Monday, April 14, 2008

Solving Crime Through Crowdsourcing...

Although it is often harshly criticized, the herd mentality that persists in many internet discussion forums can also apparently serve as a decidedly positive force.

As the New York Times describes, a handful of online forum users have helped find a stolen car and their efforts led directly to the arrest of the alleged criminal.

A car dealer named Shaun Ironside reported his Nissan Skyline stolen to the local police department. However, deciding to be pro-active, he then posted a message on, a Web site for Canadian auto enthusiasts, to spread the word.

The forum posting went on to describe the afternoon’s events, repeating information that was included in the police report. He described the driver as a white male in his early 20s, heavy-set, around 5-foot-6, with a distinguishing feature: missing ring and middle fingers on his left hand.

The post included several photos of the missing car and offered a cash reward, though as he typed, Mr. Ironside had little expectation of getting the car back, he said later. But his post set off a cyberworld dragnet...

The very next day, after seeing the photo, one of the online forum's moderators named James Lynch recognized the car at a shopping mall in Calgary. He pulled up alongside the car, gave the driver a "rock-out" sign with his fingers, and, as Lynch explains, the driver was dumb enough to do the "rock-out" sign back to him - and Lynch took a picture with his camera. After posting that photo back to the online forum, Shaun Ironside recognized the individual, called the police, and the perpetrator was quickly arrested.

One of the most striking images from this fascinating story is the picture which the NY Times is displaying with this article. It's a shot of Ironside, Lynch, and two other assisting members of this internet forum, all meeting in person for the first time in order to take the photograph.

Community policing is not a new idea, but harnessing the power of the internet to allow anonymous individuals from around the world to collectively contribute towards crime fighting is novel indeed. Integrating the volunteer efforts of "the crowd" - also known as "crowdsourcing" - is most often visible in things like Wikipedia. But if you take that Wikipedia model and apply it to a socially beneficial purpose like fighting crime, then we're clearly in midst of a whole new ballgame.

So long as these cyber efforts are used to aid and supplement, rather than replace, official police efforts, and so long as they do not stray into vigilantism, crowdsourcing may ultimately demonstrate that the "wisdom of the crowds" is an incomplete moniker. The true power of the crowds may go far beyond that of wisdom. It is the power of action.


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