Can Crowdsourcing Make a Dent in Unemployment? Ask MobileWorks

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contract work out to folks like you or I, and right now there is a massive transactional cost, in terms of paperwork. This cost is paid by everybody up and down the food chain. By lowering the transaction cost of creating work we tap into a large pool of work that is not being given to anybody today because it’s not efficient.

Part of the reason that Amazon has been so widely recognized is that you can get stuff done on Mechanical Turk for absurdly cheap prices. I don’t think that’s necessarily always going to be the case in crowdsourcing. But we offer prices that are extremely low, even while paying people fair wages.

X: I want to ask you a question about the quality of the work available to people on the crowdsourcing platforms. Much of it seems like stuff that, frankly, computers could probably do if the state of software improved just a little. Do you ever worry that the type of work you’re handing out is dull or demeaning for workers?

AK: It’s a great question. And I’ll tell you one more question that we think about: does this take them anywhere? Are there career development prospects if you do data entry work on a mobile phone for nine months?

There are two parts to the answer. First, in a way we might not appreciate quite so well in the U.S., in the developing world, digital work is meaningful. It’s considered good work. If the alternative for a person living in an urban slum in Mumbai is a factory job smelting plastic over a furnace and breathing toxic fumes all day, or sitting in an air-conditioned office processing images on a computer, they will believe the latter to be much better than the former. But it’s not just a question of comparing it to the alternatives. It’s that digital work is seen as an aspirational form of employment in these countries. Somebody who is working at a computer job or an office job is the new information worker in India. That job will have downstream prospects.

The second part to the answer is—remember that a good portion of our workers can’t leave their house for work. So for them having work of any form that can’t be taken away form them, that nobody can tell them they can’t do because they’re a woman or born in the wrong part of the world, is very valuable and very meaningful. A few workers have also told us it’s not just about the money, but they feel like they are learning something. The OCR workers say they get to practice their English, which we didn’t expect at all.

X: Still—do you think the typical unemployed worker in the U.S. would be willing to do this kind of work?

AK: The kinds of work we are going to offer in the U.S. are not going to be the same kinds of work we do abroad. The kinds of work we do here will be specialized for the nature of the U.S. market. So one person we have talked to was an audio transcriptionist for several years, and she lost her job. The company shut down and let her go. I don’t think any of us would say that audio transcription is a demeaning or demoralizing job. It’s certainly a respectable thing to do. We expect to involve her in MobileWorks once we have our US rollout, doing the same kind of work, but instead of going to an office she’ll be doing it from her own home.

X: Back to the big-picture question: Do you think crowdsourcing has an important role to play in reducing unemployment in the United States?

AK: I’m an optimist, and I’m a person who has dedicated his life to a crowdsourcing company devoted to tackling labor and employment issues, so of course my answer is going to be a little biased. But I am hugely optimistic about the potential. I think that crowdsourcing is enabling new kinds of work. It’s creating new efficiencies in the economy that are leading to new job opportunities that weren’t there before. So I’m optimistic that we can make an impact. I think that over the next three years, you are going to see more and more folks who say that they make a meaningful part of their income through a crowd work platform. People have viewed it as a technological mystery for a while, but at the end of the day, it’s just another form of labor.

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

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