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Crowdsourcing is a participatory online activity in which participants voluntarily undertake a task in response to a call or request from a state institution, group, company, individual or non-governmental organisation or other group.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Crowdsourcing is one way to solve complex problems by pooling the skills and resources of large numbers of people. If a specific project has many component parts, then it can be divided up and tasked to different groups of people who are able to work on different elements simultaneously. Groups involved in creating sustainable and just cities might be drawn to using crowdsourcing as an approach because, if introduced early in the process and designed in an open complex-embracing manner, it not only allows citizens to have their say within a pre-existing discussion in a passive manner, but can also allow citizens to shape the discussion topics about their cities and environment.

Crowdsourcing can involve gathering data from engaged people, gathering data from sensors, or a combination of the two. Crowdsourcing can involve closed or limited responses (e.g. voting on a list) or be relatively open (e.g. allowing for user generated categories or suggestions). For example, residents might be asked to 1) vote on which local park or other green space they think is most in need of renovation; 2) then suggest and discuss possible new designs or features of the park, before; 3) voting again on a list of final suggestions.

An example of a particularly open variant of crowdsourcing is the platform OpenIDEO, set up to help tackle the challenges faced by Detroit, USA. OpenIDEO works by issuing a ‘challenge’, which kickstarts a multi-step process: individuals submit ideas, these are grouped under themes, which then go through concept development (which may include combining themes or ideas), these fleshed out concepts are then voted on, refined, evaluated and then finally chosen.

There are multiple examples of different realisations of crowdsourcing projects, including: Collideoscope[1] which utilizes participant generated data on collisions to make cycling safer in Europe. Stereopublic [2], a crowdsourced app that helps people find quiet spots in cities; EveryAware[3] a project that combined data sensors and active user-generated content to help improve the environment through monitoring, awareness and finally behavioural change in different European cities; Cities4People[4] which uses ‘citizen mobility kits’ as participative tools for designing mobility innovations in different European cities; and COBWEB[5], Citizen OBservatory WEB, a project in which everyday people collected environmental information via mobile phones for research, decision making and policy formation in Dyfi Biosphere Reserve area in mid-Wales.

Shapes, sizes and applications

Crowdsourcing can take different shapes and sizes. One possible way of categorising different modes of crowdsourcing is by the relationship between the crowd (users, participants, public) and the organiser of a particular project or initiative. From the most closed to the most open, there is -- crowd processing, where large amounts of similar data is gathered (e.g. an app that measures how many minutes people spend in a park each month); crowd rating, where large amounts of similar data is gathered and then assessed via ratings (e.g. voting for different options about how to renovate a park); crowd solving, where very different responses or data is gathered and assessed against existing criteria for evaluation (e.g. we need a park with disabled access, how can we do it); and crowd creation, where the final solution, value or choice is determined by its relationship to other suggestions (e.g. we have some space in the city, what should we do with it?)[6] . In reality, there is often a mix of different types of crowdsourcing at different stages in a particular project. Crowdsourcing has been used all over the world to solve many different challenges and thus has been tested, refined, critiqued and redeveloped. However, there have been concerns raised about data governance and privacy, even when participation is voluntary.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Because of the scope for data collection, in both passive and active ways, cities can harness crowdsourcing methods with relative ease (when compared to rural areas). However, it is not only the size of the data which makes cities particularly interesting places to use crowdsourcing, but also the heterogeneity of cities: there are many different types and groups of people, they have different interests and experiences, and often quite different aims and goals. This may seem as if it makes crowdsourcing particularly difficult, because of the potential for disagreement. However, it could equally be argued that because cities are places in which disorder, unexpected mixing and conflict take place, cities are also the places from which innovative and interesting solutions to challenges might arise. Moreover, the imperative to hear different voices is forefronted in such circumstances. Related to this, if done well, crowdsourcing can make decision making and problem solving more just by bringing in voices that are not usually considered when thinking about current and future uses of the city. It has the potential to allow disenfranchised groups - working classes, women, ethnic minorities, different abled people - to frame the contours of decision making, at least on certain issues. Further to this, it can allow for sustainably minded projects to have greater sustainability - if people feel invested in a certain project or idea (e.g. measuring their local air quality) then, even if a project or initiative ends, they might remain committed to an idea. Finally, thinking about sustainability and justice together, crowdsourcing, if it allows for diverse groups to co-create suggestions for urban challenges, can ensure that wider questions of justice are entwined in sustainable solutions.

Narrative of change

Crowdsourcing uses internet communication technologies to tackle the problem of minimal or non-existing participation in decision making and/or problem solving. It relies on the premise that if many people put their heads together they can find solutions that an individual or small group of people cannot and, moreover, might even identify new challenges or problems that otherwise might not have been considered. A positive consequence of bringing together people to solve a challenge is that it can create new communities of collaborators who may work together in the future. See also Democratic innovation through recognition.

Transformative potential

Crowdsourcing contains the same seeds of transformative potential and obvious shortcomings as other participatory approaches - it depends very much on how processes are designed, who is included in process, when crowdsourcing is used within a project or initiative timeframe, and if genuinely radical or transformative ideas are allowed or will be dismissed. Beyond mere participation, and as explored as part of the CROWD_USG project[7], transformative uses of crowdsourcing might need to include space for both environmental and social issues; an awareness of equality; high degrees of transparency throughout the process; genuine collaboration and cooperation between between different actors as individuals, groups or institutions; and an ability to adapt a challenge in light of the crowdsourcing process, when it throws up new ideas or issues. Without such considerations, it runs the risk of becoming a box ticking exercise where the glamour of using technology-enabled web platforms combines with empty gestures of participation to alter minor elements within wider projects, and thus justify and enable the upholding of existing power relations[8]. Without such considerations, it runs the risk of becoming a box ticking exercise where the glamour of using technology enabled web platforms combines with empty gestures of participation to alter minor elements within wider projects, and thus justify and enable the upholding of existing power relations.

Illustrations of approaches

The Citizen Mobility Kit[9] is a collection of methods and tools designed to find solutions to urban mobility challenges. It is meant to be used in different ways depending upon a local community’s needs. It might include a guide on how to enable information sharing or collective approaches, feedback mechanisms that work in real time (e.g. collecting data and evaluating it), collections of existing solutions to mobility issues and so on. Five different tool kits are currently being used within pilot projects as part of the Cities4People project in Oxfordshire, Hamburg, Budapest, Trikala and Istanbul.

PPGIS (public participation geographic information system) is about utilizing and creating maps and other visual or spatial tools in a way that changes people's awareness and geographic involvement. Geographic technology is thus harnessed to increase participaction. It is being used as part of Helsinki’s master planning. As Timo Ruohomäki, an engineer working as a project manager of mySMARTLife[10] at Forum Virium Helsinki, puts it “[More than just] sticking a pin on a map… PPGIS [Public Participation Geographical Information System] it is about understanding how people see their neighbourhood and what they have to improve...”


  6. Geiger, David, Michael Rosemann, Erwin Fielt, and Martin Schader. ‘Crowdsourcing Information Systems-Definition Typology, and Design’. In ICIS 2012 : Proceedings of the 33rd International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS 2012), Vol. Paper 53. Orlando, Fla., 2012.
  8. Certomà, Chiara, Filippo Corsini, and Francesco Rizzi. ‘Crowdsourcing Urban Sustainability. Data, People and Technologies in Participatory Governance’. Futures 74 (1 November 2015): 93–106.