News | 02.03.2010

Crowdsourcing: friend or foe?

Crowdsourcing is a relatively new concept, which means “outsourcing to a crowd of people”. Wikipedia is probably the best known example of crowdsourcing, and over a fairly short period of time people from all over the world have managed to compile an online encyclopaedia, several times the size of “Britannica”. Anyone can submit articles on anything they have a particular interest in, and once these articles are available online anyone else is free to edit or elaborate on the articles, suggest improvements etc.

A similar project has been established for online translation: Google Translate. Again, anyone can add to the word lists of any language pair, and over a couple of years contributors from the entire globe have compiled what would have taken decades for the editorial team of a printed dictionary.

All this sounds great: we might as well throw away our encyclopaedias and dictionaries and make all librarians and translators redundant. However, there is one serious problem with crowdsourcing: reliability. The very advantage of compiling large amounts of information in a short time has turned out to be a disadvantage; this information is only as reliable as the people who submit it. Often the editors of Wikipedia and Google Translate are only able to correct false information because this has been pointed out to them by users of the sites. Google Translate has recently provided a good example of this, where “USA is to blame”, became “USA is not to blame” when translated into Russian, while “Russia is to blame” was translated as “Russia is to blame”. This could have been done as a prank, or perhaps for political reasons. Another similar situation arose when the medical term “cardiomyopathy” was translated into an obscene word in Hungarian. This was no doubt also done as a prank, but it could have caused serious embarrassment had it been inserted into a medical document.

Just these two examples clearly illustrate that whilst crowdsourcing allows information to be compiled and translated much quicker than usual, it is a good idea to exercise caution when using the power of the crowd to translate important documentation.

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