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The billion-man research team
By Rhymer Rigby
Published: January 9 2007 17:28 | Last updated: January 9 2007 17:28
By day, John Lyon works at the University of Nevada. In the evenings, as “TechGuy”, he works for a
Calgary-based software company called Cambrian House, putting in an average of an hour a night. His
work for Cambrian is rather different from his day job: he is only rewarded if Cambrian likes what he
Thus far, Cambrian has taken on one of his ideas, Jumblelunch, a networking programme that helps
business club members organise lunches. The company aims to commercialise and market the
application and, if it succeeds, will pay Mr Lyon according to the “royalty points” it has already assigned
to him for the idea.
If this sounds like a risky way to work, Mr Lyon is sanguine: “I look on it as being part of a start-up
without risking anything.”
Mr Lyon is participating in “crowdsourcing”, a term coined by Wired magazine in 2006 to describe a
new business model in which companies use the internet to parcel out their work, identify ideas or
solve technical problems.
By harnessing the web, these organisations can tap the ideas and energy of an army of volunteer
workers – those who have the knowhow to get the job done, are willing to give their spare time to do it
and are content with a small reward for their service or, like Mr Lyon, the promise of greater rewards in
the future. For certain types of business, it offers an entirely new way of organising labour.
Crowdsourcing is not confined to the software industry. Two years ago, David Bradin, a patent attorney
from Seattle, was looking at InnoCentive, a research and development website that posts “challenges”
to its online community. One such challenge asked for the efficient synthesis of butane tetracarboxylic
acid. With a masters degree in organic chemistry, Mr Bradin had the answer at his fingertips. He
e-mailed InnoCentive with his idea and, just over a month later, scooped a cool $4,000 for his solution.
A less lucrative but more approachable crowdsourcer is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, which