The API Briefing: Making a Difference One Microtask at a Time

Apr 22, 2015

I recently found an app that provides a great service through crowdsourcing. Be My Eyes connects visually-impaired people with volunteers. Using the smartphone’s camera, the volunteers can perform tasks such as reading an expiration date or helping someone navigate unfamiliar surroundings. This is not a federal app, but I wanted to highlight it to demonstrate how crowdsourcing apps can make it easy for everyone to make a difference through microtasks.

Crowdsourcing is the use of an online platform to have a large number of people complete small tasks (“microtasks”) to accomplish a larger project. President Obama encouraged the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science in his Second Open Government National Action Plan [PDF]. This is to “harness the ingenuity of the public by accelerating and scaling the use of open innovation methods . . . [t]o help address a wide range of scientific and societal problems.” The Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science is currently developing an Open Innovation Toolkit to support federal crowdsourcing efforts.

The iPlover iPhone app welcome screen
As reported by DigitalGov back in December 2014, six agencies are using crowdsourcing in their mobile apps and this spring the U.S. Geological Survey released the iPlover app to make seven. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has mobile apps that allow users to report whale sightings, post GPS tagged photos of Mako sharks, and collect local magnetic field data. For emergency situations, there is a Department of Energy app for reporting fuel sources and a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) app to let first responders share a common situation map. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been using crowdsourcing to provide transcripts for historical videos.

In past columns, I have written about how federal agencies use APIs to supply federal data to apps. This is a vital service, but I also want to encourage agencies to think of ways that they could use crowdsourcing platforms to help citizens provide services to other citizens. Citizens can trust federal agencies to provide safe and reliable crowdsourcing platforms along with valid federal data sources. Citizen volunteers can feel a sense of civic pride while donating just a few minutes of their time to easy but vitally-needed microtasks. Everyone benefits as crowdsourcing becomes another way of delivering public services.

Disclaimer: All references to specific brands, products, and/or companies are used only for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or any federal government agency.

*API – Application Programming Interface; how software programs and databases share data and functions with each other. Check out APIs in Government for more information.

Each week, “The API Briefing” will showcase government APIs and the latest API news and trends. Visit this column every week to learn how government APIs are transforming government and improving government services for the American people. If you have ideas for a topic or have questions about APIs, please contact me via email. All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions of the USDA and GSA.