Can Crowdsourcing Make a Dent in Unemployment? Ask MobileWorks

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once we are set up it works fairly well. It can all be done electronically. Of course, the best long-term solution would be mobile money transfers, but the rollout of mobile money has been a little bit inconsistent in the wireless industry.

X: Is MobileWorks helping users earn meaningful amounts of money?

AK: We know it for a fact—they write to us and tell us. We started from the premise that we would do two things: one, we would target populations that were historically underemployed, and two, we would make sure to pay them fair living wages, not purely as a charitable operation but because we think this is a driver of consistency and quality. When you pay people a fair wage, they are much less likely to spam you.

X: Are workers using this income to supplement their income from other jobs, or is it becoming the main source of income for some people?

AK: For some of our population, it is their primary form of work. It was never intended to be. It was designed to be supplemental, the kind of thing somebody could do on the way to their full-time job on the bus, or in transit. What happened was, we found that the kinds of people who were using MobileWorks to get work were the kinds of people who could not get any work outside the home. A typical example is a housewife in Pakistan. A substantial population in our system are folks who, because of various social factors, can’t go outside the home to get work. Unmarried women, or married women with children.

Initially we thought we would try and force folks to work only two to three hours a day. When we saw that people were working 8-, 9-, or 10-hour stretches, our first reaction was to try and figure out what was going on and try and limit them. But the workers made very compelling cases. They told us, ‘I’m not married, I am taking care of my elderly parents, I can’t work outside the home, it makes a difference in my life.’ We couldn’t argue with that. If people are using the system to support their families, that supports our mission as well.

X: Are there any big differences between India or Pakistan and the United States that might make it difficult to deploy MobileWorks here?

AK: It’s not the motivation to work—we have found that the same model we are promoting in other countries is extremely appealing here, because it’s the kind of work where there are no barriers to entry. Anyone can pick up a phone or a computer and start going to work. The main limitations for us here have been making sure we are compliant with U.S. labor regulations.

Not to call out our competition too much, but sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk get away with paying folks a wage which is below what you would make in any legal job. And it’s because they are not paying folks as employees, but piecemeal. Our objective has always been to make sure that we are paying people a fair living wage. So deploying in the U.S. means that we have to consistent with U.S. regulations, and U.S. labor law doesn’t know what to make of crowd work just yet. There haven’t been any defining cases on the matter. In the meantime, we are looking for ways to plunge ahead. For us, we are extremely passionate about deploying here in our own back yard, both in San Francisco where we did our first tests, and in harder-hit parts of the U.S. like Detroit, for example.

X: What about the companies that supply the work that’s distributed on crowdsourcing platforms like yours—what’s in it for them? Is it just that it’s cheap?

AK: Crowdsourcing isn’t just an innovation on the labor side. It’s also a new source of efficiency on the supply side, the customer side. Large or small companies need to … 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. ;)