Crowdsourcing – cracking the code

Crowdsourcing is the ultimate recognition that ‘not all the smart people work for us’ – a fact of life that every organisation can use to its advantage.

In our connected world, any organisation can acquire very novel answers to difficult questions by recruiting the public at large.  Business has been using this approach for years now, often through organised sites such as Innocentive and NineSigma.  Some great examples of business and civic innovation spurred on by crowdsourcing can be found in James Surowiecki’s 2004 classic book “The Wisdom of Crowds”.

I found out today that the understandably-secret FBI is also getting in on the act.  They have a murder case that has remained unsolved for 12 years, and they need help with some code-cracking.  Ricky McCormick was a keen code-user and often wrote notes using his own, highly personalised secret code – a stream of letters, numbers and punctuation marks.  When he was murdered, the only possible clues were two of his coded notes that were found in his pocket.  The code that he developed is so unusual and weird that it doesn’t fit with any of the methods known to the FBI’s Cryptanalysis experts (which must be quite a few), so they’ve gone public.  You can see the notes here and log in to submit your ideas. 

Even if the notes turn out to be a shopping list rather than a clue to the murder, learning how to crack this code could give the FBI a whole new insight into creating other codes that are difficult to solve.

It’s fascinating to see an organisation that normally has to be secretive about the details of unsolved crimes, and their methods of solving them, to take the leap into crowd-sourcing – I hope it’s successful for them.

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