Crowdsourcing Search Tasks

The buzz around using crowdsourcing search tasks started with the Red Balloon Challenge. An impossible search task was solved in under 9 hours. The task was to locate 10 red weather balloons moored at unknown locations in the United States. The winning team from the MIT Media Lab located all of the balloons without leaving their offices. Here is how it worked. They created a website asking visitors to report balloon locations. They got traffic to the website. They motivated word-of-mouth. They won showing that crowdsourcing is an effective approach to such otherwise impossible search tasks.


The MIT team was able to reach a large number of people. Such reach may not be sustainable for repeated search tasks and without the media reach of the MIT brand. The good news is that the reach does not need to be that wide. The winning team in another similar competition, The Tag Challenge, had a limited reach – a couple hundred website visits and little media publicity. This was enough to find 3 out of 5 people walking around different cities.


The challenges above are one-off large search tasks. Can crowdsourcing be used for a large number of simpler tasks that keep coming up. Some evidence that this will work come from a pilot experiment of a fact-checking platform A few dozen fact-checking tasks were posted over the weekend and most had been answered.


The common features of all of the tasks above are:

  • search task is easy for every individual: e.g., you either saw a weather balloon or you didn’t
  • you are doing something that’s either fun or good
  • the task is hard to achieve without the connections and information of people you do not know

In case of competitions,

  • the reward is large if the task is completed successfully


Crowdsourcing presents a powerful way to approach search tasks that are impossible otherwise. It is enabled by the Internet and social media and has potential to fundamentally change the industries whose business can be described as a search. Job search, search for a life partner, search for a recommendation on where to travel, search for a specialist are some of the examples. We are trying crowdsourcing as a new approach to recruiting. The search for a qualified candidate between is crowdsourced.