Crowdsourcing is one of the best things that happened to humanity in the past years. Because two heads are better than one, hearing more voices triggers new perspectives, and taking ownership is a good thing. It’s no wonder Airbnb, Waze, Wikipedia or Kickstarter are such a hit that even countries are tapping in with crowdsourced policymaking. Empowering communities works in the most diverse industries, locations, and business fields.

Transport in particular has a lot of potential in the area. It affects a lot of people, on a regular basis, and has the power to trigger sense of ownership among users. Using the power of the crowd to gather and disseminate data to achieve hassle-free travel is becoming more and more widespread in cities especially.

Of course you need initial investment to make it work. You need a system that can handle a sudden leap in the volume, velocity and veracity of data. Big data technologies are built to do just that. Collect, store, handle and make sense of a lot of data coming from a lot of sources.

Authorities also need to grow up to it. They need to accept that the more informal online and virtual voice of a crowd is just as good – if not better – as a classic, physical town meeting. It’s about embracing and handling the voice of a faceless, online crowd as a genuine one.  That’s called remote participation, a fundamental of crowdsourcing.

Finally, you need the crowd inputs. Without sufficient data it won’t work and public authorities have an important role to play in building up a strong baseline to the system on which crowdsourcing can contribute to adding and updating more accurate information.

Start small, grow big

Think of a very simple transport related scenario which has used crowdsourcing for a few years now: potholes. Instead of paying a dozen employees to roam the streets, you could create a reporting app (some examples here, here and here). And anytime anyone (that’s a lot of chance!) passes a pothole they just log it in: a simple click or swipe on a smartphone.

You can also notify the community on what is happening: that you are aware of the problem, a team is scheduled to fix it, support is on its way, etc.   So if it works with potholes why wouldn’t it work with something a bit more complex on a larger scale? The same person who logs the pothole in, will know if the bus is tardy because of a breakdown, the traffic jam ahead or if a pram fits on the overcrowded tram.

This is all great if you have a solid understanding of your city and its transport network. If you live in Istanbul or Lagos it gets a whole different tone. First, you need a map. Collaborations of cities, apps, and researchers working with data of just a hundred people can help track and map out a city and its public transport network eventually enabling the deployment of tailored, sustainable and smarter transport solutions. That’s crowdsourcing too.

So why does it work?

On the technological side, we have the Internet to thank. Crowds no longer need to be in the same physical location to have a unified voice. They can be scattered across the city, country or globe and have a powerful interest or passion that unites them. And this is key too; we’re not a crowd because we share the same zip code or nationality: we become a crowd because we share something we feel strongly for as individuals. Just as important (definitely in terms of transport) is the ability to connect on the go enabling real-time data transmission at all times.

On a more social tone it’s about human nature. People just love to share moments of their life: joy, sorrow, anxiety, and every emotion in between.  We also appreciate participation, sense of control and ownership. All these factors coming together with the leap in online communities have contributed to making crowdsourcing work.

From a traveller point of view this means enabling yourself and others to make better travel decisions, powered by reliable information.

Relying on knowledge – derived from data – instead of relying on outside sensors, radars and other data gathering equipment, riders themselves are the source: the ones waiting at the bus stop, in the traffic jam, witnesses of an accident, providers of genuine first-hand information in mass. The technique scales really fast and takes pride in relying on the users. The users themselves are the ones who can identify and match the supply and demand directly, ridding the city of empty lines and overflowing buses in the bargain.

We’re smarter together

This is pretty straightforward: the more people the greater the collective wisdom, the higher chance of a really exciting insight to pop up. The whole exercise of brainstorming, bouncing ideas off each other can reach greater lengths with more people, more responses, and more reactions and so on.

More data mean higher accuracy and more insight leading to better decisions. Voila: crowdsourcing.

We have something in common

Though many believe that city population is becoming desensitised towards each other (not necessarily untrue) the feeling of having something in common will always connect us. It may not be apparent each day, but if need be the sense of belonging to the same neighbourhood, the same city, or traveling on the same underground becomes a united force.

Own your problem and own your solution too

Ownership means taking a step up from being a passive actor to an active participant. Taking ownership and responsibility within a community is also an innate need we have.  It doesn’t have to mean that you dedicate weekends to building a community garden or cleaning up the neighbourhood forest. Taking a few seconds on your commute to report what is happening can already give a very powerful data boost to service providers.

Ownership is made up of a couple of factors but in the simplest breakdown it is control and responsibility. You provide the crowd opportunity to have a say (i.e. control) in the development of their surroundings, their commute, and their daily habits. And you give them the responsibility of actions: giving truthful reports on what they see and want to change. Speaking of truthful reporting, there’s always a scare of untruthful reports. Verification is basically automatic: by the amount of data itself; if 1 person posts a fake incident, there will be 20 who contradict. Of course for the very determined will always try, but more often than not, people tend to understand and appreciate the greater good in public services and not tamper with them.

Together for the greater good

Crowdsourcing as a solution, a business model, a phenomenon and a mind-set has its challenges and backlashes. But it may be our best bet in a new age where change is constant, where people want more participation and less paternal guidance and where brilliant minds can come together from across the globe to form something bigger and better. The transport scene is already experiencing massive disruptions (think of Mobility as a Service, rise of car sharing, emergence of smart cities and connected vehicles). So it may just be the perfect breeding ground for more crowdsourcing to show up.


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