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The current issue of Wired (not available on-line as of this posting) has a must-read article cover story: Gone.  The premise was to determine how easily someone could disappear and adopt a new identity in the digital age.  While people can easily adopt a new life on-line, it would appear exceedingly difficult to avoid detection in an age when all of our personal information and, to some extent, our every move is captured and accessible electronically.

To test this idea, Wired asked writer Evan Ratliff to disappear for one month.  He could tell no one of his plans (not even his family or girlfriend).  They announced the contest online on August 14th, set a bounty for his discovery ($5,000–$3,000 of which was Ratliff’s own money), and invited the general public to find Ratliff through whatever means they liked (preferably, legal).  The contest would be over when someone came face to face with Ratliff, snapped a picture of him, and said the word “fluke”.  All told, it took 17 days to catch Ratliff.  The article is a must read, providing the fascinating details of Ratliff’s moves as well as those of his pursuers.

What occurred to me when reading the article was that, without saying so, Wired essentially crowdsourced the manhunt for Ratliff.  Rather than hire a single investigator or firm to find him, Wired outsourced the task to a large, undefined, diverse group of people (basically, Jeff Howe’s definition of crowdsourcing).  For crowdsourcing to work (or for crowds to be “wise”) the crowd generally has to have three attributes, all of which the hunter group seemed to possess:

  • Diversity: The more diverse a crowd is, the more likely it is to be intelligent. Why? Because a diverse crowd will bring many different views to bear on a problem, thereby increasing the likelihood that a solution will be found. From what I can tell, the crowd chasing Ratliff was quite diverse and included people of all ages, professions, and skill sets. And it was an interesting mix of people who eventually nabbed him.
  • Independence: The crowd must also be relatively independent, meaning individuals are not reliant on the same source of information. This is important for two reasons. First, when information is independent it’s more likely the ‘errors’ of each individual will cancel each other out. Second, independent individuals are more likely to bring unique information to the table. The article provides evidence for the independence of individuals and clusters of individuals working on the search. While many people were sampling the same information via the Twitter #vanish hashtag, there were tons of individuals bringing their own information to the party.
  • Decentralization: The more decentralized, or localized, members of a crowd the smarter it will be, the idea being that the more localized and spread out a crowd is the greater the sources of information that the crowd can pull from. The hunters in this case were highly decentralized, located all over the country and providing local intelligence that the group as a whole could benefit from.

It also occurred to me that the story reveals and illustrates a few other important aspects of crowdsourcing:

  • Rewards: Motivating a crowd is a key component when implementing a crowdsourcing strategy to problem solving. If the crowd isn’t properly motivated they are unlikely to put the time and effort into the task at hand. Wired did provide a monetary incentive (the $5K), the crowd seemed just as motivated (if not more so) by the reputational incentive of being known across the Wired-world as the one who found Ratliff. And not to ruin the ending of the article, but readers will see that on balance the reputational motivation won the day in this case. The lesson is that you should take into account multiple types of incentives, not just monetary, when trying to motivate a crowd.
  • Self-organization & Collaboration: Even though there are individual incentives to solve the problem, it did not deter hunters from pooling their knowledge and working together in teams. The story mentions that almost immediately folks shared their information and thoughts via the hashtag #vanish, formed groups on Facebook, and even relocated to secure chat rooms to prevent moles from providing Ratliff with counterintelligence. Most of these people had never met each other. Almost instantly hunters self-organized, without the benefit of hierarchical direction. And much like the recent Netflix contest, individual hunters banded together in ad hoc and informal teams to work collaboratively towards finding Ratliff faster than if they simply worked alone.

Be sure to check it out.

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