The land that time forgot: How crowdsourcing can help bring Cuba into the 21st Century

February 6th, 2012 by

microtask_crowdsourcing_cuba_2With its beautiful crumbling buildings and vintage motor cars, spicy culture and rich history, few countries excite the imagination like Cuba.

Over the Christmas break I visited this tiny island that occupies such a large place in world culture and history. Explaining the country of Castro is probably impossible, but triumphant Socialism or the white sandy beaches of Varadero are far from the reality. Day-by-day Cuba revealed itself exciting, surprising and often disappointing.

Paper to the people
One thing that struck me – aside form the complete lack of consumer choice – was the amount of bureaucracy involved in… pretty much everything, from getting a seat on a bus to accessing the internet.

As a socialist country Cuba is buried in paperwork (which may explain the shortage of toilet paper); what makes it crazy is that all that work is mostly done in vain.

As you might have heard, Cuba is one of those places where the use of the web is highly regulated. Only few selected people can obtain a connection (mostly those hosting tourists), and prices are so prohibitive that even without explicit restrictions, very few locals could afford one. We are talking prices in the order of 5 times the average monthly salary for an evening-only dial-up connection, so not exactly 100MB-per-second optic fiber.

What’s more interesting is that not even official or state-run activities seem to use any kind of intranet to coordinate their revolutionary efforts. Everything is scribbled on little pieces of paper that end up in a closet somewhere, forever forgotten. In the whole island I couldn’t find evidence of a single database where data could be cross-referenced. For a tourist, this means that you don’t know if the bus coming in 2 hours will have a free seat: you just wait and see. For Cubans, it probably means a life of unnecessary grind against an unfriendly and highly inefficient bureaucracy.


Hasta la crowd-victoria
Add these observations to the incredibly high unemployment rate among all age groups, I came to two conclusions. First: aside from the obvious goal of granting freedom of speech to all their citizens, Cuba needs reliable, fast and affordable internet connections at least as a way to provide its citizens with work. Second: crowdsourcing could play a big part in this process.

Cuba has a high level of education, so transcriptions from paper to digital formats could be a bit of a waste of potential in this specific case. But when the choice is between doing that and hanging around your front door from dusk till dawn, the decision seems easy. The concepts of crowd labor and microwork are wide enough to appeal to people of all ages and educational backgrounds.

Although Cuba is a fascinating country to visit, actually living there probably isn’t. Ordinary Cubans are crying out for the opportunities most of the world takes for granted. With some decent internet access, crowdsourcing could help kickstart this process (there is definitely no shortage of paper forms that need transcribing). It could be the start of a much needed second revolution.