Crowdsourcing and Open Innovation Examples

When I teach about Crowdsourcing and Open Innovation in my Social Dynamics course at Kellogg we look at a ton of examples of how innovative organizations are using these tools to connect with a  global network of problem solvers, innovators, and regular people to make more accurate predictions, find better problem solutions, and speed the pace of innovation. One of my students recently suggested that I compile a list of these examples so that the class could have all of the links in one place. So, here is a roughly annotated list of some of my favorite examples. Some of these are platforms you can use and others are organizations that are using or have used crowds in innovative ways. If you have others, I would love to hear about them.

Processing unstructured data

Many organizations today have more data than they know what to do with. Much of this data is what we call “unstructured” — it’s not a nice spreadsheet that we can feed into a regression or even in to a fancy machine learning algorithm. Instead the data is in the form of images or massive amounts of text that we don’t really know how to handle. Crowdsourcing has proven to be a very effective way to process this kind of unstructured data into something usable.

The New York Times and the Sarah Palin Emails

The New York Times asked to crowd to help comb through the thousands of pages of Sarah Palin’s email released by court order and flag newsworthy content. Then the professional editors would take a closer look at flagged items and do the background research to put together a real new story.

Galaxy Zoo

The crowd helps process the hundreds of thousands of pictures of galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope by categorizing galaxies by shape, color, and other features.


Workers help process data on gene sequence alignment.


You know those online security questions where you have to enter some fuzzy text or a blurry number? Sometimes you are actually helping to process scanned text that was too muddled for a computer to read.


Duolingo is an awesome FREE language learning app. It’s secret to staying free is that while people are using the app to learn a language, Duolingo makes money from the documents that they translate. Started by the same people that came up with reCaptcha.

How photoshopped is an image?

This is an academic study that used crowdsourcing to help form a rating system for how much an image has been digitally altered. Outstanding example of how crowds can be used to “train computers” to process unstructured data.


Focused particularly on document processing, like reading handwritten form responses.


Workers process text, do research, tag, and categorize your data.

Expert tasks that are inefficient to bring in house

Often times we have jobs to be done where we could really use a little bit of an expert, but we don’t really need a whole employee. After all, hiring people is expensive. Any time you hire someone it costs money to find them, you have to give them a desk, and a phone, and a computer, and benefits, and usually you’re stuck with them for a while. Sometimes it would be nice to have just a part of an employee - say, 1/4 of a marketer, 1/10 of a graphic designer, 1/10 of a web designer, and 1/3 of a data scientist. Crowdsourcing effectively lets you do this.

99 designs

Designers compete for your logo or web design. I have heard many, many stories of students having great experiences with this platform.


Find freelance programmers, developers, designers, writers, and marketers.


Teams from across the globe compete to deliver the best code. Used by companies like Google, Pfizer, Microsfot, Intel, Geico, and ESPN.


The crowd both submits and chooses clever T-shirt designs like the now famous “Communist Party” shirt.


Similar to Threadless, but more art focused. Designs can be printed on T-shirts, mugs, posters, etc.


Buy or submit stock photo images.


Have an idea for a great product? Submit it on Quirky. Used by companies like Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Target, Toys R Us, and Ace Hardware.


Crowdfunding allows us to distribute the risk of funding new projects across a huge number of people. It’s also a great way of using a “Measure and React Strategy” because in many cases, like on Kickstarter, people effectively commit to buy your product before you have to take the risk of producing it.


The most prominent crowdfunding platform on the Web, Kickstarted started to fund arts projects but has grown to much, much more, raising millions of dollars in startup capital for projects like the Pebble smart watch.


Crowdfunding for personal causes things like medical expenses.


Raises money to fund MBA students by connecting students and alumni.


Designed to let regular people try their hand at being a venture capitalist.


Another crowd funding tool focused on funding startups, which has now expanded into a whole group of crowd funding and investment companies.


Startup funding specifically aimed at Israeli companies.

Open innovation

One of the most powerful uses of the crowd is through open innovation platforms. This application is designed to take advantage of the super additive benefits of diversity. For more on how the power of diversity leads to better problem solving, I highly recommend Scott E. Page’s book The Difference, which was once aptly described as “an airplane book if you’re on a flight to Singapore."


The largest, most developed open innovation platform hosts challenges of all sorts, but especially problems in chemistry and engineering. Prizes for solutions often extended into the tens of thousands.


Like TopCoder, but for data analytics.


Many of the examples above overlap across multiple categories. These ones do to, and I gave up on trying to label them.

The NetFlix Prize

One of the first and all time greatest examples of a prize contest incentivizing diverse problem solvers to come together to solve a difficult question.


Amazon Mechanical Turk is a platform for all of the above. The most developed and effective crowdsourcing platform on the web, with a massive population of workers (aka Turkers), Mechanical Turk can be used for processing data, running experiments, disseminating surveys, … you name it.


Instead of playing solitaire or minesweeper, why not kill time by helping to solve protein folding puzzles with implications for combatting diseases like Parkinsons and HIV?