Crowdsourcing isn’t just for tapping into the views and assessments of other experts. Sometimes researchers use crowdsourcing to delegate time-consuming tasks that are very small, also known as “microtasks,” to people who are not experts but do have basic skills that can help them earn a little money in their spare time.
Explore This IssueJanuary 2019
Tammy Chang, MD, MPH, MS, a practicing family physician, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, and a health policy researcher who has studied obesity, recently used the CrowdFlower (now called Figure Eight) crowdsourcing platform to carry out microtasks for her research analyzing the accuracy of websites that contained material about weight gain in pregnancy. “There are gold standard guidelines about how much you’re supposed to gain depending on how much you weigh right now,” she said.
For the project, Dr. Chang’s team needed people to look at the hundreds of websites that come up when someone Googles “weight gain and pregnancy” to see if those gold standards were reflected on each site. “For that kind of task,” she said, “you don’t need to be a physician or a researcher. You just need to be someone who can read and see if the guidelines that were published by the National Academy of Medicine were somewhere on each web page.” Through crowdsourcing, it took just days to review hundreds of sites.
One concern, Dr. Chang said, was knowing whether members of the crowd were performing the tasks accurately and doing a good job. However, the platform had an interesting setup that put her mind at ease: Those completing the microtasks received a bundle of work and were told there was a test site in it that Dr. Chang had already evaluated. If the microtaskers got the test site wrong, their work was automatically thrown out.
The downside to crowdsourcing is the risk of a security breach, because most crowdsourcing uses an interface to transmit information, and there’s always the possibility that the platform could be hacked.
Dr. Balakrishnan noted the concern, for instance, that if a patient posts that they’re unhappy with their healthcare provider and that provider sees the post, this may affect the physician–patient relationship. “If we’re asking patients to share private information with us,” Dr. Balakrishnan said, “then we owe it to them to treat it with respect.” Part of that respect at large institutions means putting the project before the Institutional Review Board to screen for potential violations of privacy or poor data protection, he said. Another part is making parents aware of how important it is to think hard before posting about their child in an online group and ensuring that their post doesn’t have anything specifically identifiable about that child.
Douglas R. Sidell, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist and assistant professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at Stanford University in California, also underlined the importance of patient respect. “When patients are involved, we must consider not only patient privacy, but we also need to be respectful of patients on all fronts, regardless of whether or not we are operating within the confines of legality,” he said. “This becomes particularly true when using social media resources. We need to maintain secure information platforms across all points of contact with the information source, and we need to maintain de-identified patient information whenever possible.”
Dr. Sidell is currently working with colleagues from the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, and Stanford University to identify specialists around the world who are using a novel chemotherapy for the treatment of respiratory papillomatosis. “We are using this process in an attempt to achieve consensus pertaining to the use of this medication,” he said. He has employed various anonymous response systems such as Qualtrics and other automated survey platforms and said he cautiously enlists participation via Facebook and uses WhatsApp groups to communicate with physicians in different parts of the world. “I tend to crowdsource ideas rather than tangible commodities,” he added.