NASA: Crowdsourcing the Universe


NASA has always been considered a symbol of scientific progress. Its task, the study of the universe, is without doubt something that requires a lot of work, from all of us. NASA is aware of this and has taken one of its first steps into its own new frontier: Crowdsourcing. Since 2011, NASA has been using crowdsourcing to help them solve some of the problems that arise on the International Space Station (ISS), from coming up with solutions regarding the difficulties of astronauts exercising in space, to searching for new planets. All these crowdsourced initiatives, framed as challenges, draw people from all over the world, and to date, more than a dozen platforms exist to host the challenges.

In the past, NASA’s aversion to crowdsource has primarily been a result of its culture. NASA Senior Policy Advisor Amy Kaminski declared that “The greatest challenge the use of crowdsourcing methods at NASA has endured is in their relative newness and lack of familiarity within most of the agency. Scientists and engineers at NASA are used to particular ways of doing R&D, and this usually entails doing work within the agency or having it done by groups within academia or industry via grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements. Crowdsourcing involves opening up the R&D participant base, which introduces uncertainty even while opening new and exciting possibilities for finding solutions to problems of interest and accelerating research work”. However, NASA’s initial mental closure began to evolve with the arrival of both private space companies and the rapidly growing ambitions of politicians to reach the stars.

The New Crowdsourcing Frontier

In 2014, NASA Deputy Chief Technologist Jim Adams stated “NASA recognizes that crowdsourcing presents an extraordinary opportunity to inspire the development of transformative solutions by offering a means to engage with non-traditional sources of innovative ideas, all in a remarkably cost-effective way”. Adding to this, Steve Rader, Deputy Manager of the Centre of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) at NASA, explained “If you have large crowds of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people in communities, it is likely that you actually have within those communities some very valuable high-skilled folks. The idea is that somebody who can solve your very difficult problem often does not have traditional experience”. In fact, a main reason why crowdsourcing works so well is that a lot of the time, solutions are found by people who do not have the same area of expertise as the problem.

Some of NASA’s biggest crowdsourcing initiatives were related to its desire to know more about the Solar System. For example, their lunar instruments crowdsourcing campaign focused on NASA’s desire to better understand the Moon. Similarly, its Mars campaign, aimed at college students, was designed to find resources on Mars. It started with the Mars Forum, which used IdeaScale’s technology to engage the crowd and develop ideas while answering questions. As it progressed, college students could build and submit their own robots that were able to autonomously perform mining tasks. These are just a few examples of the several crowdsourcing projects undertaken by NASA.

The last and still ongoing initiative, hosted by crowdsourcing program Zooniverse, is the hunt for Planet Nine – the large, mysterious body thought to lurk at the edge of our solar system –. Ordinary people have now joined the search, and they have made some very interesting findings. Through the project, dubbed “Planet 9 Search”, space enthusiasts and astronomers alike are given access to thousands of images taken by ANU’s SkyMapper telescope. Their task is to find anything that appears to move against the mostly motionless background of distant stars. In just three days, about 21,000 volunteers examined more than 100,000 images and classified more than 5 million objects. This is work that would have taken an astronomy PhD student four years, according to ANU astronomer Brad Tucker.

“Planet 9 Search” Project Advertisement 

Why NASA Crowdsources

Crowdsourcing can reduce costs, speed up project timelines, tap into crowd intelligence and creativity, and engage citizens at all levels of corporate and government processes. Many large corporations such as Microsoft, GE, AT&T, eBay, IBM, Apple and Sun (West 2003) and government agencies such as NASA (Lakhani, 2013), are increasing investment in crowdsourced solutions to gain the potential value of crowdsourcing as an open innovation platform, to both drive cost efficiencies and overcome resource constraints. Specifically regarding NASA, one of the aspects that makes all of this possible is that, while solving most problems requires significant scientific knowledge, the problem itself requires minimal integration into NASA’s internal operations.

How NASA uses crowdsourcing is enlightening. It allows NASA to try several different ideas at once and sort through those that work and those that do not. If you give it a thought, NASA has the kind of challenge that would make any person cringe: Get humanity beyond the sphere of Earth and explore the universe. And as if this was not enough, it all has to be done on a budget entirely controlled by politicians. This often means they get only one opportunity at constructing something, and adding to the pressure, if that device fails, the lives of astronauts could be at risk. So crowdsourcing lets them look carefully at ideas, both conventional and unique, and lets them narrow it down to the ones that work. With respect to the intellectual property (IP) of such ideas, organizers of challenges will sometimes reserve all rights to the IP of the knowledge/technology generated from the competition and applicants are always encouraged to read the terms and conditions of a challenge.

NASA’s crowdsourcing efforts are not just about finding the best idea, but also getting some of the best talent the country has to offer. It is no secret government agencies can have trouble getting the best and brightest people, and these competitions offer a look at some of the finest minds out there. Moreover, in addition to the value of ideas and talent, announcing winners and prizes is often used as a promotional and marketing tool for the organization, as it provides “good news” stories to share on Social Media. Even participants that do not win may see an increased investment in the company as a result of feeling a part of the process.

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Example Tweet (Space Apps is a NASA incubator innovation program) 

From a contributor’s perspective, NASA’s crowdsourcing initiatives are appealing not only because of cash prizes, but also because they are designed towards building relationships with its contributors, possibly also offering some of them an employment contract at NASA. As teams compete not just for the cash purse, but also for the associated validation, prestige, and satisfaction that result from solving important problems, challenges can incentivize significant additional investment, leveraging the award’s impact. According to several contributors, the real reward is helping NASA solve a space/engineering problem and gaining critical thinking and skills that are highly sought by employers.

It is therefore clear that there is a lot other firms can learn from NASA’s crowdsourcing. It is much more than just a way to get external ideas: Innovation strategy can truly transform an organizational culture. As a matter of fact, to conclude, it can boldly be stated that crowdsourcing has been “one small step for its innovation strategy, one giant leap for NASA”.

 

References

“Crowdsourcing Innovation at NASA: Q&A with Amy Kaminski.” Dialogue Review (2017). Retrieved from http://dialoguereview.com/crowdsourcing-innovation-with-nasa-q-and-a/

Day, J. “How NASA is Crowdsourcing its Innovation Strategy.” Ideascale (2017). Retrieved from https://ideascale.com/24571/

Dodgson, L. “How to get involved with NASA: Crowdsourcing ideas for Mars houses, robots, and space poop.” Business Insider Nederland (2016). Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.nl/how-to-get-involved-with-nasa-2016-11/?international=true&r=UK

Ford, Robert C., Brendan Richard, and Michael P. Ciuchta. “Crowdsourcing: A new way of employing non-employees?.” Business Horizons 58.4 (2015): 377-388.

“Implementation of Federal Prize Authority, Fiscal Year 2013 Progress Report.” (2014). Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/fy2015_competes_prizes_report.pdf

Kaplan, S. “Citizen scientists may have located candidates for Planet Nine.” The Washington Post (2017). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/04/04/citizen-scientists-may-have-located-candidates-for-planet-nine/?utm_term=.59d019290aa6

Lakhani, K. “The crowd as an innovation partner: Lessons from NASA, Harvard Medical School, and beyond.” Presentation at the TopCoder Roadshow, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX (2013)

Pearson, D. “NASA’s Crowdsourcing Is Out Of This World.” (2015). Retrieved from https://smbp.uwaterloo.ca/2015/10/nasas-crowdsourcing-is-out-of-this-world/

“Problem Solving Approaches at NASA: Challenges, Prize Competitions, and Crowdsourcing.” Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/content/prizes-challenges-and-crowdsourcing-advance-nasa-s-mission-and-outreach

West, J. “How open is open enough?: Melding proprietary and open source platform strategies.” Research policy, 32.7 (2003): 1259-1285

Duolingo: Making money from your translations


Introduction

Most of you will know the app Duolingo. For those who don’t, it is a language-learning app that is used worldwide with 200 million users that can choose many languages to learn. Maybe you have tried to learn Spanish, French or another language on the app. What most people like about the app is the way it brings gamification to learning a language. Also, and not unimportant is that the app is free to use. But how does Duolingo make its money?

How did Duolingo start?

Duolingo started by a question raised by Luis von Ahn (the founder of RE-CAPTCHA and Duolingo) in 2009, wondering how the internet could be translated into every major language using the knowledge of a 100 million people for free?

People initially wondered why translations couldn’t just be done using computer translations. However, computer translations at this moment and even more so back in 2009 were not good enough to translate texts on the internet without mistakes. Besides, another option, using professional translators, would require an enormous investment that no firm is willing to pay for.

How did Duolingo manage to ‘recruit’ a 100 million people to translate the internet? The two main obstacles they faced is that there is a lack of bilinguals in the world and a lack of motivation to translate texts for free. They solved both issues with one solution.

Millions of people worldwide want to learn a new language and usually pay quite a hefty fee for doing so, either by paying for classes or for software. Duolingo lets users learn a new language for free using their app while simultaneously translating the web. As a beginning user, you’re given very simple sentences/words from the web which you must translate. The quality of your translation is then checked with the results of the translations of other users, and after a translation has been cross checked several times it gets combined into a verified translation. As you progress you will start getting more complicated texts which both helps the learner and Duolingo.

Monetization

The company was started with the concept of a fair business model for education. Currently the business model for education is that the student pays for his courses with fiat. However, many students worldwide don’t have the funds necessary to pay for education. As such they can pay in a different way by using the app and investing their time in learning the language. By doing so they create value for Duolingo by translating text on which they can monetize by selling the translations to companies who want them. Though this was the initial core revenue model, nowadays Duolingo is focusing more on gaining revenue from their Test Center Certification Program as it is not the mission of Duolingo to become a translation business but to stay an education company. Moving forward the new direction of Duolingo is emphasising on becoming an adaptive platform that tailors teaching to the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners driven by feedback from language students using the app. The ultimate goal for the company is to give every student access to a private virtual tutor with the use of their technology.

Sources:

https://techcrunch.com/2015/06/10/duolingo-raises-45-million-series-d-round-led-by-google-ventures-now-valued-at-470m/

www.duolingo.com

 

Peaks: investing your change


Do you feel demotivated seeing your interest fall to 0.05%? Would you like to invest your money but do you not know where to start? This is where Peaks comes in. Peaks believes that investing should be for everyone, not only for the happy few!

How does it work?
Peaks digitally collects your change by rounding up all your purchases to whole euros. Let’s assume you bought a coffee for €2,40, Peaks will then automatically transfer €0,60 to your investment account. If you don’t want to provide Peaks access to your account, you can also choose to transfer let’s say €1, – a day to your investment account. The Peaks App provides an easy overview of the amount saved and the current value of your investments. All you have to do is determine the amount of risk you would like to take choosing from four risk levels, where a higher risk corresponds to a higher expected return. The video below outlines the idea behind Peaks, although it’s in Dutch, I’m sure you’ll be able to follow.

Business model
The Peaks business model is based on joint profitability of both the investors and the company itself. The investors benefit since they are able to invest small amounts of money, which they would otherwise not have been able to invest due to the high one-off investment costs charged by funds (Peaks, 2017). Since many investors invest small amounts of money, Peaks can share investment costs among this large group.  Peaks itself on the other side, benefits from profits the investor makes in two ways. First, higher profit motivates investors to invest more money, resulting in an increase in fees being paid to Peaks. Secondly, higher profit motivates new customers to join the platform. With regard to switching costs, there are alternative investment platforms which accept small investments, such as ‘Semmie’. However, since Peaks is a startup financed by Rabobank, its integration with the Rabobank banking system differentiates it from competitors. According to Peaks, integration with other banks will follow soon. Hence, switching costs in terms of convenience are quite high for Rabobank customers yet slightly lower for customers of other banks.

In terms of institutional arrangements, power given to investors is limited. An interesting comparison is Dell computer. Research looked at the degree of user design customization that was optimal when selling a computer. Turns out that the majority of people actually had no idea about the technical specifications of a computer. Letting customers customize their computer using technical design parameters hence resulted in a ‘design defect’: a choice of design parameters that does not maximize user satisfaction (Randall T., 2005). Such design defects can be mitigated by using ‘needs based interfaces’: instead of asking would you like “512MB,DDR,333MHz 2 Dimms or a “512MB,DDR,333MHz 1 Dimm” memory they would ask “do you find the performance of program X important”. In a way, the same can be applied to investing in the stock market. Since the target group of Peaks is unfamiliar with investing money and has little knowledge about the financial market, they are given only a limited degree of freedom. The only question investors are asked is, ‘how much risk would you like to take’?  Based on this level of risk, four different funds are possible: mild, spicy, very spicy and hot. According to your risk preference, the ratio of stocks versus bonds is set automatically. Using this ‘needs based’ approach rather than a ‘parameter based’ approach limits the chance of a design defect occurring and hence increases user satisfaction (Randall T., 2005).

Looking at the institutional environment, the social norms dimension is particularly applicable. Peaks plays into the current movement of Corporate Social Responsibility by banning funds that invest in controversial businesses such as weapons, alcohol/tobacco production and pornography. In terms of polity and judiciary dimensions, Peaks has a permit and is being supervised by the Dutch Authority for Financial Markets. (Peaks, 2017)

Peaks 2

Sounds great! Why not invest?
Empowering everyone rather than just the happy few to get a return on their savings sounds like a great cause. Moreover, expected returns in terms of percentages sound decent. However, after deducting the yearly costs, returns of some of the portfolios become negative. Considering that people investing at Peaks usually have little affinity with investing money, having such low transparency is appalling. For example, if you would like to invest for a period of 1 year with an investment of €30 a month your returns would be as follows (Drabbe, 2018):

  • Mild portfolio: – €3,79
  • Spicy portfolio: – €2,02
  • Very Spicy portfolio: – €0,10
  • Hot portfolio: €1,82

In conclusion, if you want to make money using Peaks you’re going to have to invest more than €30,- a month, which contradicts the whole idea of investing your change. It’s a shame since I believe the idea has a lot of potential! What are your thoughts on the topic? Would you invest your money using Peaks?

Sources:

Carson S. J., D. T. (1999). Understanding Institutional Designs Within Marketing Value Systems. Journal of Marketing Vol 63, 115-130.

Drabbe, M. (2018). Peaks: beleggen met je wisselgeld. Retrieved from Consumentenbond: https://www.consumentenbond.nl/sparen-en-beleggen/peaks-beleggen-met-je-wisselgeld

Peaks. (2017). De app. Retrieved from Peaks: https://www.peaks.nl/de-app/

Randall T., T. C. (2005). Principles for User Design of Customized Products. California Management Review.