examples of Using Social Media for Innovation

5 Ways to Get Better Innovation With Less Money

Communication is Key to Successful Open Innovation

Francisco’s Work in Open Innovation

Open Innovation and/or User-Lead Innovation (work submitted by Francisco’s EOI Innovation students)

Please review, encourage and support the next wave of Open Innovation thinkers.

1. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/francescomazzeo/2012/02/06/open-innovation-society-participation/

2. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/jonathancabrero/2012/02/12/innovation-growth/

3. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/lauraambros/2012/02/09/open-innovation-and-lead-user-innovation/

4. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/albertorengel/2012/02/12/open-innovation-lead-user/

5. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/carloscerdan/2012/02/12/open-innovation-the-present-and-future-of-innovation/

6. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/dianapatriciasanchez/2012/02/13/open-and-lead-user-innovation/

7. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/pablogonzalezvina/2012/02/14/open-innovation/

8. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/alfonsomedal/2012/02/12/open-innovation-from-why-to-what/

9. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/alfredoperaita/2012/02/10/innovative-world/

10. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/antoniocalixtomoreno/2012/02/13/%E2%80%9Copen-innovation%E2%80%9D/

11. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/elisaroman/2012/02/11/move-fast-break-things-facebook/

12. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/ildikoheim/2012/02/13/innovation-class-the-innovation-for-development-initiative-alias-openlead-user-innovation-for-good/

13. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/pedropernas/2012/02/09/lead-user-innovation-of-innovation-blog/

14. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/piotradamlubiewa/2012/02/07/innovation-what-is-open-innovation/

15. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/rubenpardo/2012/02/11/innovation/

16. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/amayasayas/2012/02/12/open-innovation-and-lead-user-innovation/

17. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/federicocamino/2012/02/12/open-innovation-shifting-to-a-more-efficient-business-model/

18. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/laurenmusiello/2012/02/12/open-innovation/

19. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/marieglueck/2012/02/12/why-companies-have-to-open-their-doors-and-how-to-do-it-innovation/

20. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/cristinagarcia-ochoa/2012/02/11/open-innovation-the-apple-case/

21. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/hokumakarimova/2012/02/07/innovation-opening-doors-to-ideas/

22. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/ricardogarro/2012/02/12/open-innovation-and-user-lead-innovation-opposites/

23. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/javiersolano/2012/02/12/open-innovation-why/

24. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/mariadiez/2012/02/08/open-innovation-and-lead-user-innovation/

25. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/saraelizalde/2012/02/12/open-innovation/

26. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/alvarorodero/2012/02/13/be-opened-lead-them-lead-user-open-innovation/

27. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/elvirasaez/2012/02/11/open-innovation-open-up-your-mind/

28. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/patriciaperez/2012/02/07/innovation-blog-will-open-innovation-became-a-business-mainstream/

29. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/tabithahmkandawire/2012/02/13/innovation-more-benefits-from-open-innovation/

30. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/alexandrunicolaecosor/2012/02/11/open-innovation-lead-user/

31. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/lauranavas/2012/02/04/innovation-through-collaboration/

32. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/syafrinasharif/2012/02/12/open-innovation/

33. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/arturodelfresno/2012/02/12/innovation-trends-evolution-closed-open-and-lead-user-innovation/

34. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/lucapalma/2012/02/06/the-medical-mirror-a-mit-student-innovation/

35. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/davidgarciagonzalez/2012/02/10/open-innovation/

36. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/elenaarboleya/2012/02/12/innovating-for-companies/

37. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/tatianacasquero/2012/02/12/innovation-open-innovation-philips%C2%B4-approach-to-improve-people%E2%80%99s-lives/

38. http://www.eoi.es/blogs/fabiopinto/2012/02/15/innovation-open-innovation-lead-user-innovation/

Wicked Problem Solving with Open Innovation and VPEC-T

RITTEL AND WEBBER’S formulation of wicked problems specifies ten characteristics:

Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catolog of Modern Engineering Paradigms

10 Characteristics of Wicked Problems

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. It’s not possible to write a well-defined statement of the problem, as can be done with an ordinary problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never stops.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. Ordinary problems have solutions that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is largely a matter of judgment.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. It’s possible to determine right away if a solution to an ordinary problem is working. But solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, making it difficult to measure their effectiveness.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. Solutions to ordinary problems can be easily tried and abandoned. With wicked problems, every implemented solution has consequences that cannot be undone.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Ordinary problems come with a limited set of potential solutions, by contrast.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. An ordinary problem belongs to a class of similar problems that are all solved in the same way. A wicked problem is substantially without precedent; experience does not help you address it.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. While an ordinary problem is self-contained, a wicked problem is entwined with other problems. However, those problems don’t have one root cause.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, who all will have different ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify.

Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior is likely to be a wicked problem. Therefore, many standard examples of wicked problems come from the areas of public planning and policy. These include global climate change, natural hazards, healthcare, the AIDS epidemic, pandemic influenza, international drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy and waste.

In recent years, problems in many areas have been identified as exhibiting elements of wickedness – examples range from aspects of design decision making and knowledge management to business strategy. [Source: Wikipedia]

Implications for Wicked Problem Solving

  1. To address the first characteristic of Wicked Problems, it is necessary to collect a wide range of views of the problem space. An Open Innovation, crowd-sourcing or think-tank based approach (which could be internal ideation, or a mixture of the aforementioned) has promise. In the ‘definition formulation stage’ there will be ‘many’ contradictions, agreement and disagreement between stakeholder groups, terminology problems and nuances. Facilitating and filtering outputs from this phase presents interesting challenges. VPEC-T has a place in this, particularly in dealing with the complexity of eclectic values.
  2. The second characteristic of Wicked Problems highlights the importance of solution hypotheses and a means by which to prototype representative solutions and measure their utility. An ability to prototype many solution hypotheses in parallel may be achieved with Open Innovation, particularly challenge driven Open Innovation where a competition model is used. Characteristic 5 implies that prototyping is not viable in the context of Wicked Problems. I think this is somewhat misleading. I agree that once commitment is made to a solution it is a ‘one shot’ operation with consequences, but populating a set of initial solution hypotheses and understanding the scope of the Wicked Problem (particularly where it is ‘interspersed’ with ‘traditional problems’) will help get the right definition of the problem and the right level of focus on its key facets.
  3. The third characteristic of Wicked Problems will again benefit from the application of Open Innovation and VPEC-T. Open Innovation in the sense of rapid development of solution hypotheses and a mechanism to source improvement ideas from a wide range of participants (including disruptive thinkers from other markets, industries or geographies). VPEC-T comes into play in the filtering process. Open Innovation is useful in the population of the funnel of candidate solutions. VPEC-T is a useful filter to select preferred options which fit best with the Values and Trust dimensions of the company, government or country attempting to solve the Wicked Problem. In certain Wicked Problems, the Values dimension will need to focus on ethics and cultural acceptability and the Policy dimension on relevant laws and restrictions.
  4. Wicked Problems will not be solved through application of design patterns. Characteristics 4 and 7 above rule this out. The generation of unexpected consequences in Characteristic 4 indicates potential for the application of Pattern Based Strategy (in terms of signal detection, and making sense of unanticipated events via correlation and causation analysis).
  5. Refer to implication 2.
  6. Characteristic 6 reinforces that Open Innovation has potential in terms of sourcing solution hypotheses and enriching these hypotheses with a range of opinion. As outlined in Implication 1, facilitation and filtering is important and VPEC-T has an important role to play.
  7. As stated in Implication 4, this rules out the application of design patterns, the solution to a Wicked Problem being unique.
  8. Characteristic 8 makes Wicked Problems particularly Wicked. A three pronged attack on this characteristic with Open Innovation, VPEC-T and Pattern Based Strategy has value. Open Innovation in the sense of collectively working on how Wicked Problems are entwined with other problems, VPEC-T in terms of filtering and facilitating analysis, and Pattern Based Strategy in terms of correlation and causation analysis.
  9. Characteristic 9 is a real sweet spot for VPEC-T, which excels at surfacing the Values and Trust dimensions of Wicked Problem Solving.
  10. VPEC-T (and other thinking frameworks) has an important role in dealing with Characteristic 10. The problem solver(s) eventually need to put their reputations on the line, and must therefore have explored the problem space methodically. Certainty and Wicked Problem solving do not go ‘hand in hand’, and systems and strategic thinking methods are useful in driving out as much uncertainty as may be considered reasonable in highly-complex environments.

Wicked Problem Solving Books