Foreign recruits are the newest cogs in the crowdsourcing machine.
MIT Technology Review, Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Stephanie Hamilton is part of something larger than herself. She’s part of a computer program.
The 38-year-old resident of Kingston, Jamaica, recently began performing small tasks assigned to her by an algorithm running on a computer in Berkeley, California. That software, developed by a startup called MobileWorks, represents the latest trend in crowdsourcing: organizing foreign workers on a mass scale to do routine jobs that computers aren’t yet good at, like checking spreadsheets or reading receipts.
By assigning such tasks to people in emerging economies, MobileWorks hopes to get good work for low prices. It uses software to closely control the process, increasing accuracy by having multiple workers perform every task. According to company cofounder Anand Kulkarni, the aim is to get the crowd of workers to “behave much more like an automatic resource than like individual and unreliable human beings.”
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Now several startups, including CrowdFlower and CrowdSource, have written software that works on top of Mechanical Turk, adding ways to test and rank workers, match them up to tasks, and organize work so it gets double- or triple-checked. “In the past [crowdsourcing] has been more experimental than a real enterprise solution,” says Stephanie Leffler, the founder of CrowdSource. “The reality is that it’s tough to do at any kind of scale.”
MobileWorks has its own workflow software, but it’s also trying to solve the incentive problem by recruiting workers overseas, in developing nations like India, where low payments can still add up to meaningful income. Kulkarni, who founded the company in 2010 with fellow graduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, says the value of tasks is set so that workers can reasonably earn $2 to $4 an hour; payments are on a sliding scale, with lower rates for poorer countries. “Even though they are acting as agents of a computer program, we are creating an opportunity for them,” he says. MobileWorks charges its clients rates starting at $5 per hour for workers’ time.
Hamilton began doing microtasks about a month ago in Kingston. That is when MobileWorks struck a deal with Jamaica’s government to promote this type of work, saying it could create 1,000 jobs in three months. Jamaica, which suffers from 14 percent unemployment, has the third-largest number of native English speakers in the Americas.
Phi Beta Iota: The downside is massive low-cost human intervention to severeely skew search engine results. Something very interesting is happening here, but the demand for digitizing analog or indexing deep web is not there yet.