Microwork Pioneer Transforms Prospects for Poor, Vulnerable

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A pioneering technology social enterprise has found a way to connect people around the world to the new digital economy, transforming their lives and providing long-term employment opportunities. It is closing the digital divide in a very practical way, teaching new skills and, most importantly, providing income to the poor and vulnerable.

The San Francisco, USA-based non-profit social enterprise Samasource (samasource.org) uses what it calls microwork – a virtual assembly line of small tasks broken down from a larger project so they can be completed over the Internet – to outsource work to its network of workers around the world.

The tasks in this virtual piecework range from writing to transcribing to organizing online content.

The company organizes the projects using its own online work distribution system connecting workers around the world to the SamaHub in San Francisco. Most of the workers are women, youth and refugees. When they complete their task, it is sent back to the SamaHub in San Francisco where the staff check it and assure its quality. Once approved and completed, the project is returned to the client.

The company was founded in 2008 and draws on experts in “distributed work, economic development, and outsourcing.”

The microwork is divided into three areas: content services, data enrichment and transcription.

Content services can include writing descriptions for online business listings, organizing large databases on information or creating brief descriptions of existing content to make it easier for search engines to find it. “Data enrichment” tackles the vast quantity of information on the Internet that needs to be kept up to date and reliable. It also includes ‘tagging’, where text or images on the Internet need to have appropriate ‘tags’ or labels. And finally, transcription services include digitizing paper documents like receipts or books or transcribing audio and video files for the web.

All these tasks are labour intensive and require high attention to detail. And they are critical to any online business’s success if it wants a reputation for accuracy and consistency.

Samasource is optimistic about its future potential because of the sheer size of the market for business process outsourcing: estimated to be worth over US $100 billion. What Samasource does, called ‘impact sourcing’ – outsourcing to people in the developing world living in poor or remote communities – is a market worth US $5 billion, according to Samasource’s website.

It differs from conventional business process outsourcing in a number of respects, including the educational background of the workers. Most conventional outsourcing goes to college graduates in cities in India, China and the Philippines. Impact outsourcing is done by people with at most a high school education.

The digital economy needs these workers to handle the many millions of detailed tasks required to link together information. It is easy to take this for granted because it is hidden from view, but it is what enables the Internet to function and businesses to thrive. Samasource provides outsourcing services including content moderation and data entry to clients like LinkedIn, Intuit and the US State Department.

“We bring dignified, computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty,” said Samasource’s founder and chief executive officer, Leila Janah.

Janah has a background in development studies and formerly worked for the World Bank. This experience convinced her that much foreign aid was failing to target what poor people are really looking for: a job that pays well.

Samasource sees what it does as work, and not handouts.

It also believes it is changing perspectives, proving people from the poorest places on earth can become trustworthy, hard-working knowledge workers.

The Internet is a unique medium because it transcends borders and smooths contact between people with varying linguistic, cultural and educational capabilities.

“The Internet reduces the friction of collaboration across all of these centres and time zones, and with a highly distributed workforce,” said Janah.

Samasource claims to have paid out US $1 million in wages to more than 1,500 workers around the world. Ambitiously, it wants to expand this to reach some of the 144 million youth between 16 and 24 living on less than US $2 a day.

Youth are a particular focus for Samasource. Samasource targets young people who are literate and have received an education but still can’t get a job.

As for the many women employed by Samasource, they were either unemployed or earning poverty-level wages doing precarious work in low-level manufacturing and not building their skills.

Samasource currently has 16 partnerships in Haiti, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Criteria to work with Samasource includes being in a high-poverty region. Another criteria is for most of the money earned to stay within the region where the work is done and adhere to the standards laid down by Samasource.

Samasource’s success means it has attracted further funding. In December 2011, it was given a US $1.5 million grant from Google.org – the Google.com search engine’s charity. It has also raised US $5 million from non-profit investors, including the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the eBay Foundation. The challenge for the Samasource model will be to prove, with this new funding, that it can scale its operations to pay out more to its workers than it is taking in to meet its operating costs.

Microwork is turning out to be big work indeed!

Resources

1) Crowd-sourcing on Mobile Phones in the Developing World: Watch a You Tube talk by Nathan Eagle on how this

works. Website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ivz2foChQYU

2) Mechanical Turk: This is an income-generating tool run by online book sellers Amazon.com. It pays people for

spending time online transcribing audio and tagging photos. Website: http://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome

3) SMS Boot Camp: Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles run by MIT in Nairobi, Kenya. Website: http://www.media.mit.edu/ventures/EPROM/entrepreneurship.html#entrep

4) Jana (formerly TxtEagle): Inspired by the Sanskrit word for “people”, Jana has created the first large-scale platform to enable global organizations to engage directly with emerging market consumers in over 85 countries via their mobile phones. Jana’s proprietary technology can target and reward an unprecedented 2.1 billion consumers with free mobile airtime in exchange for completing surveys or purchasing products. Website: http://jana.com/about-us

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