Can Crowdsourcing Make a Dent in Unemployment? Ask MobileWorks

Jobs are the single biggest political issue of the day in the U.S., and rightly so. As of August, the official unemployment rate in the United States stood at 9.1 percent. That was down one point from the October 2009 peak of 10.1 percent, but still higher than at any time since the 1930s, with the exception of the worst months of the 1982-83 recession. And today’s real unemployment rate, if you include discouraged workers who have stopped searching for jobs and people who have settled for part-time positions, is much higher, at around 16 percent. That translates into 25 million Americans who need work.

That’s a terrifying number, because no one knows how the country might create that many new jobs. Let’s say President Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill were enacted in its current form (an unlikely prospect, given the levels of partisan obstructionism in Congress). The most optimistic estimates from economists are that the new spending in the bill would add only 2 million jobs to the economy in 2012. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a tenth of what’s really needed.

On top of that, technology-driven productivity gains are allowing American corporations to rack up big profits despite their trimmed-down workforces. So even if consumer demand were to magically return to pre-recession levels, companies probably wouldn’t hire back all the people they’ve laid off since 2008.

Could there a technological cure for unemployment? Ever since the 2005 introduction of Amazon Mechanical Turk, a Web service that pays users small amounts for completing tasks such as transcribing short audio recordings or recognizing an object in a picture, tech pundits have been talking about the benefits of digital crowdsourcing. It’s been portrayed both as a way for companies to get work done cheaply and as a source of supplemental income for casual Internet users with a little time to kill. But with the joblessness picture looking so dire, observers are now starting to ask if crowdsourcing technology could play a more central role in economic recovery. Could Internet-mediated “microwork,” as this kind of employment is being called, give millions of people a way to earn meaningful amounts of income?

Mechanical Turk, by itself, certainly isn’t a panacea. As a service, it’s not terribly inviting or easy to use, and Amazon itself has never expressed much ambition to improve or expand it. And by definition, Mechanical Turk workers need a computer to complete tasks, which leaves out a big slice of the unemployed population.

Here in San Francisco, though, there are at least four organizations taking Amazon’s idea and tweaking it to make microwork more feasible for broader populations. One is Samasource, a non-profit that distributes computer-based tasks such as data verification and audio and text transcription to workers in Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and Uganda. Another is Servio, which creates crowdsourced editorial content for clients using a platform called CloudCrowd. Then there’s CrowdFlower, a kind of meta-platform that helps big, Fortune 500 companies with data management tasks by farming out the work to Mechanical Turk, Samasource, and other crowdsourcing engines. Finally, there’s a new player called MobileWorks; it’s a Y Combinator-backed startup that offers digital work to underemployed people in India and Pakistan, but with an emphasis on tasks that don’t require a computer and can be completed using only an Internet-connected mobile phone.

Yesterday I called up MobileWorks co-founder and CEO Anand Kulkarni to find out how people are using his platform, and whether the technology might offer hope for unemployed people here in the United States. As you might expect, he’s bullish on … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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