Crowdsourcing, citizen science, and (many) other buzz words

As I’m currently working on a article about the development of crowdsourcing projects, I found dozen of buzz words about similar concepts in the field of participatory/citizen science. Here’s my list of these buzz words: crowdsourcing, crowd science, citizen science, citizen sensing, community-based monitoring, community-based management, open science, participatory science, participatory sensing, user-generated content, volunteered geographic information, and how they are related to each other…

EDIT SEPT. 2017:

The paper is out now: Minet, J., Curnel, Y., Gobin, A., Goffart, J. P., Mélard, F., Tychon, B., Wellens, J. & Defourny, P. (2017). Crowdsourcing for agricultural applications: A review of uses and opportunities for a farmsourcing approach. Computers and Electronics in Agriculture, 142, 126-138.


Let’s start by crowdsourcing

The first definition ever of crowdsourcing was made in Wired by J. Howe (2006), who first coined crowdsourcing as “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call”.

Still, “crowdsourcing is an ill-defined but common term” (Wiggins & Crowston, 2011) and dozens of other definitions were made after the one of J. Howe. The outsourcing of tasks by crowdsourcing can be envisaged as an alternative to the traditional labour executed by professional workers, as defined by Schenk & Guittard (2011): “Crowd sourcing represents the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, and generally large group of people in the form of an open call”, or for tackling tasks that computer intelligence struggles to complete, as in the definition of Rahman et al. (2015): “a network of humans can be used to solve challenging and computationally expensive problems that machine intelligence cannot accurately solve”.

From crowdsourcing to citizen sensing and community-based monitoring

The concept now expands from the outsourcing of tasks to the collection of data by volunteers and/or mobile devices, as stated by Muller et al. (2015): “Crowdsourcing is traditionally defined as obtaining data or information by enlisting the services of a (potentially large) number of people. However, due to recent innovations, this definition can now be expanded to include ‘and/or from a range of public sensors, typically connected via the Internet.’” … that is related to the concept of citizen sensing, as developed in Boulos et al. (2011), which is about the collection of data or information by volunteers. A term largely related to the one of participatory sensing, coined by Burke et al. (2006), focused on the use of mobile devices for collecting data: “Participatory sensing will task deployed mobile devices to form interactive, participatory sensor networks that enable public and professional users to gather, analyze and share local knowledge.”

Yet, the action of collaboratively collecting data did exist well before the invention of the crowdsourcing term (and of mobile phones), as portrayed in the paper done by Conrad & Hichley (2011), who reviewed projects based on community-based monitoring or community-based management of the environment involving citizen volunteers in environmental conservation projects.

Internet-based platforms

These projects are now mostly based on internet platforms, which is related to the concept of user-generated content platforms, from which Wikipedia is the outstanding example. In the field of (neo)geography, a specific term was also coined to describe the development of online collaborative mapping platforms (e.g., OpenStreetMap, Wikimapia): volunteered geographic information (Goodchild, 2007).

The global picture: citizen science

Finally, the more embracing concept of citizen science can be linked to crowdsourcing, as stated by Wiggins & Crowston (2011): “Citizen science projects that are entirely mediated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) are often considered a form of crowdsourcing applied to science.” Franzoni & Sauermann remarkably discussed these concepts in a broader perspective for the scientific research in their paper entitled “Crowd science: The organization of scientific research in open collaborative projects” (2014) and further distinguished between crowdsourcing and crowd science, the latter term describing research projects which are not only open to participation (as in crowdsourcing projects) but also imply the openness of intermediate inputs and results (as in open science projects). Yet, these “new” ways of doing science are also related to the longer-standing concept of participatory science. 


Boulos, M. N. K.; Resch, B.; Crowley, D. N.; Breslin, J. G.; Sohn, G.; Burtner, R.; Pike, W. A.; Jezierski, E. & Chuang, K.-Y. S. (2011), ‘Crowdsourcing, citizen sensing and sensor web technologies for public and environmental health surveillance and crisis management: trends, OGC standards and application examples’, International journal of health geographics 10(1), 1.

Burke, J. A.; Estrin, D.; Hansen, M.; Parker, A.; Ramanathan, N.; Reddy, S. & Srivastava, M. B. (2006), ‘Participatory sensing’, Center for Embedded Network Sensing.

Conrad, C. C. & Hilchey, K. G. (2011), ‘A review of citizen science and community-based environmental monitoring: issues and opportunities’, Environmental monitoring and assessment 176(1-4), 273–291.

Franzoni, C. & Sauermann, H. (2014), ‘Crowd science: The organization of scientific research in open collaborative projects’, Research Policy 43(1), 1–20.

Goodchild, M. F. (2007), ‘Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography’, GeoJournal 69(4), 211–221.

Howe, J. (2006), ‘The rise of crowdsourcing’, Wired magazine 14(6), 1–4.

Muller, C.; Chapman, L.; Johnston, S.; Kidd, C.; Illingworth, S.; Foody, G.; Overeem, A. & Leigh, R. (2015), ‘Crowdsourcing for climate and atmospheric sciences: current status and future potential’, International Journal of Climatology 35(11), 3185–3203.

Rahman, M.; Blackwell, B.; Banerjee, N. & Saraswat, D. (2015), ‘Smartphone-based hierarchical crowdsourcing for weed identification’, Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 113, 14–23.

Schenk, E. & Guittard, C. (2011), ‘Towards a characterization of crowdsourcing practices’, Journal of Innovation Economics & Management(1), 93–107.

Wiggins, A. & Crowston, K. (2011), From conservation to crowdsourcing: A typology of citizen science, in ‘System Sciences (HICSS), 2011 44th Hawaii international conference on’, pp. 1–10.



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Crowdsourcing, citizen science, and (many) other buzz words, by Julien Minet,, May 2016, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.