Can Crowdsourcing Make a Dent in Unemployment? Ask MobileWorks

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crowdsourcing’s potential for alleviating joblessness, whether in developing countries or developed ones. “It’s the only kind of work you can do anywhere in the world, without being limited by your education, your background, your gender, where you grew up, or who you are,” Kulkarni says. “It’s the kind of work you can do in a refugee camp, an urban slum, or a rural village, and it’s the kind of work that people can’t take away from you.”

The tasks MobileWorks sends out to its members are what Kulkarni calls “technical but unskilled”—tagging images, proofreading articles, reading handwriting that computers can’t decipher. The average MobileWorks member, he says, does about three hours of work each day and earns about $1.50 per hour. “Before joining MobileWorks they were earning an average of $2 to $3 per day, and after joining they are typically earning $4 to $5 per day,” Kulkarni says. “So it’s roughly doubling their income.”

As soon as the startup can clear a few regulatory hurdles and round up enough work assignments, Kulkarni says, MobileWorks plans to make its platform available in the United States. The types of jobs the site will offer to people here will be different from those it hands out in India and Pakistan, and the wages it offers will be higher—ideally at or above the minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour. “We’ve had people here write to us to ask if they could join MobileWorks at the Indian wage, which really says something about the state of employment in the U.S.,” Kulkarni says. “Of course, we are never going to do that. Our objective has always been to make sure that we are paying people a fair living wage wherever we are deployed. So we want to make sure than when we do roll out in the U.S., we can pay people something meaningful.”

The MobileWorks founding team. L to R: Anand Kulkarni, Prayag Narula, David Rolnitzky, Philipp Gutheim

MobileWorks’ founding team of four, which also includes Philipp Gutheim, Prayag Narula, and David Rolnitzky, all hail from the University of California at Berkeley, where they originally developed the project as part of a workshop in the School of Information called Information and Communications Technology for Social Enterprise (ICT4SE). Kulkarni says the company’s special sauce is in its quality assurance algorithms, which monitor workers’ performance and assign new tasks to the workers with the best track records. “You don’t have to worry about who is doing the work or how you’re paying them or making sure they’re doing it right,” says Kulkarni. “That is the service we are charging for.”

MobileWorks has raised $20,000 from Y Combinator, where it was one of 63 companies to take part in the Summer 2011 session, and another $150,000 from Start Fund, the YC-focused investment fund set up by Yuri Milner and Ron Conway. Kulkarni says the team also just finished raising a “big seed round” from both social investors and traditional technology investors—watch for details soon.

My interview with Kulkarni, outtakes of which appear below, left me optimistic that the techniques social entrepreneurs have been developing to overcome barriers to employment in the developing world might also end up benefiting the advanced economies, where it’s become clear lately just how fragile prosperity can be. Of course, whether large numbers of Americans will be willing to do minimum-wage microwork is an open question. One study of Amazon Mechanical Turk found that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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12 responses to “Can Crowdsourcing Make a Dent in Unemployment? Ask MobileWorks”

  1. Alex Buran says:

    Add to this list Translation Cloud

    The Mechanical Turk-like app that provides work to unemployed translators through the Facebook.

  2. and add Seattle-based CrowdControl Software

    Crowdsourcing has been slow to take hold because the quality of the output is low and it doesn’t scale.

    CrowdControl Software tackles this problem head-on – all about high quality output regardless of data size, and at a low price.

  3. Gerald W says:

    There’s another startup ( that distributes predictive datamining problems to “data scientists” across the world.

    Rather than focus on simple tasks, the goal is to source the best of the best (the results so far support this admirable objective).

  4. John Glendale says:

    Wonder if they’ve heard of before

  5. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Alex, John R, Gerald, John G: Thanks for reading, and for mentioning crowdsourcing options like Translation Cloud, CrowdControl, Kaggle, and Gigwalk. I’ve heard of all of these, of course (and in fact I have an article about Gigwalk in the works). But I didn’t want this article to turn into a catalog, so I mentioned only a few of the crowdsourcing platforms, with an emphasis on those close to home here in San Francisco. Everyone — please feel free to name your favorite crowdsourcing options here.

  6. Alex F says:

    How would crowdsourcing to India lower unemployment in Chicago?

  7. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Alex F: As the article states, MobileWorks plans to adapt its platform to offer work to people here in the United States.

  8. Dana D says:

    Assuming the audio files or tapes that need to be transcribed and the materials that need to be proofread are in English, why outsource these tasks to countries where English is not the first language?

  9. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Dana D: Actually, I would pit the English skills of the average, mildly educated Indian or Pakistani against those of the average American any day. ;)