From millions of tasks to thousands of jobs: Bringing digital work to the developing world

February 1st, 2012 by

microtask_m2workEvery country in the world has probably benefited in some way from the unprecedented access to knowledge and services brought about by the digital revolution. But producing the knowledge banks and services has so far been a predominately rich-country business. The world’s poorest countries have generally not been able to participate in the production side of the digital economy and share in its rewards. This is changing, however, and an initiative lead by the World Bank’s infoDev program is helping to shape the change.

As the digital economy grows, it increasingly gives rise to work that is “born digital” – that is, new work that arises out of the possibilities and needs of the digital world. This phenomenon is distinct from how conventional jobs are increasingly digitized in the sense of making heavy use of information and communication technologies. Most born-digital work represents new work that doesn’t directly compete with old occupations.

For example, hundreds of thousands of people around the world earn income from tasks like moderating images posted by users to an online community, categorizing products on an e-commerce site, and transcribing digital video clips to make them more searchable. Because these tasks are completely digital, they can be physically carried out anywhere where a computer can be connected to the Internet.

A recent trend is that demand for such digital blue-collar work is satisfied through so-called “crowdsourcing” and “microsourcing” models. This means that instead of a company hiring a staffer or a contractor to carry out a job, the job is broken down into individual tasks and distributed to a large pool of workers over a digital network.

For example, many companies post their tasks on Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), a digital labor marketplace. At any given time AMT carries around 200,000 microtasks, each worth from a few cents to several dollars. Anyone wishing to earn this money can simply point their web browser to AMT and follow the instructions. Microwork is inclusive in that gender, disability and other personal characteristics do not play a role in selection on digital labor marketplaces.

The World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty in the world, and its infoDev program got interested in the potential of digital microwork to provide employment to poor people in developing countries. In 2010, I was commissioned by infoDev to co-author a report to assess this and related issues, titled Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy.

According to the report, microwork has several features that make it particularly accessible to people in developing countries. Most tasks require few skills or qualifications, as they rely on the fact that humans are inherently better than computers at tasks like image recognition and natural language processing. Microwork is relatively disintermediated, meaning that it is not necessary to find employment at a local business process outsourcing company to tap into the market – a web browser is enough. Low labor costs moreover give a competitive advantage to workers from developing countries.

Many microworkers are indeed located in the developing world. According to one survey, 34 percent of workers on AMT are from India. Two other microwork distributors, Samasource and MobileWorks, have workers in countries such as Kenya, Pakistan and the Philippines. Workers access the tasks from computers in Internet cafés and offices, and earn income in the form of cash, bank deposits and gift cards. In these low- to medium-developed countries, digital microwork seems to be having a real economic impact.

Least-developed countries would have the most to gain from tapping into this source of digital export income. However, their ability to do so is limited by their digital infrastructure: the availability of computers and Internet cafés from which to access digital labor markets.
But even the most underprivileged people in the world increasingly have access to mobile phones. There are over 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world, and over half a billion in India alone. In 2011, mobile phone penetration reached almost 80 percent in the developing world. In the near future, typical mobile phones in the developing world will start to resemble personal computers in terms of features and Internet connectivity.

m2Work is an online challenge conducted by infoDev and IdeasProject, with funding and support from UKaid and the Government of Finland. The aim of the challenge is to identify problems and needs that could be addressed by tapping into microworkers who use mobile phones – enabling the bottom of the economic pyramid to access the digital economy, and enabling the rest of the world to benefit from their intelligence.

Challenge participants are asked to come up with ideas for mobile phone applications that link problems that could be tackled by microwork with microworkers located in the developing world. The best ideas are awarded cash prizes of up to $20,000 and supported in various ways with a view towards their eventual realization as, for example, startup companies. The slogan of the challenge is, “From millions of tasks to thousands of jobs”.

What would you do with a mobile workforce of millions? Submit your idea for a chance to make it reality.