Crowdsourcing. You need to move a lot of muck to find the golden nugget and the silver bullet.


“everyone remembers the Goldcorp Challenge?”… apparently not

Crowdsourcing is being promoted in some areas as a potential ‘silver bullet’ to solve the problems of pubic services. At first glance, what’s not to like?

  • It’s co-productive. It can involve citizens and service users in solving problems and designing the services they use;
  • It’s cost effective. Many people can work on a solution at relatively low cost. In some cases this can involve people giving time and ideas for free;
  • It develops new ideas. By involving people with a very wide range of experience, skills and perspectives on a topic, there is opportunity for them to come up with new and innovative approaches; and
  • It involves people in what is happening (oooh, did I mention it is co-productive).

However, I’m not sure everyone does remember the Goldcorp Challenge, it did after all happen way back in 2000.

Before diving into crowdsourcing as your ‘silver bullet solution to problems’, it is worth a closer look at what has been happening at Goldcorp, Dell IdeaStorm, My Starbucks Idea and the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Context is hugely important when transferring learning, and crowdsourcing is no different.

The Goldcorp Challenge.

This is like the ‘mother lode’ crowdsourcing stories. The are numerous articles in things like Bloomberg Businessweek which describe what happened. I first read about it in Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams back in 2008, and got very excited by the idea of ‘mass collaboration changing everything’.

Briefly the story is as follows. The CEO of a struggling gold mining company does the unthinkable and takes all of their highly treasured geological information and posts it on the internet in the Goldcorp Challenge. A $575,000 prize fund is offered to anyone who can come up with ideas on where they should dig for gold.

There was a very snazzy website pictured above (it was 2000) with guidance on how to submit ideas along with an explanation on how they would be judged and rewarded.

The result was a diverse range of suggestions from unexpected sources (like the other side of the world), which ended up with recovering huge quantities of gold. The rest is gold mining and crowdsourcing history. Have a read of this Fast Company article for more detail on the particular circumstances of this successful iconic example of crowdsourcing.

Dell IdeaStorm, My Starbucks Idea and The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

These are all very worthy of individual case studies as examples of crowdsourcing. Very briefly here is what they involve.

Dell IdeaStorm has been around since 2007. It is a site where people with an interest in Dell products and services can submit ideas for improving them. The ideas are then voted and commented upon by the community members. Dell take the most ‘popular’ ideas and try to implement them.

My Starbucks Idea.  A bit like the Dell IdeaStorm, a site for people with an interest in Starbucks Coffee. It’s a place where they can post their ideas, vote and comment on what others think. Its been around since 2008 and has been widely featured in case studies like this example from Imperial College London Business School. This article on gives a good summary of the last 5 years of My Starbucks Idea.

Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill. This one is a bit different. In response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster the company (BP) put out a request for ideas on how to deal with the spill. There is still a site available to submit ideas, run by Gulf Spill Restoration NOAA. I’ve seen different figures on how many ideas were submitted, ranging from 43,000 to 120,000. This Guardian article, BP’s oil spill crowdsourcing exercise: ‘a lot of effort for little result’, explains some the the challenges of crowdsourcing which brings me around to my point that crowdsourcing can be like looking for a needle in a haystack (or digging for a gold nugget).

You’ve got to move a lot of muck to find the golden nugget (or silver bullet)

Here are some figures for the ratio of ideas submitted to ideas implemented for each of these crowdsourcing activities. The difference between 1:37 and 1:1433 is huge. There will be many reasons for this which is something for future posts.


For those in public services planning some exploration of crowdsourcing it is worth thinking about where you want to be? Crowdsourcing isn’t as straightforward as putting out a request for ‘brilliant ideas’. There’s a lot more to it, and some big organisations have tried (and failed).

Before you start digging, just ask the question, are we in Dell IdeaStorm or Gulf Oil Spill territory?

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Crowdsourcing has the potential to link your problems with the uniquely qualified minds able to solve them.
  2. The circumstances of each crowdsourcing situation will have different levels of participation, quality of ideas generated and implementation rates.
  3. Not every idea will be a brilliant one. You will need to move a lot of muck to find the golden nugget (apologies for the mining metaphors).

Linked Post: Crowdsourcing & Staff Idea Schemes

This post was prompted by a conversation about crowdsourcing with Shirely Ayres at the Connected Care Camp, and it turns out that not everyone does…

The gist of conversation was around the proliferation of people talking about crowdsourcing as a method of developing new and better approaches to delivering public services – looking for silver bullets and golden nuggets.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

10 Responses

  1. Tony Dowling

    I think your title sums up my ‘reservations’ with crowd sourcing Chris. Well insomuch as I have them. Reservations more about regarding it as some sort of problem solving panacea at least – especially in my (limited) experience of public sector.
    For me it not only relies of the number of inputs, but also the variety? The ‘best’ ideas seem to come from outside the sector – true innovation in a sense.
    Otherwise we are just gleaning (dont mind if I join in the mining metaphors do you?) from within the collective knowledge base of the industry involved?
    Another though provoking piece, thank you, and have a terrific New Year wont you? I look forward to more brilliant blogs 🙂

  2. JMI

    Really interesting Tony, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across explaining crowds and citizen science.​ ​In particular I feel you may find these two emerging pieces of research very relevant:

    – The Theory of Crowd Capital

    – The Contours of Crowd Capability

    Powerful stuff, no?

  3. Chris, while I’m sure plenty of dopey idea were submitted, it’s amazing what the crowd can come up with.

    “A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which the group’s estimate is invariably superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.”
    I’m gonna put it out there for the crowdfunding product I’m developing – I bet I get ideas I never even thought of!

    Earl Brown
    ebrown [at]

  4. Great stuff. It’s interesting that BP describe their exercise as having “leveraged the public’s ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit”, which suggests that the exercise was muddled with some PR thinking as well as engagement. It’s interesting that the 1st of the National Principles of Public Engagement is that “Engagement gives a real chance to influence policy, service design and delivery from an early stage.” With so few ideas implemented it doesn’t look like it has been as effectively designed as it might have been.

    – Dyfrig

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