The idea for Thinkerous, the free online platform that helps communities rank problems and track solutions, was born in a Carnegie Mellon residence hall.
When Aaron Zhang was a freshman at CMU studying electrical and computer engineering, he noticed it was hard for his peers to openly discuss ideas, and even harder to find a team to build these ideas. The following semester, he put up an “idea bulletin board” in his residence hall.
“This was the catalyst to several projects I saw completed,” he says. Among these projects were a custom RFID-protected wallet and a low-cost velcro snowboard.
Zhang realized the bulletin board was increasing structured collaboration, which resulted in more creative and productive communities.
Zhang and two friends pondered these realizations and developed Thinkerous. They launched the platform by the end of their sophomore year. In fact, it only took a few hours to get the first prototype up, running and public.
“People are passionate about solving problems they experience, but often don’t have the resources to do so,” says Zhang. “And people don’t always know how to verbalize their problems, but often have ideas to improve their current situation, whether at work, at home or in the community.”
There are lots of tools out there that simplify collaboration – so what’s different about Thinkerous? Structure. Whereas other collaborative software, such as Google Groups, lack organization, Thinkerous provides a guided method to help communities efficiently find and support the ideas that solve its most pressing issues.
The website is divided into three sections: Issues, Ideas and Thinkathons. The Issues section features factual problems that community members experience first-hand, while the “Ideas” section contains possible solutions to these issues, as submitted by community members. Thinkathons, are competitions, virtual or otherwise, where community members can work together to bring prototypes and business plans to fruition.
“Our platform has unique ranking and matching algorithms, to give decision-makers inside organizations more information when determining which ideas they should invest their resources in,” says Zhang.
Thinkathons bring issues and ideas together with judges, prizes and rules for 1-2 day events where people come in with issues and ideas and leave with working prototypes. Zhang compares Thinkathons to hackathons for “business people, designers and people who are actually experiencing the problems that need to be solved.”
The company is also piloting “Thinkerous for Enterprise” for corporations, non-profit organizations and government organizations, adding special capabilities like privacy controls, group management and analytics to help track the lifecycle and impact of a submission. Participants in the enterprise pilot include CMU, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, TEDxGrandviewAve and Startup Weekend Pittsburgh. Zhang suggests communities with an interest in joining the pilot program contact Thinkerous at firstname.lastname@example.org
Because Thinkerous is always tweaking its algorithms and evolving, it will soon phase out Thinkathons in favor of focusing on enterprise software, as it has much greater long term viability than one-off events surrounding specific issues.
“We found that with Thinkathons and the like, most projects end up not surviving past the conclusion of the event and thus don't benefit much from our longer-term analytics and ranking algorithms,” says Zhang.
Thinkerous also recently worked with the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children to identify and solve leading problems in today's classrooms.
“Our software gave the opportunity for teachers from across western Pennsylvania to see which problems were the most common, and the opportunity for the local community to work together directly with teachers to build the solutions,” says Zhang.