It happens here: Consumer-centric Innovation in Charlotte and beyond

NY Times Year in Ideas: Ideas to fuel other ideas by Nheeda Enriquez

photo via NY Times

I’m a few weeks slow on the draw this time around, but one of my favorite end-of-the-year things to do is pour through the The New York Times Magazine’s Year in Ideas issue.  In the past, I’ve used it for a brainstorming exercise (sort of like a word-association activity, but as stimulus to inspire new applications for their product using one of the featured ideas.)

One of these is called Subscription Artists, is another take on crowdsourcing, where a recording artist finances her work by soliciting pledges from fans.  The article mentions Kickstarter as the tool to collect the funds, but The Point also does the same thing (I think Kickstarter is focused on artists.)  The beauty of these sites is that participants actually commit money to ideas that they like, where as some other crowdsourcing mechanisms often turn out to be popularity contests.

How might a company use a Kickstarter-like tool to figure out what features their customers value?

Big Apps: A crowdsourcing example Charlotte might learn from by Nheeda Enriquez
311 app logo via Apps for Democracy

311 app logo via Apps for Democracy

I’ve been intrigued by a crowdsourcing challenge New York City is sponsoring that invites developers to submit solutions for new city apps in exchange for fame and a cash prize.  They are not the first to host such a contest – Washington DC did one last year.  For a mere $50K, these “non-profits” were able to solicit 230 resident insights and 47 applications in 30 days!

These challenges is that they blend two good innovation ingredients together:

  1. An attempt to understand what kinds of apps would be useful to consumers by collecting insights and needs.  The last thing my iPhone wants is an App that doesn’t solve a problem that people care about.  Both the DC and NYC contests leverage UserVoice to do this.
  2. A data mine for developers.  Big cities have lots of data that probably doesn’t get used, but if applied in a good context, you could end up with interesting results.  Making the data available promotes transparency and probably helps developers test their apps.  This reminds me of the super-successful Netflix Prize, where the company provided real data to help contestant programmers improve its recommendation algorithm.

I know that there are lots of clever developers in Charlotte.  I wonder what unique apps would help our own residents?  I know I could have used one today that tells me where the closest Wi-Fi signal is both free and strong based on where I am.

The Charlotte Observer wants to figure out how to make newspapers new again by Nheeda Enriquez
flickr photo credit: jeku arce

flickr photo credit: jeku arce

My original purpose for meeting up with Steve Gunn, the Charlotte Observer’s Innovation Editor, was to learn more about Mission Possible, the project that his paper spearheaded to find innovative ways to meet the city’s charitable needs through crowdsourcing.   Instead, what I discovered is that this project is just one of many in his attempts to keep the Observer relevant in an era of dying newspapers.

Gunn mentioned that the paper’s readership is growing thanks to the web, but the whole industry is on the hunt for ways to convert new readers into loyal ones, particularly since content is now aggregated through or onto other sites.  Mission Possible, aside from being a philanthropic effort, is also a living, breathing experiment on how this paper might collaborate with other outlets: TV, radio, papers, web, and across counties, languages, and service providers.   They expect to learn and adapt throughout this process, and put the learnings into use for future programs.

It’s been a while since I’d been in a newsroom, and I had forgotten how “creative” these spaces have always been…Desks strewn with visual stimuli in a highly collaborative environment of ordered chaos.  Gunn’s office was no exception, complete with well-traveled trinkets and a full case of Diet Pepsi.  He reminded me that the staff is “very comfortable with messy” and previewed for me an innovative new service they’ll be piloting soon, so look for that on the Observer online in a few weeks!

Charlotte’s Mission Possible uses crowdsourcing to solve a local problem by Nheeda Enriquez
logo via missionpossible

logo via missionpossible

If you haven’t caught it already, a local media coalition under the umbrella name Mission Possible is collecting public ideas to answer the growing need of charitable groups feeling the pressure of a challenged economy.  Soliciting ideas from a local constituency is not necessarily a new concept, and it definitely falls in the category of crowdsourcing.  Even the Obama administration has been putting structures in place to ensure the transparency of their multiple agendas.  Leveraging the collective wisdom and expertise certainly can’t hurt, especially in a time when more radical thinking is required.  From the website, some of the areas they’re exploring are:

  • New ways to conduct fundraising
  • New ways to administer programs
  • New ways to let individual citizens make a difference through volunteering
  • New ways that an individual personally could make a difference
  • New ways to use technology to help meet charitable needs
  • New ways for potential donors to learn of charitable needs and what assistance is needed
  • Wholesale changes in how charitable needs are met

Start by submitting your thoughts and ideas here. (Via Charlotte’s own innovation connector, Edison Nation)

Unstructured Crowdsourcing: A funny thing happened on the way to the bank by Nheeda Enriquez

I recently checked my “Bank Mail” via my Bank of America account and caught this message:


click image for larger screenshot

I’m assuming B of A’s legal department installed a disclaimer after a customer saw an idea that was similar to one they had submitted through their account mail box.  A quick Google search on “Unsolicited Idea Submission Policy” turned up Apple, Fruit of the Loom, and Intego (virus software) with similar caveats.

Crowdsourcing, or the ability for outsiders to influence the product development process, has slowly become popular with companies to engage their customers (or even internal employees not involved with the product or service.)  It becomes an opportunity to leverage the collective wisdom of a user base.  But I guess without a structured way for folks to submit their ideas (a la Black & Decker or Starbucks,) you rely on whatever way you have to reach someone at the company.

BusinessWeek’s Innovation and Design section examines the future of crowdsourcing, which includes issues with underpaying inventors or hairy legal issues like the one above.