From Oculus Rift to Facebook: finding money and data in the crowd

Crowdsourcing advocate Andy Hudson-Smith discusses the funding and social-media mining potential of mass appeals

July 10, 2014

Source: Alamy

Helping hands: research using Facebook could be ‘fantastically powerful’

Crowdsourcing could revolutionise the way scholarly research is funded and conducted over the next few years, an academic has suggested.

Andy Hudson-Smith, director and deputy chair of the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, made the claim at the Economic and Social Research Council’s annual research methods festival on 8 July.

He noted that in his field, spatial analysis and visualisation, “all the exciting hardware that has recently come out has been funded by the crowd”. This included the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which his centre had helped to crowdfund out of its consultancy revenue.

According to Dr Hudson-Smith, he had identified that the headset, which was developed by an independent technology firm with the aid of a reputed $2.5 million (£1.5 million) in crowdsourced funding, would further the centre’s research capabilities.

However, the academic world had been slow to follow the commercial world’s use of crowdsourcing, and Dr Hudson-Smith predicted a “big push” in the next few years.

“You can do your academic YouTube elevator pitch and then ask for a contribution of £20 or £30. If those mount up, you could rapidly have a multimillion-pound bid without having to wait the normal eight months [for a] one in eight chance of funding from the [traditional] research funding system,” he told Times Higher Education ahead of the conference.

Crowdfunded projects had “natural impact” and could be especially attractive for early career researchers who find it hard to win significant research council funding.

He admitted that not all pitches would succeed, but their chances would be enhanced by the fact that they came “from the heart” rather than arising out of consideration of what a given research council would fund under a specific research theme.

Dr Hudson-Smith also accepted that the success of social scientists in eliciting research funding would be hampered by the crowd’s preference for supporting “something they feel part of”, such as a project that promises “a bit of kit they can plug in at home”. Social scientists could, however, use the crowd to conduct real-time research by “crowdmining” data from social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

The ethics of doing so could be “tricky”, Dr Hudson-Smith said, as the data came with individuals’ personal details – which academics typically felt obliged to strip out. But, he noted, opposition to using the full data tended to come from academics themselves – “who are trained to do things in a certain way [informed by] ethics board clearance” – rather than from the public.

The terms to which social media users agree – usually without reading them – grant permission for the mining of their data. “That is quite scary but fantastically powerful from an academic research point of view,” Dr Hudson-Smith said.

Even without a rethink on the ethical issues, the potential remained for a fusion of crowdsourcing with current research methods to “change the way we view the world around us from an academic point of view”, he said.

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