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Diversity Drives Success in Humanitarian Crowd-Solving!

When I think of a crowd, I immediately picture a major sporting event with 50,000 – 100,000 people in a venue for a big game.  Or I think of Rockefeller Center at Christmastime where the streets are so congested that it is hard to move in any direction.  But this is NOT what a crowd looks like for crowd-solving.  Instead, crowd-solving brings geographically dispersed strangers together around a published problem and, for an instant, creates a unique set of like-minded people to tackle a pressing problem.  This process recently worked brilliantly and I want to tell you about it.




I was Project Advisor on a recent humanitarian crowd-solving challenge run by the International Rescue Committee (“IRC”) to find ways to make female latrines in refugee camps safer and better.  The challenge solicited ideas for how to improve lighting, locking and service/security notifications for under US$20 per latrine (for all 3 issues). 


In a short 48 days, this challenge attracted 218 registrant solvers from 60 countries. Let me emphasize this.  60 countries!  The crowd came from all over the world as you can see in Figures 1 and 2.  Even though the IRC is headquartered in New York City and the technology partner for running the challenge (Wazoku – is in London, less than half of the registrants came from both of these continents combined.


Figure 1.  Source of Registrants in the IRC Female Latrines Challenge.


Figure 2.  Source of Registrants in the IRC Female Latrines Challenge.


I think that a key reason that the IRC was able to attract solvers from all over the world was because of their strategy to invite sympathetic partners with different crowds of possible humanitarian innovators.  The IRC leveraged Wazoku in many ways but were joined by organizations with their own crowds of innovators.  These included:


  • HeroX ( HeroX hosted the challenge on their platform and provided a direct link to solvers from which they could submit. Their posting is accessible HERE. 

  • Engineering for Change ( E4C publicized the challenge through a newsletter to their entire membership.

  • MIT SOLVE ( MIT SOLVE publicized the challenge through a newsletter to their entire membership.

  • An ad was run in the monthly Maker newsletter to publicize the challenge.


Add up all the people from all of these crowds and it exceeds 1 million individuals!  This total includes the native crowds of full-time crowd-solving platforms and individuals that were touched with direct marketing to innovation-focused people.  All the marketing efforts drove awareness of the IRC problem and led to the diversity we were seeking.  See Figure 3.


Figure 3. 


In addition, the IRC used its own marketing channels through their main site and through their Airbel Impact Labs site to make the challenge known to everyone concerned about refugees and the problems with female latrines.  This undoubtedly led to additional diversity in the eventual crowd of registrants.




It is a good first step to get a large and diverse set of registered solvers for an open-innovation challenge but this is only a first step.  The key is to get many solutions and to have them be diverse and of high quality.  I am happy to report that the IRC achieved this outcome also.


Solvers submitted 113 submissions from 44 different countries (see Figures 4 & 5).  Once again, the submissions came from all around the world in almost the same distribution as the registrants.  North America and Europe represented a minority of the submissions.


Figure 4.  Source of Submissions in the IRC Female Latrines Challenge.


Figure 5.  Source of Submissions in the IRC Female Latrines Challenge.


Of the 113 submissions, 80 were deemed to be “quality” submissions.  Of these, 35 dealt with lighting, 35 with locking, and 16 with alerting. Only 9 solutions managed to integrate all three of these. The most variety came in lighting solutions. 23 of these were powered by different types of solar panels; 6 suggested different phosphorescent materials including strontium and glow-in-the-dark paint; 4 had different human inputs, such as a hand crank; and 3 others had novel suggestions of a gravity-powered lamp, an electromagnetic power source, or even the kinetic energy generated by the door spring.


Locking proposals tended to be less varied and interesting, but exceptions included an electromagnetic lock and a novel retraction mechanism for a doorknob. There were 20 solutions which proposed metal locks, 8 which used wood, and one which proposed plastic from 3D printing. 23 locks involved some type of sliding bar or latch; 4 used a hook or tying mechanism.


The alerting solutions had a great variability in quality and detail but were universally thin on details.  Solvers suggested providing alerts for a range of conditions such as intruders, excessive latrine activity, user-SOS, and system-maintenance requests.  Issue detection was largely human-induced but a few suggested sensors of various types or an NFC-based system.  The communications protocols suggested included line-of-sight, Bluetooth, LoRaWAN and Radio.  Only a couple talked about rudimentary thoughts on the operating system that would receive and manage the alerts.  The challenge definition was not well written to attract complete solutions for this category.


Some other miscellaneous unique ideas included a Canadian bioactivator that could extend the life of latrines, mud-cleaning features to maintain bathroom cleanliness, and emergency alarms for safety.




The goal of humanitarian crowd-solving is to help a global humanitarian organization solve long-standing, high-impact problems.  The process works by inviting a crowd of interested people to participate by submitting potential solutions in exchange for a financial prize.  Success happens when the seeker decides to make a financial award to one or more solvers.


In this case, the IRC decided to make seven awards to solvers from seven different countries.  There was one winner for locking, one for service/security notifications and five different winners for lighting.  Winners came from (in alphabetical order) Germany, India, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania and USA.  Four of these individuals were part of the Wazoku crowd and three heard about the challenge from somewhere else and then registered with Wazoku in order to submit a solution. 


I am super excited about the fact that the IRC has seven different ideas that they felt could have a positive impact on conditions at female latrines in refugee camps.  I think this fantastic outcome is a direct result of asking so many potentially-interested strangers from so many places for their help.    


If you work for a global humanitarian organization and you have long-standing problems where you feel that there must be a solution out there but you don’t know how to find it, perhaps humanitarian crowd-solving could provide you the answers you are looking for.  Read my “Crowd-Solving 101” series of blogs to learn more.    





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