RRS Boaty McBoatface, a crowdsource #epicfail?

Having been captivated by several news articles that reported on the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) new research ship that was alarmingly  close to being named as if it came from the mouth of a small child – by a huge margin (some 25,000 public votes).

At first thought, this particular attempt to crowdsource a ship’s name could well be considered a strong candidate for a list of ‘worst ever crowdsources’  (with pitiful names like RRS Boaty McBoatface, RRS Pingu and the even worse, RRS ColdTrouser leading the public vote). But then it stuck me that whilst I’m sure this started out as a small, serious competition, this public crowdsource has received the attention of the nation’s media and raised the profile of UK Science and indeed, hidden among the suggestions are more serious  attempts as thousands of individuals offer up their opinions and vote for the suggestions of others – the very definition of a great crowdsource and I believe credit is due to NERC on such great execution.

Over the years I’ve run a number of crowdsource activities, from employee jams that are run across the company (the aim of the initiative been to increase the awareness of the issues facing the company through debate and broaden the collaborative base working to address these) to the more extreme end of the scale, crowdsourcing an entire country to gather feedback on proposed legislation and to solicit advice on how to solve their national challenges.

One thing I’ve learnt is that you can actually crowdsource a lot more than you might think. Broadly speaking I’d say that crowdsourcing activities fall into one of the following four quadrants (see below) – the obvious omission being funding, but I think this is a subtlety different concept.crowd_source_diagram

So how do you make a crowdsource successful?

While this depends on what you want to get out of the exercise – I’ve found that it is important that participants understand how their ideas and comments will be used and for what purpose. Internally you can incentive via recognition from leadership and colleagues, as well as actual prizes, however in an internal crowdsource often I’ve found that recognition from a reconised leader of the company, or a public figure, in the form of an in-system comment response is just as powerful as a physical prize. I’ve also found that non-monetary awards such as offering the individual the chance to pitch their idea to the board, a famous panel or similar can be just, if not more effective in driving activity.

I’m not sure  there is set recipe for success, but I’ve found the following six stages seem to work best:

  1. Plan and prepare (what outcome do you want)
  2. Actively run the crowdsource and an associated promotion campaign
  3. Analyse and clarify inputs
  4. Agree the action you’re going to take
  5. Communicate actions to be taken and reward contributors
  6. Undertake the actions you said you would
  7. File everything and don’t throw away any thoughts/ideas collected, they might be useful or relevant in the future

Six crowdsourcing principles

  1. Ask the right question
  2. Provide a clear purpose to participate
  3. Include a diverse audience
  4. Motivate to participate
  5. Allow time
  6. Create competition and excitement

Closing Thoughts

Sadly crowdsourcing is still an underused concept that supports the idea of greater involvement and is a wonderful way of increasing engagement of employees, communities and the public.

Whatever happens with the new ship, NERC has succeeding in winning the public interest. Whether they will choose to go with the public’s vote remains to be seen. There’s a lovely quote from an NERC spokesperson who said “…the organisation was thrilled at the enthusiasm and creativity” of the naming process, however they declined to offer an opinion on the merits of Boaty McBoatface…


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