Interview: David Alan Grier on crowdsourcing

This week, we interviewed David Alan Grier, current president of IEEE, associate professor of International Science and Technology Policy & International Affairs at George Washington University, and author of Crowdsourcing for Dummies.  We talk about what crowdsourcing is, the role of technology, and how authors can utilize this strategy in their own work.

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David Alan Grier

WriteForWiley: Talk about what crowdsourcing is. Where did you come up with the idea for the book?
David A. Grier: Well, first, I should note that Wiley approached me with the idea for the book, not the other way around. In many ways, crowdsourcing chose me. In 2005, I wrote a book called When Computers Were Human,(Princeton 2005) which was supposed to be the pre-history of the computing age. It turned out to be the prehistory of crowdosourcing as well. The CEO of Crowdflower read it and asked me to talk about it at the first CrowdConf. When I got to the conference, I realized that my research for the book had taught me a great deal about crowdsourcing and how it fit into organizations. In one weekend, I had a new career.

What role does technology play in the development of crowdsourcing?
[Technology] makes crowdsourcing techniques affordable. Crowdsourcing has actually existed throughout time but it has been expensive because you have to keep a lot of records.

During the 1930s, for example, a branch of the US Government called the Works Progress Administration (WPA) did crowdsourcing in order to provide jobs for the unemployed. Because they were the national government, they could afford to subsidize the amount of record keeping. However, no private company could afford do to that.

In our age, the fact that computing is very cheap has allowed us to revisit the idea of crowdsourcing.

How does crowdsourcing affect what an author does and how they work?
It gives authors, or anyone actually, access to talent that you might not need. Suppose you are working on a chapter and you need an expert on global trade to explain some specific point. You can crowdsource that issue and get the expertise of the crowd to do it. Or suppose you want to have a mobile app that promotes your writing. Again, you can crowdsource it to get it done.

What tips would you give authors as far as how to use crowd sourcing to their advantage?
Start simply but don’t be shy. It works best when you have big piece of work to do. You can test your ability to crowdsource on a part of the job to make sure that you can do it right.

What is the biggest misconception of crowdsourcing?
That [crowdsourcing] is the same thing as outsourcing and that you do it to save money. It’s actually a way to get the right skills to the right job, to allow you to do things you could not do before.

How would you respond to those who say that crowdsourcing is not for them?
Well, it may not be for them. If it is, I would say “Bless your heart” but that is phrase that says, “You poor dear, you really don’t understand.” Crowdsourcing can bring you new skills and give you new ways of doing things that you could not do before.

What is the number one challenge with the movement towards crowdsourcing?
Checking quality. If you are doing a large job, you have to check the work to make sure that it is done well.

Why did you decide to create a blog corresponding with the book? What have some of the struggles been?
The blog predates the book. After I learned about crowdsourcing, I decided to start a blog to explore my ideas. You can see it at You will see many of the ideas of Crowdsourcing for Dummies in a preliminary form.

What advice do you have for authors who would like to create a blog?
Play your strengths. Do only what you do well.

Where do you see crowdsourcing in 5 to 10 years?
It will be just one of many ways of organizing of organizing work.

What do you think are the 3 more important online tools/online technologies for authors to use and master?
First and foremost, spreadsheets. There are many, many things that you can do quickly and easily with spreadsheets. I think that I frustrated my editor at Dummies but the number of ways that I used spreadsheets.

Second, become a better searcher. We so often just try to find something on Google and quit when we can’t find it. You can find a lot with modern search tools if you try to use them well.

Third, the Mobile Oxford English Dictionary. I love words and want to use them well. I like all the examples you find in the OED. I also like that it is a crowdsourced book before we had crowdsourcing.

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  1. Short video: What is Crowdsourcing? | Open Innovation Central - September 14, 2013

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