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Here's when crowdsourcing actually works

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Crowds -- whether at the beach or the supermarket -- often make us shudder. But they don't always mean long lines and unwanted contact. (AP GraphicsBank)

Sometimes, being a part of a crowd is a good thing. Sometimes, not so much.

Crowdsourcing was supposed to be the Big Idea that leveraged the interconnectedness of the Internet. Free information provided by netizens would be used for everything from restaurant rankings, local news, epidemiological studies, even climate change analysis. The results of crowdsourcing have been generally discouraging, however, although one emerging use case is proving to be the exception.

Crowdsourcing doesn't work if you, well, have to work at it. Consider the reviews in Yelp, the classic crowdsourced resource. You have to diligently filter Yelp reviews yourself, and the assessments are subject to abuse. Restaurateurs post nasty reviews about competitors and positive reviews about their own establishments; and some customer reviews are just simply unhelpful (who cares about the lamp shades at a burger joint?). A recent trip to Berlin comparing suggestions from Yelp to those of a professional critic but the lie to the test. Food critic Gisela Williams' suggestions never missed; Yelp led me astray more often than not.

The (sometimes onerous) work required for some other tasks can also torpedo crowdsourcing solutions. Witness the slow-motion implosion of semi-crowdsourced news sites. They are unreliable and riddled with stories created by public relations professionals. Similarly, investment startup sites like Kickstarter may work for some garage inventors, but not so well for would-be investors. According to a report from The Wharton School last year, 75 percent of all Kickstarter inventions missed their supposed launch dates.

So what is working? Crowdsourced traffic information.

In the traffic trade it's called probe data, live reports on a vehicle's location and speed. And it works because in general it's passive. You don't have to work at it. All you have to do is let a navigation device, smartphone or in-dash system share your location and speed. The benefit is that other users learn within minutes that there's congestion ahead and can then avoid it. You help my commute, I'll help yours.

One of the first companies to make crowdsourced traffic information useful was TomTom. Its HD Traffic reports use real-time information from other TomTom navigation device owners to plot the fastest for your trip. Because it is truly live, TomTom's system will often suggest a change en route. Many times while testing TomTom's service the traffic rerouting saved me half an hour or more on a road trip. Only TomTom users can benefit from such crowdsourcing, so the next step is to gather a bigger crowd together.

Characteristically, Google saw the traffic trend and hit the gas pedal. The company purchased a popular crowdsourced traffic and mapping company, Waze, in June for nearly $1 billion dollars. Not bad for a little free smartphone  app that let you track other Waze drivers with goofy icons. (Yes, I use it all the time.) Google has already begun integrating Waze information on accidents, construction, and road closures into its maps.

Even traditional map and navigation companies are taking notice of the crowdsourcing trend. Telenav, for example, just announced that it would be ramping up its crowdsourcing initiatives and incorporating the information in its Scout app.

Behind the scenes, other traffic companies, such as Inrix, have been working on collecting and disseminating traffic data to drivers for several years. Inrix collects historical traffic information (what happens when there's a local NFL game, for example), weather, local transportation department reports, commercial vehicle traffic, as well as live speed and location information from drivers using its app (as well as from some Ford and Toyota vehicles that use the service). The company notes that the information is anonymized, but extremely helpful--without being distracting.

"No one has to do anything except drive," say Jim Bak, the director of community relations at Inrix.

That is one key to making crowdsourcing work: don't make me work for it. The other critical element is how much value can be derived from the information. For more than a century, the prototypical crowdsourced organization, the Red Cross, has thrived because it helps so many people.

Similarly, better traffic information--live traffic information--can save time, fuel, reduce pollution, and even save lives. Now that's the kind of crowd I'm willing to join.

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.

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