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Crowdsourcing Big Data: A Roadmap
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Crowdsourcing Big Data: A Roadmap

Big data is a hot topic these days – digging through previously inaccessible data sets is allowing companies and governments to improve operations and to discover new solutions to problems.

Sorting through the mountains of information, however, is a challenge even for the largest enterprises and institutions. But, it may be a manageable task for a large enough crowd.


One government initiative that has been exploring the potential of crowds to analyze and make sense of big data is CI-BER (CyberInfrastructure for Billions of Electronic Records). The program was first started in 2010, as part of a research agreement among the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, National Archives and Records Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

CI-BER projects are concerned specifically with “the integration of heterogeneous datasets and multi-source historical and digital collection.” One such initiative that CI-BER is currently working on is a plan to assemble and make sense of documents related to urban development and renewal policies in the Southside neighborhood of Asheville, North Carolina. Yesterday, CI-BER’s Sheryl Grant penned a blog post explaining what the project is all about, introducing the concept of “citizen-led sourcing,” and laying out the roadmap to the project’s crowdsourcing method.

Asheville’s Southside neighborhood was the “largest urban renewal area in the southeastern United States,” resulting in thousands of individuals being displaced and over 1,000 homes lost from the 1960s to mid-80s. CI-BER has collected a plethora of related documents from local and federal agencies, and it now wishes to compile and organize them with the help of the crowd.

In the last several years, Asheville’s citizens have expressed an interest in rediscovering and better understanding that painful part in their history. The sort of interest within the community is essential to CI-BER’s crowdsourcing approach, which Grant calls “citizen-led crowdsourcing.”

“CI-BER proposes a process of co-creation, in which the community is actively involved in most or all steps of crowdsourcing,” she writes. “We refer to this as citizen-led crowdsourcing… Our citizen-led focus puts civically engaged community members at the forefront and indicates that the focus is on the community engaging the archive with control resting on their shoulders.”

Grant goes on to outline the four phases of citizen-led crowdsourcing, representing CI-BER’s roadmap for the Asheville project:

  • Phase 1: Student- and citizen-led crowdsourced digitization, indexing, and mapping (completed); January-March 2013
  1. Community member and student-driven digitization of an initial subset of the collection
  2. Community-led indexing and mapping of the collection.
  • Phase 2: Modeling and motivating community participation in the crowdsourcing design process; March-May 2013
  1. Develop programming that can be used to build community buy-in around the project in its developmental stages
  2. We are working with Jeff Heard from RENCI and modifying the “Big Board” emergency mapping software to accommodate crowdsourcing capabilities.
  • Phase 3: Deploying the crowdsourcing model; April-June 2013
  1. Develop a framework for the crowdsourcing logistics
  2. Evaluate other community-based historical digitization projects
  3. Develop a wishlist of features to help guide the design of the crowdsourcing interface.
  • Phase 4: Presentation of crowdsourcing process; Summer 2013
  1. Rollout of project through a series of public events.

The first phase, in which university students and members of the community helped to digitize and tag relevant documents, has already been completed, and the second phase is currently underway. The ultimate goal is to “make sense of the collection [of documents], digitize strategic content, transcribe it through citizen-led crowdsourcing, visualize and map the content, enhance the collection, develop a working content model, and add functionality to the software user interface being built.”

CI-BER’s citizen-led model is an interesting approach to government use of crowdsourcing. Putting projects in the hands of the crowd can be an effective way to tackle problems to which citizens feel particularly connected, as is clearly the case among Asheville’s residents. Grant writes that a community member who is helping to lead the project recognized her childhood home in one of the photographs provided in the data set – that sort of emotional bond can be a strong impetus for members of the crowd to participate.

Having the citizens take charge in leading a project is also the more scalable approach and, if it succeeds, would be worth replicating in other parts of the country. That doesn’t mean that the CI-BER team will not face its challenges, however. For one, the team will need to figure out how to maintain a high quality level in the crowd’s contributions. And for any future projects to succeed, CI-BER will need to ensure that there is genuine community interest in the issues involved. We'll make sure to keep an eye on CI-BER's Asheville initiative as it progresses over the next several months. 

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