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Crowdsourcing Tools Should Be Designed Like a Casino
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Crowdsourcing Tools Should Be Designed Like a Casino

Here's an unexpected lesson from the news business -- when creating a crowdsourcing tool, take a page from the glitzy world of gambling to help keep focus.

Back in September, ProPublica, a non-profit journalistic organization, created the tool in question, called ‘Free the Files’ in order to track political ad money flow ahead of November’s presidential election. 

The campaign was a big success for ProPublica, with over 17,000 files ‘freed,’ and over a billion dollars logged.

Al Shaw, news applications developer at the organization who helped to create the tool, revisited the project recently, explaining the thought process behind its design and providing a good blueprint for similar crowdsourcing initiatives in the future.

- Crowdsourcing Big Data: A Roadmap 

Shaw begins by introducing the concept of ‘casino-driven design,’ which “cuts away all distraction and drives the user’s attention toward staying focused on a single task.”

Like a casino would, ProPublica’s app discouraged cross-site exploration and page exits by removing section links, ads, and links to the home page. The key, Shaw notes, was to create a “clean” page that would limit disruption.

ProPublica also imitated a casino’s glass door entrance by showing a “frosted glass” view of the activities that awaited volunteers. Users needed to create an account or log into an existing one before they could free files, an extra step that may have discouraged many from taking part. By showing a preview of what type of work the users would be doing, however, the development team was able to hook the volunteers in: “it’s hard to get to that screen and not want to see what’s behind it,” Shaw writes.

Reducing friction, he continues, was another goal for the team. Keeping the process as simple and intuitive as possible means that users can get through lots of files in one sitting. The volunteers only had to answer five questions before “mash[ing] the big green or red button.” And to keep users around for as long as possible, the page never fully reloaded.

“There was never a reason for people to leave the page — we provided pop-up instructions and autocomplete boxes for values we thought users may type in,” Shaw explains.

Gambling at a casino, at the end of the day, is meant to be fun, and ProPublica added game elements to Free the Files to give users another reason to participate. The key gamification ingredient was a leaderboard, typical for projects that involve crowdsourcing.

Looking to the future, Shaw writes that his team may experiment with grouping similar-format files together to make it easier for users to cull information, and presenting users with a single task. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on ProPublica and its crowd-powered journalistic initiatives in the future.

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