Just Explain It: Crowdsourcing To Solve Crimes

You may have heard of crowdsourcing when it comes to raising money, like the popular website Kickstarter allows. But at its core, crowdsourcing is getting a lot of people to help solve a single problem.

After the attack at the Boston Marathon, law enforcement asked the public for help to find the perpetrators. As usual, authorities asked people to report if they saw anything suspicious and they asked for help identifying the suspects in the surveillance tapes that the FBI released.

But in what’s becoming a new trend, officials also asked the public for photos and video. The response was overwhelming. Within days, local police and federal agents received thousands of images and many terabytes of digital data captured on smartphones and other mobile devices

So, how well has using “the crowd” to solve crimes worked? And what are the downsides of the public getting involved? That's the subject of today's Just Explain It.

The Boston Marathon bombing may be a high-profile case where we’re seeing these methods used by police, but it’s not the first time crowdsourcing has been used to catch suspects.

[Related: Mother Of Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects Found Deeper Spirituality]

In 2011, after the Vancouver Canucks’ loss in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals, rioters there torched cars and looted businesses causing $4.5 million in damages. City officials asked the public for video and photos to I-D the rioters. Facebook pages and other websites sprang up specifically to collect images, in an effort to identify those involved. The group effort by police and regular citizens lead to over 200 people being charged.  

Earlier this month, the New York City Police Department released footage of a woman being attacked in a Brooklyn subway station in March. Commenters on the websites Gawker and New York magazine's Daily Intelligencer identified the alleged attacker as Aidan Folan from pictures on his Facebook page. The day after the video was posted, police arrested Folan and charged him with robbery and assault.

While crowdsourcing investigations may give law enforcement more evidence and leads, it's not always perfect. Some of the alleged Vancouver rioters who were identified on websites were harassed and threatened by members of the public.

And after the Boston bombing, users in a forum on social news website Reddit exchanged photos and information to find the perpetrators of the attack. Reddit users identified possible suspects, and their names and photos were publicized there and on other websites. Unfortunately, those people singled-out as suspicious were innocent. One person falsely implicated was missing Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, whose body was found the week after the bombing. Reddit publicly apologized for the “online witch hunts” and “dangerous speculation,” which ”spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

[Related: Body of Missing Student Falsely Implicated in Boston Marathon Bombings Is Found

So, did you learn something? What do you think about the use of crowdsourcing by police to solve crimes? What about your fellow citizens conducting their own online investigations? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below, or on Twitter using the hashtag #JustExplainItNews.

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