Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies have been used creatively to solve coronavirus-related problems in many parts of the world. Combining the efficient management of traditional, top-down processes with the advantages of bottom-up innovation and inventiveness, crowdsourcing (the open call for ideas, innovation and solutions) illustrates technology’s capacity as an enabler for collective efforts.
Effectively harnessing of the wisdom of the crowd makes efficient use of the digital space’s dispersed communication style by allowing social media participants to play the dominant role. Crowdsourcing during the COVID-19 pandemic not only encourages innovation but could potentially build public trust, enabling leaders to demonstrate that they value and desire citizen input.
Crowdsourcing Initiatives: The Healthcare Industry
Healthcare professionals have spearheaded several crowdsourcing initiatives to better understand the disease spectrum and risk factors to improve treatment strategies. Project CCC19, for example, aims to collect information via a survey tool about cancer patients who also contracted COVID-19. The information will be disseminated to clinicians to hopefully improve treatment outcomes. The consortium began on Twitter and moved on include more than 90 cancer centres and practitioners from all over the world.
The SECURE-Cirrhosis Registry, whose contributors include healthcare practitioners based in the U.S. and East Asia, collects data on COVID-19 in patients (including asymptomatic ones) with chronic liver disease (with or without cirrhosis) and after liver transplantation.
Roche (Canada) has also issued a challenge that seeks ideas on various COVID-19-related issues such as enhancing real-time information sharing, increasing the effectiveness of personal hygiene regimes and social distancing, managing limited health system resources and advice for managing rural and remote populations.
Government-Initiated Crowdsourcing Initiatives
Government agencies are actively crowdsourcing pandemic-related solutions as well. The U.K. Department of Health and Social Care, together with other British healthcare associations, have deployed Medallia, a customer feedback management platform to find ideas to fulfil the government’s target of 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day by the end of April 2020.
In Asia, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is conducting crowdsourcing among its citizens and start-ups for solutions to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Singapore’s GovTech has organised the COVID-19 Idea Sprint to invite developers, designers, and innovators to build solutions to COVID-19-related problems faced by government agencies.
On a wider level, the European Commission led by the European Innovation Council organised the EUvsVirus Program, a Hackathon cum Matchathon cum EIC COVID Platform initiative on 24-26 April 2020 to find solutions in a wide domain such as health, business continuity, remote working and education, social and political cohesion, and digital finance.
Crowdsourcing Initiatives: Technology Companies
Technology companies have thrown their hats into the COVID-19 crowdsourcing ring too. The IBM 2020 COVID-19 Call for Code Global Challenge, for example, sought coding solutions in the areas of immediate crisis communication, enhanced remote education or stronger community cooperation. The MIT Solve challenge was on the lookout for solutions to protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of COVID-19 and supporting hospitals with shortages of staff, supplies, and resources. The Kaggle community, a subsidiary of Google Cloud, was involved in the call to action to the technology community by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to find urgent pandemic-related queries. The data scientists in the community developed new AI models that could predict the spread of the pandemic in addition to data and text mining tools to trawl through the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, CORD-19.
Asia-based start-ups and venture capital firms have also issued crowdsourcing calls. For example, Indian start-up incubators have launched campaigns like BreakCorona to offer support to innovations for COVID-19. East Venture, an Indonesia-based early-stage venture capital firm, has launched Indonesia Pasti Bisa to invite citizens to contribute to developing test kits and genetic testing.
Seeking Wisdom, Minimising Foolishness from the Crowd
While most of the COVID-19 calls are currently in the early stage, past crowdsourcing initiatives have demonstrated the manifold benefits of seeking the wisdom of the crowds.
Lego, the toy brick company, for example, has successfully leveraged on crowdsourcing to increase the number of product ideas while creating effective customer engagement in its campaigns. The popular Lego Minecraft series and a model of the Hayabusa Spacecraft are some of the examples of crowdsourced ideas for the company. Glossier, a beauty brand, is another company that turned some of its crowdsourced ideas for face wash and moisturiser into bestsellers.
Granted, crowdsourcing initiatives face their own set of challenges. For one, initiatives may receive many unusable ideas. For instance, when BP, the British oil and gas company crowdsourced ideas on how to clean an oil spill in 2010, it received a healthy public response. However, sifting through the solutions required a lot of effort on the company’s part, but with “little result”.
Furthermore, organisations could be biased, preferring solutions that are familiar to them. This defeats the purpose of seeking fresh solutions.
To be effective, crowdsourcing in the digital age could take cues from the “participant-curator” model. Here, organisations/individuals’ role in crowdsourcing initiatives is like museum curators, immersed alongside the online community to gently coax them along in participation. Instead of a top-directed initiative, participants are encouraged in this new public relations model to participate in the communication about and the making of the initiatives’ branding. Doing so will inculcate the participants’ sense of ownership in the crowdsourcing initiatives while ensuring that they stick to the aims and objectives of the project.
Bearing the above in mind, not only can institutions identify unexpected solutions to the challenges through outside input that could bring unique perspectives, but also build trust during the COVID-19 pandemic.
*Jennifer Yang Hui is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.