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 contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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