A2J for Livelihood: Paid Crowdsourcing: Solution for Un(der)employment or Digital Sweatshop?


The outsourcing of in-house business operations has existed long before the advent of globalization in the 19th century, but the more recent offshore outsourcing stories are the ones we remember today: cultural imperialism in Indian call centers, garment sweatshop still prevalent all over the world and suicide after suicide at Foxconn in Shenzhen. But within today’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, knowledge, legal and particularly information technology-based business outsourcing have taken center stage. Not surprisingly, high and growing technology penetration rates in the Global South have not gone unnoticed among socially minded enterprises and the international development sector—which brings us to the ICT4D version of BPO: Impact Sourcing or “microwork.”


There are several very important differences between what one might call conventional outsourcing and Impact Sourcing (IS). Unlike commercial, non-socially driven BPO models, IS targets unemployed or underemployed technology-savvy youth, often women, with the goal to improve their livelihoods temporarily through short-term work. Moreover, IS (often, but not always!) strives to facilitate transferrable skill sets that allow micro-workers to access other, more demanding and lucrative employment in the long term. In other cases, workers may rise within the organization to perform more demanding tasks and thus occupy a more permanent position. According to technology theorist Richard Heeks and sociologist Shoba Arun, IS can be understood as a hybrid of “workfare outsourcing” which are government employment schemes, usually targeting the rural population of developing countries, and “commercial outsourcing,” the competitive contracting out of internal and external services to private sector firms. In fact, governments are increasingly interested in adopting microwork initiatives at a global scale in order to tackle relentless youth un(der)employment.

With a potential reference to microfinance that captured the international development field and revolutionized financial inclusion through ICT4D since the 1990s and 2000s, IS is also referred to as “microtask” or “microwork.” Using the crowdsourcing principle—first coined in 2006—of making a piece of work available to a crowd of workers, IS follows the example of famous and (relatively/arguably?) successful crowdsourcing platforms such as Wikipedia. The overwhelming advantage of crowdsourcing is that it usually results in a faster and cheaper product with fewer mistakes, when validation systems are in place.

One of the first platforms to implement paid crowd-sourced work was Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), offering low-skilled computerized tasks in exchange for pay between $0.01 and $10. The concept has since been adopted by NGOs and social businesses working in international development, one of the better-known examples being Samasource that provides digital work to the world’s poor (emphasizing women’s employment) with financial support from individuals and the philanthropic arms of MasterCard, Rockefeller, Ford, Cisco, eBay, Google, among others. It does so through partnerships with local NGOs who train the workers and provide the necessary resources. Jobs range from audio and video transcription to digitizing books for Google, transcribing receipts for Intuit, analyzing conflicting user data submitted to LinkedIn and tagging photographs for Getty Images. Yes, humans still outperform computers in a myriad of (even elementary) tasks!



Considering its many advantages and goals, microwork appears to be a triple-win situation. It aims to achieve: 1. developmental benefits for low-income populations, 2. economic benefits and savings for employers and 3. political benefits from satisfying governance, private sector and developmental agendas. But there are several deterrents. First, the appropriate interface. The most significant technological innovation for the urban poor was and remains the mobile phone, while personal computers are still rare. Microwork can be done on a mobile phone—MobileWorks’ early model, mClerk and txtEagle are just some examples—but research has found that computers increase productivity immensely. Following the example of the first major PBO operation, call centers, cyber cafes represent one possible solution as the implementation of workstations. Indeed, research conducted in Kenya and India indicates that both, cybercaf√© owners and customers, are eager to implement such workstations.

Microwork is in its early stages but developing incredibly quickly: market demand quintupled in 2010 and almost quadrupled in 2011. In addition, foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation have launched massive initiatives that seek to catalyze sustainable ICT-enabled employment opportunities for poor youth. In the face of all this (too good to be true?) optimism, it is nevertheless important to point out that it still remains to be seen whether it is indeed possible to make profit by doing good.

Christina Gossmann is a Master of City Planning student at UCBerkeley. Before returning to graduate school, she worked as a freelance journalist and researcher in cities of the Global South. Email her at christinagossmann@gmail.com and follow her at @chrisgossmann.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Christina, great article!

    I should probably read beyond the abstract of the papers and articles you quote, but I'm inclined to think that the outsourcing of such simple tasks (“finding a phone number on a business website, tagging an image, or transcribing a business card”) can be, as you state, a "digital sweatshop".

    The key issue for me is that in the medium term, complying with such tasks do not leave much for the "sourcers". From a different perspective, this scheme can be beneficial to employers, since they can save the social contributions for such tasks.

    Looking forward, I reckon that if these issues can be tackled -ie by covering welfare costs and ensuring worker skills developement-, it could be an interesting approach to solve geographically induced employment disparities.

    I'll be back when I've properly read the references.

    Once again, great article!

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  2. Hey Gustavo,
    Thanks for the great comment! Outsourcing is the future of labor relations--no doubt about that--but can it solve youth un(der)employment? Unclear. You are absolutely right, the dilemma is apparent and to be honest, we probably won't know for sure until in a few years when we have had the chance to gather more experience, trials and (most likely) failures.

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  3. Thanks for the blog post, Christina. I love the concept of microwork and the fact that it is helping so many workers earn an income through accessible technology. I think it tries to solve the problem of underemployment, even if it is through mundane tasks sometimes. But, some of these people may not be skilled for other types of jobs and I will even add that what may sound like a digital sweatshop to us might seem like a great opportunity for them. Also, do you know if the work assigned to these people is matched with their skills or is it a random assignment? I am more interested in learning about the quality of work and worker satisfaction in such an environment.

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    1. Priya, thanks for your comment!
      Depending on the task skill level, they are assigned to people with certain skills sets. That being said, it depends on the organization and there is no real "model" that they all follow. As you might remember from the MobileWorks presentation the other week, they actually moved away from microtasks towards more sophisticated tasks, which means that they pay very close attention to workers' skill sets.
      Regarding worker satisfaction, there are several reports conducted by organizations themselves that collect some general stats/demographics, etc. Here is one of such quarterly reports from Samasource: http://samasource.org/company/blog/2013-q3-impact-dashboard-our-latest-progress/
      I have not seen anything on worker satisfaction though.

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  4. Hi Christina,

    I have heard of this sort of work before but I never knew that some of it was intentionally targeted as development projects. Have there been any studies on the impact of these projects? That would help clear up whether there is true improvement in income and generation of sustainable livelihoods, or whether this sort of employment is a digital deadend.

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    1. Crysta, you bring up a good and important point.
      Do these work? Have people studied them?
      People have begun studying microwork, but not extensively (yet), which is one of the reasons I'm so interested in it. There are so many potential benefits, and it feels that it might be too good to be true (but maybe that's just the jaded, European pessimist in me?) :)
      I truly believe that nobody really knows yet. So yes, in my blog, I actually call for more attention to be paid to the impacts and following up all the time, so we don't have another microfinance euphoria to be crushed by suicides, debt or--in this case--"digital deadend" as you say, ten years from now!

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  5. Hi Christina, sorry for the late comment ;) Micro tasking is indeed a fascinating topic, and I think it has moral implications that have yet to be completely understood. What is interesting to me is how inextricable crowdsourcing will be from technological products and services, and how we will eventually formalize this informal economy as we become increasingly reliant on it. For example, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is a field that requires a lot of human intervention. We are many years away from transcribing hand written text, and until then companies like Captricity need human eyes to accurately perform their services. When microtasking no longer constitutes one-off tasks but regularly employed, offshore microtaskers, how will we ensure that this form of labor isn’t abused?

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    1. Timothy,

      Thanks for your comment! That is exactly right: How to avoid exploitation is a might good (possibly THE most important) question!
      In interviews I've conducted with company reps in this field, I have been told that the labor regulations their company enforces are actually stricter than those imposed by the host country, so they are not "harming" the worker in that sense. But it is true that microwork relies on the assumption that workers will indeed be able to rise, that this is a temporary stepping stone on the way to stable, more lucrative and possibly intellectually challenging and fulfilling employment. Interestingly, what is often even more important than those tech skill sets is the soft skills workers acquire: writing (semi-)formal emails, getting to work on time, conveying problems, etc.

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  6. Really interesting Christina, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some of the most cutting-edge research that I have come across explaining crowds, open innovation, and citizen science.​

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1919614

    And you may also enjoy this blog about the same too:
    https://thecrowdsociety.jux.com/

    Powerful stuff, no?

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    1. Dear Mr.? Mrs.? Ms.? Sir? Lord? Dutchess? Anonymous,

      Why, oh why, may I not know who you are? Especially if you give such fabulous feedback? Are you the same "Anonymous" who wrote the delightful blog post about dubious blogs? I rather liked that piece too!
      Those resources are indeed interesting to me and I will certainly check them out--much appreciated. Now whether the power of crowds in labor relations is positively powerful remains to be seen, as I indicated in my piece. Don't you think?

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  8. Great post Christina!

    Recommend you to check this reading from my other class INFO 203 (Social and Organizational Issues of Information)


    http://www.thenation.com/article/178241/how-crowdworkers-became-ghosts-digital-machine?page=full#

    It talks about the social and legal implications of crowdsourcing.

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    1. Thanks, Ruchita!

      This is a great article and has much more information on mTurk than I ever knew--wow! But yes, it is mTurk, the crowdworking platform without an explicit social mission, so it's only marginally comparable or applicable to microwork as such. Presumably at least.

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