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 FEATURES

BY ROBIN TATU
ILLUSTRATION BY LEIGH WELLS
FEATURE: WORKING THE CROWD

WORKING THE CROWD

The Internet brings a world of talent to solving engineering problems.


In 2006, the plight of rural Indian children trapped by the sex trade was keeping Ray Umashankar up at night. An associate dean in the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona, Umashankar is also executive director of ASSET (Achieving Sustainable Social Equity through Technology), a nonprofit begun by his daughter to help Indian prostitutes and their children gain new livelihoods through technology skills training. Geared to job opportunities in Indian cities, the ASSET program had little prospect of success in the countryside, where a lack of equipment and Internet access meant demand for IT skills was almost nonexistent. As a result, Umashankar was unable to assist girls being trafficked across the borders of Nepal and Bangladesh into northern Indian towns. It bothered him. “I thought, this is a ridiculous answer. Being an engineer, how could I say there is no solution?”

Then Umashankar had an epiphany: “I woke up saying, ‘Oh my gosh, if we can outsource work from the United States to India, why can’t I do the same thing from a big city to a small town?’” He envisioned a system that could somehow link rural IT workers electronically to urban centers.

Now that idea is coming to fruition. As early as next month, a University of Arizona electrical engineering graduate student will start building a solar-powered wireless router to be employed with a wireless mesh network. The first prototype is scheduled for completion by September 2009, paving the way for rural Internet access.

How this scheme went from a middle-of-the-night brainstorm through research, design, and development phases in a scant two years is not just a tale of determination, though Umashankar has plenty of that. It’s also a textbook example of crowdsourcing: drawing upon a global range of talent and the Internet to speed research and development.

THE INNOCENTIVE MODEL


Crucial to Umashankar’s success was Innocentive, a dynamic young company that is busily exploiting Web-wide connections. Since 2001, Innocentive’s website has been the venue for an “open innovation marketplace” ­— competitions for technical solutions. Unlike high-profile multimillion-dollar jackpots — like those of the X Prize Foundation for spaceflight, lunar exploration, and genomic research — Innocentive generally seeks solutions for specific but tough puzzles faced by businesses and organizations, and usually offers a much smaller reward. Recent entries have sought designs for a lightweight opaque plastic ($40,000), ways to keep tropical clothing dry ($5,000), and a gentle, non-wipe method for cleaning babies ($10,000).

Originally an Eli Lilly spinoff, Innocentive was launched as a separate venture in 2005. Clients, including Proctor & Gamble, DuPont, and Dow Chemical, pay the company a $15,000 posting fee, a percentage of the reward, and the prize money itself. In return, Innocentive helps design a competition, set the award amount, and broker agreements between companies and scientists.

From the outset, the company attracted a large following of scientists, graduate students, academics, and amateur tinkerers. There are now some 160,000 in 175 countries. More than $3 million in prize money has been awarded. An interactive blog encourages members of this growing community to discuss their work, exchange ideas, and link to relevant sites. This past spring, Innocentive introduced social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter to nurture the solver community.

Innocentive isn’t alone in harnessing the Internet to access the scientific crowd. NineSigma, an online service begun by Mehran Mehregany, professor of engineering innovation at Case Western Reserve University, connects its clients with small technical companies offering solutions. YourEncore helps retired engineers and scientists find project work with firms like Boeing, General Mills, and Unilever. Ideaconnection stresses collaboration, encouraging different solvers to team up to work jointly on projects.

Philanthropic organizations have also begun partnering with these enterprises, typically to underwrite projects that help struggling communities. The Rockefeller Foundation, an Innocentive client since 2006, has used the service to obtain designs for a dry milling machine in India, a cookstove that uses plant oil rather than kerosene, and, most recently, a dry biolatrine for rural African schools.

AN UPLINK BOTTLENECK


THROUGH THE INTERNET, RAY UMASHANKAR, (LEFT) ENLISTED ZACARY BROWN, WHO DESIGNED A SOLAR-POWERED ROUTER THAT LETS RURAL INDIAN WOMEN UPLOAD DATA.By the time Umashankar heard about Innocentive, his rural Internet plan was already taking shape with help from academics, philanthropic groups, and industry leaders in India and the United States. But there was a problem: Attempts to uplink data to a network often run into a bottleneck. Engineers at the University of Arizona suggested building a wireless mesh network that could connect to the nearest Internet railhead. Gaining popularity in rural areas, such networks have the advantage of providing a simple, decentralized system, wherein each node transmits data only to the next closest node.

It was Srinivasan Ramasubramanian, associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering departments, who proposed the wireless router that would connect users to an uplink. It would have to be powerful enough to uplink data yet not reliant upon the often erratic electricity of the countryside. Why not use a battery-operated router that could draw energy from solar panels?

Next, Umashankar had to find someone to design the router. This is where Innocentive came in, with its access to technical experts around the globe. The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to sponsor a $20,000 challenge through Innocentive for design of a solar-powered wireless router. By January of 2008, the problem had been studied by more than 400 people in 30 countries. Innocentive picked the best 13 of 27 submitted proposals and forwarded them to Umashankar.

‘THERE HAD TO BE A WAY’


In the end, the prize went to Zacary Brown, a 31-year-old software engineer and graduate of the University of Texas-Austin. Drawn to Innocentive competitions by both the intellectual engagement and lure of “a few extra bucks,” Brown was pleased to find one that tapped his various interests, including ham radio operation. “It was a difficult problem,” he says, but “I just felt from reading the problem statement that there had to be a way to do this.”

As the deadline neared, Brown hit a dead end, unable to meet the specifications while staying below Umashankar’s $1,000 limit. Again, the Internet provided an answer. Brown turned to Roofnet, an open-source website of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and also quizzed hardware vendors about processors, motherboards, and memory requirements. Ultimately, he produced a design that met ASSET’s needs: a Linux-based system using batteries charged through solar panels and hardware that can endure rough outdoor conditions. Brown even incorporated a technology that Umashankar hadn’t requested but found intriguing: a way to activate the router using prepaid cellphones. This, notes Brown, provided “a completely separate control network.”

DIVERSITY AIDS SOLUTIONS


Brown describes himself as someone “who is constantly thinking about problems and the potential solution to those problems.” Knowing that he was helping people in need brought added gratification. A mixture of motivations — money, intellectual challenge, and the chance to contribute to society — is not uncommon among crowdsourcing participants, according to Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied Innocentive and other technology innovations in business.

Lakhani and his research partners, Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter Lohse, and Jill Panetta, were amazed to discover that successful Innocentive solvers often worked in disciplines quite removed from the posted problem. And therein lay one key to the company’s success, they found. “Radical innovations often happen at the intersections of disciplines,” wrote Lakhani and Jeppesen in the May 2007 Harvard Business Review. “The more diverse the problem-solving population, the more likely a problem is to be solved.” This finding, and Innocentive’s high rate of success, appears to validate trends in engineering education to both broaden students’ skill sets and to foster collaboration with other disciplines.

Yet tapping the full potential of crowdsourcing is not without problems, particularly in its challenge to the secrecy of much scientific research. In Zac Brown’s case, it took only two months to solve the ASSET problem but six more “stressful” months to get his company’s legal department to sign off on his intellectual-property rights, agreeing that the project posed no competitive threat.

As for companies’ reluctance to broadcast their R&D problems online for fear of exposing secrets, Lakhani believes such concerns are misplaced. Even if ongoing research is revealed to competitors, it would be hard for a competitor to acquire the storehouse of knowledge required to duplicate it. By contrast, the benefits of soliciting outside assistance are considerable — namely quicker, less expensive, and novel solutions.

For Umashankar, the merits of crowdsourcing are clear. And he feels engineers are the ones who can address many interconnected global and local problems. “This is one of the things I tell the students all the time: that being an engineer, you have an opportunity to make a difference. It is not just building products to sell, but it is being able to use technology to clean water, to purify air, to make a difference in the community.”

 

Robin Tatu is the senior editor of Prism.

 

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