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Crowdsourcing coming to iPhone apps, big time

The number of applications that depend on information submitted by users is growing every day, and changing the iPhone platform in the process.

If you've ever been driving down the highway and looked at the Google Maps application on an iPhone to see what traffic is like ahead, you may have wondered where the data behind the green, yellow, and red lines indicating real-time vehicle flow come from.

In fact, the data are coming from people just like you: users of smartphones with GPS who, by the very act of driving down the highway, are feeding back information about how fast they're going to Google, which in turn is sending it back to users of its mobile map apps.

Users of the Google Maps iPhone app can get real-time traffic flow data that is based on the passive participation of other users. This is an example of mobile crowdsourcing, something that is a growing trend, especially on iPhones. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Which means, of course, that the application itself is crowdsourced--that is, based on the mutual contributions of many users, all of whom are participating in the product, and without whom, the product would be worthless.

These days, the concept of crowdsourcing--defined by Jeff Howe, who literally wrote the book on the subject, as, "the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call"--is all the rage, and there are no end of well-known examples, especially on the Web: the Netflix prize; Twitter search; public tagging of Library of Congress archival photos; even Wikipedia. Indeed, much of the concept of user-generated content is really about crowdsourcing.

But until now, much of the discussion about the subject has focused on what people are doing on their computers. Yet today, more than ever before, crowdsourcing has gone mobile. As more smart phones have brought ubiquitous Internet connectivity to the masses, more people have been feeding back into the system. And for now at least, nowhere is that more true than on the the iPhone.

"Why do I love my iPhone, which I do," Howe said in an interview. "Because I'm suddenly doing interesting things with my cognitive surplus. All these times (on public transportation)...are great times to contribute to these group efforts. It's crowdsourcing at its most root definition. Crowdsourcing is a perfect coupling of that downtime, of the very fuel that the crowdsourcing engine needs to run."

Today, the iPhone is not the most popular smartphone but it certainly is gaining steam. According to Gartner, during the second quarter of 2009, the iPhone's share of the global smart phone market had soared to 13.3 percent from 2.8 percent a year earlier. To be sure, the BlackBerry--with 18.7 percent share--and Nokia's offerings--with 45 percent share--still lead in total sales, but it's hard to argue with Apple's growth, or with its dominance in the community-developed application market.

"As Apple has so often done," Howe said, "they did it better sooner...crowdsourcing is only as effective as one's reach allows, because it does require either mass participation or at least mass viewership."

The iPhone app by The Extraordinaries allows users to volunteer small amounts of their time for the collective good. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Which is why there is a growing number of iPhone apps--both those that seek to make money and those that are nonprofit--that are based entirely on crowdsourcing, and which without the buy-in by a critical mass of users would be meaningless.

Some, like the traffic feature in the Google Maps app, are subtle about it. But others shout it out: Their developers know that the public has a thirst for this and have specifically made crowd participation a selling point.

Traffic apps, it turns out, are a natural for mobile crowdsourcing. Because of the iPhone's built-in GPS--on the iPhone 3G and 3GS, at least--and the fact that many owners won't go anywhere without their precious device, it makes perfect sense to build tools that rely on user-submitted data.

Some examples are Waze, which relies on users to inform others about traffic conditions, about road construction and about the existence of angry drivers; Trapster, which lets users report speed traps so that other drivers will be aware of them, in real-time; Aha, which mixes both live traffic flow information with location-based identification of things like cafes, bathrooms, and restaurants; and others.

"I think what it comes down to is what this device right now excels at," said Jacob Colker, the co-founder of a company called The Extraordinaries that is leveraging crowdsourcing. "And that is really to use GPS, a camera, and the phone itself."

Yet there are a growing number of other examples, as well.

One is an app from The Extraordinaries itself. Already well-known for work harnessing the collective power of large numbers of Internet users for the common good, the organization has now put out an iPhone app that lets any user participate in a wide range of causes, right from the device.

For example, users can add tags to photos from the Smithsonian to bring more collective context to that museum's huge archives; help create a huge map of kid-friendly places by finding a "playspace" and snapping a photo of it; or help the city of San Diego cut down on water wastage by reporting any city agency watering during the day or ignoring obvious leaks.

Crowdsourcing can be silly, too. Take the famous Ocarina iPhone app. With that, countless people have used the device to play a kind of flute-like instrument. In and of itself, that's fun but not crowdsourced. But what takes it to the next level is that users can look at a 3D rendering of the globe and see and hear the notes that are being played by other Ocarina users.

That's crowdsourcing in action.

And then there's Yelp, which by definition is crowdsourced. With its iPhone app, the popular tool for letting people rate and comment on businesses, is bringing the power of the collective experience to merchants and retailers anywhere, anytime.

Smule's Ocarina iPhone app lets users play a flute-like instrument and automatically submit their play so that others anywhere in the world can hear it. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

So is the iPhone speeding up the process of taking crowdsourcing mobile?

"I think it's creating conditions for new ideas to flourish," said Colker, "and that's really important. Showing that it is possible, that, yes, I can demand YouTube in my pocket, and I'm going to pull up this app and play flute into it and I'm going to listen to someone playing the Ocarina app in South Africa. It's powerful. It allows people to think in new ways, and to create the kernel for those new ideas to exist, and the conditions for those new innovations to exist."

Every day, Apple is adding more apps to its App Store. And while most do not involve crowdsourcing, an increasing number do. And that seems like a trend that there's little that anyone could do to stop. Nor would anyone want to.

For now, it's hard to say exactly what the next crowdsourced apps will be to come down the pike, but it seems certain there will be an exponentially growing number of them over time. Games will be built that rely on users to locate items in a virtual world; Poetry apps will rely on users submitting their own stanzas; Lolcat sites will depend on iPhone users snapping pictures of cats, slapping funny captions on them, and sending them in; and much more.

In essence, as with the larger app ecosystem, the sky's the limit for crowdsourced apps. And while other smart phones will also have an increasing number of applications that rely on user submissions, the iPhone is likely to stay at the head of the field.

"I think the iPhone itself has done tremendous good for moving technology forward, and as a byproduct, paving the way for new forms of crowdsourcing to exist," Colker said. "And that's what really excites me about the iPhone."

Corrected at 10:16 a.m.: This story originally reported that The Extraordinaries is a non-profit. In fact, it is a for-profit company.