Crowdsourcing Solutions and Crisis Information during the Renaissance

The Bristol Channel Floods of January 30, 1607 reportedly caused the largest loss of life from any sudden onset natural disaster in the UK in the past 500 years. “As there were no newspapers at the time, principal accounts reporting the impact of the flood survive in a small number of pamphlets privately printed in London. These original pamphlets [...] with titles like Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire and Newes of out Summerset-shire, were sold by printers who also published Shakespeare” (RMS 2007).

Clearly, crowdsourcing is not new, only the word is. After all, crowdsourcing is a methodology, not a technology nor an industry. Perhaps one of my favorite examples of crowdsourcing during the Renaissance surrounds the invention of the marine chronometer, which completely revolutionized long distance sea travel. Thousands of lives were being lost in shipwrecks because longitude coordinates were virtually impossible to determine in the open seas. Finding a solution this problem became critical as the Age of Sail dawned on many European empires. 

So the Spanish King, Dutch Merchants and others turned to crowdsourcing by offering major prize money for a solution. The British government even launched the “Longitude Prize” which was established through an Act of Parliament in 1714 and administered by the “Board of Longitude.” This board brought together the greatest scientific minds of the time to work on the problem, including Sir Isaac Newton. Galileo was also said to have taken up the challenge. 

The main prizes included: “£10,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 60 nautical miles (111 km); £15,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 40 nautical miles (74 km); and £20,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 30 nautical miles (56 km).” Note that £20,000 in 1714 is around $4.7 million dollars today. The $1 million Netflix Prize launched 400 years later pales in comparison.” In addition, the Board had the discretion to make awards to persons who were making significant contributions to the effort or to provide financial support to those who were working towards a solution. The Board could also make advances of up to £2,000 for experimental work deemed promising.” 

Interestingly, the person who provided the most breakthroughs—and thus received the most prize money—was the son of a carpenter, the self-educated British clockmaker John Harrison.  And so, as noted by Peter LaMotte, “by allowing anyone to participate in solving the problem, a solution was found for a puzzle that had baffled some of the brightest minds in history (even Galileo!). In the end, it was found by someone who would never have been tapped to solve it to begin with.”

I’d love to see a “Manual GPS Prize” to find very simple, virtually free and highly scalable solutions for accurate geo-location. This means no GPS units and no smart phones—preferably no cell phones at all actually. Something along the lines of WalkingPapers but without the need to print out satellite imagery and scan anything. Impossible? What if the prize for a solution were $4.7 million?

Interested in more examples of crowdsourcing from way back when? Then check-out Peter’s recent blog post and my earlier post entitled “Calling 911: What Humanitarians Can Learn from 50 Years of Crowdsourcing.” Have other examples to share? Please add them to the comments section, thanks!

7 responses to “Crowdsourcing Solutions and Crisis Information during the Renaissance

  1. Thank you for the mention. I totally agreed that the Marine Chronometer is one of the best examples of pre-industrial crowdsourcing. Thank you for diving deeper into the story.

  2. Thanks for expanding on this early form of crowdsourcing. It’s amazing to see it in use several hundred years ago (too bad it’s just now picking up momentum). From Galileo, to the Chicago Tribune building, & even the Statue of Liberty.

    • Thanks David. I was speaking with a colleague at RMS recently and he said the rise of the industrial age, which rewarded specialization, inevitably “crowded out” our historical leanings toward crowdsourcing. Today, crowdsourcing is finally re-awakening after a long dormant sleep. I thought that was an interesting take.

    • Oh, and this (from The Economist) is very neat:

      The Internet is taking the news industry back to the conversational culture of the era before mass media, http://awe.sm/5Piae

  3. I love looking at the historical precedents of seeming new tactics – very interesting!

  4. Great article, Patrick! Historical examples are useful in enabling a clear comparison with what we have chosen today to define as crowdsourcing. You can find other examples at http://crowdsourcing.org/l/2730. These may not be related to crisis information however they truly demonstrate the existence of crowdsourcing even before the Internet was invented.

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