Can Crowdsourcing Make a Dent in Unemployment? Ask MobileWorks

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users there earned an average wage of $1.38 per hour—which probably explains why the typical Mechanical Turk worker to date has been a 20-something person who uses the site to earn a little extra cash in his or her spare time.

But Kulkarni argues that even if the tasks themselves aren’t high-paying, crowdsourcing and microwork bring other benefits, such as the ability to decide when, where, and how much to work. “When people are doing crowd work, they get to set the terms of their employment in ways they cannot do with other work, which in itself gives a kind of dignity and freedom,” he says. Here’s the interview:

Xconomy: One obvious prerequisite to using Amazon Mechanical Turk and some of the other crowdsourcing platforms is that you need a computer. How is MobileWorks addressing that limitation?

Anand Kulkarni: When we started out, we were looking at why groups couldn’t use existing platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to get themselves out of poverty. We found that, first, people couldn’t understand the tasks, and second, they didn’t have access to the computing resources necessary to do this kind of work, which means that only the groups with access could do it. For us, it was an issue of reconstructing the work into a format where workers who only had access to phones could do it.

The reason we are called MobileWorks is because the mobile phone can go places a computer can’t. About 30 percent of our workers are working on low-end Nokia feature phones, paying $1 a month for a data plan. So crowdsourcing doesn’t have to be deployed only to technologically equipped, technologically literate populations. Even in low-income parts of the world, having a low-end feature phone is common, and it gives you many more capabilities than you might think. Nokia Series 40 phones, which is our standard example, are capable of light Web browsing. You might not be streaming video on them, but you can surf the Web.

X: Can you describe a few types of tasks that might be distributed on MobileWorks?

AK: The kinds of work we typically have our mobile workers do is, for example, handwriting recognition—similar to OCR [optical character recognition]. A piece of handwriting gets put on our website, we chop it into small pieces, and the work gets sent out to workers on their mobile devices. There is no technical requirement on their end aside from having data connectivity. A second example of the kind of work you can do on a low-end phone is spam filtering—taking a piece of content and deciding if it’s spam or not. The amount of data involved is relatively lightweight, and it’s really easy for a worker to understand what they need to do.

X: Another limitation with Amazon Mechanical Turk was that until recently, you had to be in the United States to get paid, though now Amazon can also pay workers in Indian rupees. How are you handling the payment issue?

AK: Our strategy has been to partner with local banks. When workers join our system, if they don’t’ have a bank account already they get an account. We have accounts with banks in three countries, and we do a bank-to-bank transfer. This is pretty efficient for us. It slows down how fast we can deploy into new countries, but … 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. ;)