Calling in the crowd

Crowdsourcing's about reaching out to thousands on the Internet and pulling in ideas on everything from running the country to thinking up catchy ads, says Aarti Dua

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 12.05.13
  • Filmmaker Ensia Mirza , who won a contest with her ad for Axe deodorant (below)

It's a hot topic in a country where the roads are veritable killing fields. So, when transport minister C.P. Joshi turned to the Internet to call for suggestions from the public on ways to reduce road deaths and accidents, he was inundated by nearly 5,000 responses at his Google Hangout session.

On another long weekend, it was the government's technology czar Sam Pitroda and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman, Planning Commission, who were holding what's called a hackathon. They were reaching out via the Internet to an unusual collection of people that included moviemakers, graphic designers and over a thousand students at 11 universities around the country. Their aim: to demystify the country's new 12th Five-Year Plan by using a mix of infographics, short films and even mobile apps created during the two-day hackathon.

It's called crowdsourcing and it is, quite simply, about reaching out to huge numbers of people using the power of the Internet and pulling in ideas on everything from running the country to a catchy ad for a new product. "Crowdsourcing is a way to get ideas and also to engage people in a democracy," says Pitroda.

  • Young Indians are rapidly adopting crowdsourcing, says Talenthouse India's Arun Mehra

At a different level, take a look at filmmaker Ensia Mirza, whose career has got a flying start thanks to crowd-sourcing. Mirza began by entering a contest organised by crowdsourcing website Talenthouse India for filmmakers under 25 who had to make a movie on Mumbai. Her movie about a tea vendor's obsession with Bollywood grabbed a top prize and even got screened at the prestigious Mumbai Film Festival last October.

Since then, Mirza has stuck with Talenthouse and she's going great guns with it. Last year, deodorant brand Axe launched a new extra strong variant and used Talenthouse to invite ideas for its advertising campaign. Once again, Mirza came in ahead of the field. Her photograph of a scantily clad woman climbing out of a picture-frame when a guy wearing Axe approaches it was declared one of the three winning entries.

"India has adopted crowdsourcing very quickly," says Arun Mehra, CEO, Talenthouse India, a joint-venture between Reliance Entertainment and the US-based Talenthouse, which launched in August 2011.

  • Sam Pitroda is spearheading the government's efforts to engage with people by hosting crowdsourcing events like the 12th Plan Hackathon (below)

The government, too, is about to make crowdsourcing a regular way of life with its Google Hangout sessions and hackathons. The Planning Commission even put together the 12th Plan after a crowdsourcing effort over two-and-a-half years, when it reached out to some 950 civil society organisations and business associations offline, and the country's youth too over the Internet.

"Nothing like this had ever been done before. We got so many inputs to support the Plan," says Arun Maira, member, Planning Commission.

Who are the people who are into crowdsourcing? The answer is quite simply anyone from the Government of India to students like Mirza. Talenthouse, for instance, has run 43 contests over 18 months, that challenged the man and woman in the street to perform different tasks from designing logos to creating videos.

Initially, Talenthouse got extra mileage by roping in celebrities like fashion designer Anita Dongre and filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra as mentors and also running contests for them.

Talenthouse also found early corporate adopters like Micromax, which got its new logo after a crowdsourcing contest. Similarly, Zodiac has sourced models for its Zod Clubwear sub-brand, and also an ad for its Z3 casualwear line through Talenthouse.

  • Punjabi singer Milind Gaba is thrilled that his talent is getting recognised via crowdsourcing websites

It must, of course, be said that crowdsourcing works only because of the Internet and its ability to draw together giant numbers of people online. And it's being put to amazing uses across the world. Consider that America's powerful Federal Bureau of Investigation crowdsourced its surveillance investigation when it asked spectators of the Boston Marathon bombings to provide images or videos they might have taken during the attack.

  • Footwear designer Nandita Singh Maan are logging on to crowdsourcing websites like Talenthouse India to kickstart their career

At a more academic level, study what's happening at A.N. College, Patna, where scientist Ashok Ghosh is a leading expert on arsenic and fluoride contamination in ground water. Ghosh is working on turning his years of research into a commercially viable product by teaming up with a Calcutta-based crowdsourcing or open innovation platform called One Billion Minds. One Billion links innovators to companies looking for scientific and technological solutions. Says Ghosh: "I've always felt what good is my research if it remains confined to the lab and doesn't reach society. Now, One Billion Minds has removed this roadblock."

The growing interest in crowdsourcing has resulted in the birth of several Indian crowdsourcing firms like One Billion Minds, Talenthouse India, Jade Magnet and 99tests. They're hoping to emulate the success of international players like InnoCentive and Elance.

Manik Kinra, co-founder, Jade Magnet, feels that crowdsourcing is growing because, as with outsourcing, companies want to reduce costs. "Also, people want to work on projects they like instead of taking up nine-to-five jobs," he says.

The crowdsourcing firms are zeroing in on different fields. So Bangalore-based Jade Magnet, which was founded by Kinra and Sitash Srivastava in 2009 — they first conceived it as MBA students in 2007 — focuses on design and marketing and One Billion Minds links companies and non-profit organisations that are searching for new scientific developments with scientists and students in 180 universities worldwide. "We're working with the biggest names in Indian industry," says its founder Sanjukt Saha.

Then, there's Praveen Singh's 99tests in Bangalore, which only tests computer software. While Talenthouse India is focused on five genres: film, fashion, music, photography and art.

So how do they go about the task of pulling in ideas from the public? The firms start by identifying a company's requirement, whether it's for a logo design or viral marketing video. They then create a contest around this, which may be open to all as on Talenthouse or which may be limited to chosen specialists as with Jade Magnet and One Billion Minds.

Talenthouse has pulled together big corporate names like Procter & Gamble and Samsung in its game of constant talent hunts. For instance Samsung got a huge 14,000 entries to create an art installation for a Galaxy Note II promo. And now it's running a contest for rock band Linkin Park, asking designers to submit original artwork for its new album, Castle of Glass.

No wonder, it's attracting youngsters like Mirza and footwear designer Nandita Singh Maan. Maan won a contest to design shoes and bags for Dongre last year. The prize was an internship with Dongre but Maan couldn't take it as she was leaving to study in Milan.

Meanwhile, Mirza is hooked to Talenthouse. She first participated in a contest for Airtel, which wanted videos based on its Har Friend Zaroori Hota Hai theme. So, Mirza and her three film school classmates made three videos, one of which won — and earned them a cool Rs 35,000. Naturally, she began participating in more contests. "I've got a lot of stuff for my show-reel now," says Mirza. And she has even splurged and bought a much-coveted pair of Steve Madden shoes with her prize money — "without feeling guilty", she laughs.

Similarly, Punjabi singer Milind Gaba won Rs 1 lakh when he created a rap improvisation of Goodlass Nerolac's popular Jab Ghar Ki Raunaq Badhani Ho jingle. "It's great when you do something and win prize money for it," he says.

  • Manik Kinra (right) and Sitash Srivastava's crowdsourcing site Jade Magnet hosts design and marketing contests such as this one on 100 years of Indian cinema (above)

Meanwhile, the other firms are attracting professionals too. So Jade Magnet, which has hosted over 2,500 projects in the last three years and given out prize money of around Rs 3.5 crore, is linking designers, software developers and animators to customers in India and abroad. Jade Magnet began as a pure contest site for designing logos and posters in 2009. But soon, Kinra and Srivastava found that small companies didn't only want design inputs but also needed to execute them.

"So Jade Magnet has evolved from a pure contest play to a delivery assurance managed crowdsourcing model today," says Kinra. This means that it gives out projects to selected designers and developers and manages their execution too.

It is also focusing on three areas: animation content, specialised design contests, and integrated marketing campaigns.

Meanwhile, One Billion Minds deals with specialised problems like protein modification. So Saha says that they act like a "detective" in first identifying the scientific experts for a problem and then linking them to the company.

An engineer from IIT, Saha worked in industry for several years. But while doing an MBA in Germany, he realised that he wanted to work with innovations. So, he founded One Billion in 2009 as he felt that crowdsourcing would "allow me to be a fractional partner in other people's innovations". One Billion Minds, which charges fees ranging from Rs 8 lakh to Rs 50 lakh, has over 20 major clients today.

  • Sanjukt Saha (centre) and his team at One Billion Minds are connecting scientists with companies looking for technical solutions

Meanwhile, Singh co-founded 99tests in 2010 because as a one-time quality assurance manager, he knew that no matter how much a software programme was tested in-house, it would always throw up bugs due to the small team size and few incentives. So, with 99tests, he began offering a large pool of techies to test software "in real time in real world conditions". And he began paying testers on the number and quality of bugs unearthed.

99tests attracts nearly 4,700 testers today. But the prize money is small at Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000. Yet, Singh says: "Money is not the only motivation. Testers come to hone their skills and to be known as the best in the community."

  • Praveen Singh has provided a platform for software testers through his 99tests website

However, there can be downsides to crowdsourcing. Sifting through a large number of entries can take time. As Maira says: "How do you make sense of the inputs you get?" And, often a single design or ad jingle can't assure you that the person has talent. Says Dongre: "I wouldn't use crowdsourcing to hire someone again since the effort takes too long." Yet, Maan says it boosted her confidence hugely. "I felt that if I can win in India, I can do something internationally too," says Maan, who's just got a job with a designer in Milan.

Despite the drawbacks, it's clear that the crowdsourcing community is only set to grow as more and more companies and governments turn to the Net to source talent from around the world.