Cheaters, Thieves, Saboteurs & Other Nefarious Competitors

Fighting businessmen

Challenge and prize competitions are competitive and not always squeaky clean. There is money at stake, pride, honor, and awards.

So this Quartz/NexGov article, Crowdsourcing Behavior Encourages Malicious Behavior, Study Finds, that highlights the ugly side of competitions hits a raw nerve. The University of Southampton in the UK and the National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA) conducted the study, examining recent crowdsourcing competitions.

Crowdsourcing generally espouses openness and broad-based cooperation, but the researchers explained that it also brings out people’s worst competitive instincts.

“[T]he openness makes crowdsourcing solutions vulnerable to malicious behaviour of other interested parties,” said one of the study’s authors, Victor Naroditskiy from the University of Southampton, in a release on the study. “Malicious behaviour can take many forms, ranging from sabotaging problem progress to submitting misinformation. This comes to the front in crowdsourcing contests where a single winner takes the prize.”

There are a few things we’ve noticed and noted in our experience over the last four years with challenge competitions run by federal agencies and studying others in the private sector:

Transformative innovation happens best when people are working in collaboration

Building from one idea to the next, taking pieces of this and that and cobbling them together, spurring ideas and the energy of working in a group can help drive great changes. And work can get done tremendously fast. This works especially well at hack-a-thons, code-a-thons, maker faires, and those types of group let’s-build-something-together events.

But as the study says, when there is a winner-take-all goal, people work in their own lanes looking for advantages to get past others. There is little sharing and more incentive for secrecy.

Our team always advises agency managers that if a competitor asks a question or requests data, materials or the like, they must share the question and answers among all the competitors. There should be no favoritism. Agencies do want the competitors to succeed—we want them to be engaged, to learn, to stretch their skills, to bring back something astounding, inspiring and fabulous.

IP is important

Working independently is OK, too. Challenge program managers understand the need for competitors to hold rights to their intellectual property. Even ideas, though not always completely unique, are what people have to start their businesses or new initiatives if they win the prize or get funding.

Changes in platforms

When I started working on crowdsourcing in 2007, most competition platforms had all the information displayed for everyone to see, with lots of open, public voting and commenting. So whomever posted their solution first ran the risk of having others “borrow” from what was already being done. Any successful eBay bidder knows you don’t show your intentions or hand until the last 30 seconds (or less) of the auction.

There is strategy in knowing how to use the different types of platforms, when to show what you’re doing, when to ask questions, and when to submit.

The platform we manage now allows competition managers to choose what they will display from the entries, including customized descriptions. That way if there are IP issues, the public can still learn about the entries and vote without knowing every minute detail of a plan or technology development that was submitted. Of course, then you can only vote on what you see. Judges reviewing behind the scenes always get the full entry.

Rules and guidelines

When you’re designing your competition, think about whether you want to include restrictions on cheating, hacking or other type of nefarious behavior. It is unfortunate, because most people who come into this arena are collaborative and playing by a code of ethics that allows for everyone to do their best while not sabotaging the competition.

You can also structure the awards so that there is an option to recognize multiple people and teams for a variety of contributions.

It would also be incredibly helpful for federal challenge managers to share their hard-learned experiences with others in our community. (Email us, we’re happy to set up a meeting or webinar!) Acknowledging that there is pressure to talk about the sunny side, these experiences can help others structure competitions in a way that will drive the innovation goals and result in a fair playing field for all who choose to compete.

Take heart, there is a lot of good from crowdsourcing, too. There are more than 350 successfully run competitions to date. As you construct or enter your next competition, may the odds be ever in your favor.