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Crowdsourcing’s Hall of Fame

Crowdsourcing’s Hall of Fame

There are a myriad of possibilities in the search for crowdsourcing milestones that announced its advent and its adoption as a model for online production, problem solving and for organizing for collective action: Commercial applications, advertising campaigns that succeed or backfire, funding for entrepreneurial ventures. This list of one dozen focuses on the pinnacles that demonstrate crowdsourcing’s highest potential: For public good, scientific research and technological innovation.

Each of these events involves a seminal moment when crowdsourcing came into greater public awareness being driven from calls to action that resulted in ever increasing numbers of individuals working together in a manner that has raised our collective consciousness.

We have selected our landmark crowdsourcing events based on criteria that make them notable because of their scale, their impact and the extent of their outreach to a wider audience both demographically and geographically. See if you agree with our choices!

Selected as the first significant example of open-source collaboration, the GenBank project in 1982 is an annotated collection of all publicly available DNA sequences. With initial funding from the U.S. government and the National Science Foundation, now produced and maintained by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information, it takes submissions from laboratories and individuals, notably those participating in genealogy programs such as Family Tree DNA.


It was in 1979, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, when a group of biologists established a database that three years later spawned one of the earliest community projects on the Internet, the open access gene sequencing database called GenBank. By late 1983, 2,000 nucleotide sequences were stored on GenBank. In the years since, the genetic information collected there has doubled every 18 months.

As of February 2011, GenBank has stored 124 billion nucleotide bases in more than 132 million reported gene sequences. It is part of a global collaboration, the International Nucleotide Sequence Database Collaboration, that includes GenBank, the DNA DataBank of Japan and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

Data from GenBank has been used in multitude of research projects, including efforts to track the emergence of human cases of H1N1 swine influenza in 2009.

Selected as one of the most well known examples of open source software collaboration is the Linux Code, 1991. The Linux “kernel” was written in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki. Torvalds was frustrated by operating systems that carried licenses limiting their use and decided to work on his own, free operating system. In order to make Linux available for commercial use, Torvalds switched from his initial license, which had prohibited commercial redistribution, to a licensing model that made Linux a fully functional operating system that can be freely modified and redistributed.

By 1999, IBM, Dell, HP and the Oracle Corporation joined the Linux community. As of 2004, 25% of servers and 2.8% of desktop computers ran Linux, which is considered a leading server operating system and runs the world’s fastest 10 supercomputers. Some popular Linux distributions include Debian, Fedora and openSUSE.

Our next example of collective action, selected because with over 5.2 million members it officially became the largest computation in history, named by the Guinness Book of World Records, is the SETI@home initiative from 1999. Originally a NASA experiment in distributed computing, SETI@Home relies on "citizen science" from volunteers using the downtime on their Internet-connected home computers to search for extraterrestrial signals but to date has yet to detect intelligent life outside Earth. Anyone who wants to participate can download a free program that analyzes radio telescope data to detect intelligent life in the cosmos.

The idea for SETI, using large numbers of computers that would together form a virtual supercomputer, was proposed in 1995 and launched four years later as the second large-scale use of distributed computing for research purposes surpassing its original goal of attracting 50,000 to 100,000 members with their home computers. (The first,, was launched two years earlier.) Now with over 5.2 million members, it was named the largest computation in history by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Our next pinnacle crowdsourcing milestone has been selected as it marks the first significant introduction of game dynamics as a way of crowdsourcing the solving of tasks. The ESP Game (now Google Image Labeler), 2003 uses game playing to create a fun way to crowdsource the labeling Internet images. Not only has the ESP Game improved online image search but it has also pioneered the concept of "games with a purpose," which are games that produce useful computation as a side effect.

Developed by Luis von Ahn, The ESP Game was acquired by Google and renamed the Google Image Labeler. The idea was to improve Internet image search, which cannot be done accurately by computers. Making image-labeling part of a game was a breakthrough by von Ahn, considered a pioneer of crowdsourcing. Von Ahn’s 2005 Ph.D. thesis was the first to use the term "human computation" to mean methods that combine human brainpower with computers to solve problems.

Our list of twelve pinnacle events in crowdsourcing history wouldn’t be complete without mention of the seminal literary works that brought insights of the emergence of crowdsourcing to the masses. Because of these early books, many of us were inspired to pursue new paths.


The Wisdom of Crowds, 2004 by James Surowiecki wrote about the aggregation of information in groups in this book, subtitled, “Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations." Its central thesis was revolutionary: That a diverse collection of independently-deciding persons will make certain decisions and predictions better than individual experts. Surowiecki’s was the first in a series of recent, seminal works that introduced and expanded upon the concept of crowdsourcing.


The term itself is often credited to a 2006 Wired article by Jeff Howe titled, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” which explained how Web 2.0 technology enabled “amateurs, hobbyists and dabblers” to attract attention from business interests.  



Another entry in this list is New York professor Clay Shirky's, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” in which he argues that online social tools enable group actions and collaborations outside of traditional institutions.

Our first example of large-scale civic engagement is The Katrina PeopleFinder Project from 2005. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, dozens of separate groups began collecting online lists of missing persons affected by the storm. On Friday, Sept. 2, the Katrina PeopleFinder Project was conceived as a nonprofit technology initiative. By the following Tuesday, there were more than 90,000 entries made by dozens of technologists and more than 4,000 volunteers.

The project created the PeopleFinder Interchange Format, which is used to exchange information about the fate of individuals after a disaster. After the same natural disaster, the KatrinaHelp Wiki was started by 20 international volunteers who had mounted a similar effort after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The information clearinghouse eventually recorded at least five million page views.

Next on our list we have selected InnoCentive for a challenge in 2007 that was solved via InnoCentive’s Open Innovation Marketplace, a landmark example of crowdsourcing solutions via open innovation platforms. Some 200,000 plus individuals work on problems posted on InnoCentive’s Open Innovation Marketplace, which relies on creative solutions from outside industry to solve particularly difficult scientific dilemmas.

Nearly 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, scientists had still not found a way to separate remaining traces of spilled oil from frozen gulf water. InnoCentive, an open innovation sourcing organization working with the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) and other conservation groups, posted the problem on its website - along with a $20,000 prize for the “scientific solver” who could propose a viable solution.

An oil industry outsider, John Davis, used his expertise in the concrete industry to come up with the winning solution, which involved applying a tool that keeps cement in liquid form during mass concrete pours.

Our next example of digitized collective action on a massive scale is the Fossett Search in 2007. After aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane went down in the rugged Nevada desert, more than 50,000 people became involved inspecting high-resolution satellite imagery for his plane. The photos were made available for scrutiny as by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workforce. MTurk is a crowdsourcing platform developed two years earlier that connects a virtual on-demand workforce with microtasks.

 This example has been selected to acknowledge MTurk as the first model that enabled "micro-payments for micro-tasks" through crowdsourcing and human computation-as-a-platform.   

While Fossett’s remains were ultimately located nearly one year after the crash, by a hiker, the public’s involvement in a technology-enabled search attracted widespread media coverage and raised awareness of crowdsourcing among the general public.

The Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program of 2008 is a notable example of large-scale public crowdsourcing initiative that was orchestrated nationally. The National Library of Australia asked the public for help correcting and improving electronically translated text of old newspapers. This project was also selected as as a public service initiative as it is believed to be the first-ever in which a library invites crowdsourcing on a large scale.

The Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program takes Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1945 and digitize them. But errors in OCR (optical character recognition) often make the results difficult to decipher.

The 2008 program enlisted the public’s help in correcting OCR errors and tagging important articles. By March 2010, over 12 million lines of text had been improved by thousands of public users, many of whom reported that they found text-correction “addictive.”


Our tribute to crowdsourcing’s historic path has to mention Wikipedia with its landmark, 2009 milestone of passing 10 million contributors and more than 100 billion page views. Wikipedia is the largest, online user-generated encyclopedia and earns its mantle in crowdsourcing’s hall of fame as perhaps the biggest altruistic example of crowdsourcing.


Individuals contribute knowledge to Wikipedia solely for the purpose of building knowledge. It creates relevant results and often tops search engine results with near real-time accuracy, a significant milestone for human computation.

Wikipedia was formally launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger using the concept of a wiki pioneered by Ward Cunningham. It now claims more than 3.5 million articles in English, 15 million articles in more than 200 languages worldwide, and is planning hundreds of celebrations for its 10th anniversary in 2011.

One interesting initiative that marks an explorative journey into the world of crowdsourcing by the US government and public sector is the U.S. Broadband Funding initiative of 2009. The United States Federal Communications Commission adopted crowdsourcing as a means of collecting ideas on how to best build out America's broadband infrastructure using funding from The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

As in private industry and the nonprofit sector, the public sector is embracing crowdsourcing in a big way through multiple government initiatives. One of the most notable was President Barack Obama widely used Web 2.0 and social media to collect voters, contributors and share information on the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.

The IdeaScale crowdsourcing platform, which was also used in the 2009 Open Government Initiative, has been adopted as a platform used to ask the public for input on various issues raised by more than 30 agencies, including how to save tax dollars and improve IT infrastructure.

To complete our record of the defining moments in crowdsourcing’s history we have to acknowledge the collective actions related to the recent Japanese Disasters which began with the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake striking on March 11, 2011. In the wake of Japan’s trifecta of natural and man-made disasters, crowdsourcing has been playing many critical roles, from tracking radiation releases at crippled nuclear power plants to helping find survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.

In fact, crowdsourcing has become an expected response to disaster in the years since it was first employed.

In Japan, real-time amateur radiation monitors update scientists and the public every 60 seconds, providing an alternative to sometimes slow or inconsistent official estimates. In the U.S., a crowd-sourced radiation-monitoring network of roughly a dozen unofficial monitoring sites is updated every three minutes.

Hours after the earthquake struck, Japanese students in the U.S. mobilized to support a Tokyo-based street-mapping project called Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili and was first developed to map reports of Kenyan violence after disputed elections in 2008.

We will continue to review our “who’s who” for crowdsourcing’s Hall of Fame, who and what do you think should be featured? Write to us, add your comment, and let us know?

You can download your copy of Crowdsourcing’s Historic Landmark Events here.

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