Crowdsourcing code of conduct

October 27, 2014

Patrick Meier recently posted a proposed Code of Conduct for digital crowdsourcing. Essentially it states that organizations initiating crowdsourcing projects must treat their volunteers legally, ethically, and transparently. It also goes beyond that, to state that organizations must give clear guidelines “so that volunteers are able to contribute meaningfully,” and take reasonable measures to ensure that they are not wasting volunteers’ time by duplication of effort. These are all considered “musts.” In addition, there is a shorter list of “shoulds,” which recommend treating volunteers with care and respect.

I think the Code of Conduct is a terrific idea, given that crowdsourcing power, and numbers of volunteers, are growing. Digital volunteers who want to maximize their impact can choose to volunteer only with organizations that voluntarily abide by this Code of Conduct.

I think an important corollary to this Code of Conduct is a digital volunteer’s responsibility to act ethically. First of all, this means researching the crowdsourcing task to the best of one’s ability, including checking whether the organization abides by the Code of Conduct. Even if they do, volunteers should take responsibility for researching the given task and understanding the larger goal, in order to make an informed decision.

To pull an example from fiction, in Dave Egger’s The Circle [SPOILER ALERT!], crowdsourcing is employed to find someone who emphatically wishes not to be found, with tragic results. The individual who orders the crowdsourcing project acts unethically, to be certain. But the thousands of individuals that volunteer for the project are also responsible for the tragic consequences of their collective actions, are they not?

That example may be from fiction, but there are already real-life examples of ethically questionable crowdsourcing. Meieir says, “What happens when future mass-sourcing efforts ask digital volunteers to look for military vehicles and aircraft in satellite images taken of a mysterious, unnamed “enemy country” for unknown reasons? Think this is far-fetched? As noted in my forthcoming book, Digital Humanitarians, this online, crowdsourced military surveillance operation already took place (at least once).”

Digital crowdsourcing volunteers may just be tiny pieces of a larger mechanism, but without those pieces, the machine doesn’t work. Organizations should abide by an agreed-upon code of conduct, but volunteers must also bear responsibility for their actions.

Meier, P. (2014, October 21). Code of conduct: cyber crowdsourcing for good. Retrieved from

Meier, P. (2014, September 30). May the crowd be with you. Retrieved from

2 Responses to “Crowdsourcing code of conduct”

  1. I’m glad you commented on Meier’s proposed code of conduct for digital volunteering. It will be interesting to see who of the volunteer organizations introduce and implement the proposed code.

  2. Hi Robin,
    I totally can relate to this. Just because you’re a volunteer, you still need to be accountable for the job that you perform. Having a uniformed Code of Conduct helps ensure the integrity of the the whole structure, the information, service and results.