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Microtasking: Two hundred years later, the debate goes on

November 4th, 2010 by

microtask_debateRecently there has been a definite rumbling in the media and blogosphere around crowdsourced work. I’m not just mentioning this because Microtask was in the New York Times last week – oh go on then, if you insist, here’s a link.

Along with the praise for innovative companies and non-profit projects, commentators have expressed a fair amount of skepticism. We all know the arguments: distributed work will be unregulated; it will force workers into mundane, repetitive tasks; the rise of distributed work will put decent folks out of a job.

It is inevitable that as crowdsourcing (or widesourcing, if you like) grows, such criticism will get louder. In our view, this is a good thing. Healthy debate is crucial for the long term development of the industry.

Here at Microtask, we do our best to stay above the fray. Nothing, neither hype, nor detractors, nor even new episodes of House M.D (season finales excepted) can stop us delivering balanced reports about the latest developments in distributed work. (Cue stirring company anthem.)

Stitches in time
Amid all the talk about the future, it’s worth remembering that the idea of distributed work isn’t really all that new. In fact, the model has a long, and not always noble history. A glance backwards can help put a little perspective on some of the current concerns.

As every high school student knows, around two hundred years ago Europe and America went industrial. A massive demand for cheap labor saw millions of people move to cities and into jobs in mills, mines and factories.

While the men were at the coalface, many women worked from home. Paid per item, homeworkers did a huge range of small, repetitive tasks, from sowing gloves to gluing cigarette tubes. Work was often minutely subdivided. A French survey from 1872 lists hat stitcher, hat dyer, hat ironer and hat trimmer all as individual occupations. The workforce could be mobilized quickly in response to demand, and employers could operate with the minimum of cost.

Clearly this was a system with some fairly major issues. Homeworkers were often exploited as cheap labor (although, this being the 1800s, children, ponies – pretty much anything that had a pulse was exploited as cheap labor). Trade unionists were uneasy about women undercutting men’s wages. Governments got edgy, as work was unregulated and impossible to tax (homeworking was even banned in the USA during the 1930s).

A little bit of history repeating?
Arguments sound a little familiar? No doubt, digital labor is also going to cause governments headaches. It’s not easy keeping up with workers who get paid each week by dozens of different employers, based across as many countries.

While the parallels may be striking, there are clear advantages the 21st century distributed worker has over her 19th century sisters. For example, in the past, workers were often tied to one merchant, while now they can choose from thousands of tasks and many different companies. Our friends at Samasource are also doing a great job of ensuring digital workers receive a wage they can live on.

Only time will tell the true impact of this new form of distributed labor on the modern world of work. We happen to think that systems allowing ideas and work to spread around the world more efficiently will benefit everyone.

As always, we would love to hear from you, the individuals in the crowd. Only with your involvement will our industry reach its full potential.

How many microtasks does it take to change the world?

November 1st, 2010 by

How many microtasks does it take to change the world?Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell managed to set the cat among the tweeters recently. Writing in the New Yorker he argues that ‘new tools of social media’ are powerless as a force for activism or social change.

The (strong) ties that bind
Real, high risk, sustained activism is only possible, says Gladwell, when the activists are connected by strong ties. He takes the U.S. Civil Rights movement as his main example. The activists who stuck around and took risks had personal connections – friends and family also dedicated to the cause. A sort of morally virtuous form of peer pressure.

In contrast Facebook and Twitter are vast, unstructured networks. They generate weak ties. Great if you want to keep an eye on your college friends’ favorite flavors of ice-cream, not so great if you need to overthrow a brutal regime.

It’s a compelling case. Even if, (as others have pointed out) Gladwell does take shots at some pretty easy targets – like the so called ‘twitter revolutions’ in Moldova and Iran.

Can I click it?
One of Gladwell’s major complaints is that social networks “are only effective at increasing participation by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” Okay, so clearly social change does require more than just answering an e-petition or clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook. But what if we could find innovative ways to channel people’s desire to participate? If new technology could make it easier to make a real difference, would that be such a bad thing?

Imagine it’s 1960 and you happen to be a French Creole speaker living in Sydney. One day, you read there’s been a massive earthquake in Haiti. Of course you want to help but, besides mailing a check, what can you do? In 1960, in order to participate, you’d have needed the motivation to quit your job, leave your family and fly out to Haiti.

Fast forward to 2010 and, thanks to the folks at Ushahidi, all you need to translate urgent messages from Haiti is an Internet connection and a mobile phone.

And then there’s the growing phenomenon of micro volunteering. Like the Sparked (formerly the Extraordinaries) network, micro volunteering organizations take projects from non-profit organizations and divide the work into (you’ve guessed it) microtasks, which are distributed to a crowd of skilled volunteers. Projects range from the global mapping of defibrillator locations, to helping improve the website of a domestic violence charity in California. In two years, Sparked has signed up 32,000 volunteers who together have completed over 325,000 tasks.

In fairness to Mr Gladwell (who I’m sure is a dedicated follower of our blog), I’m not discussing the vast social networks he criticizes. Maybe he’d tell me that crowdsourced volunteers are still too weakly tied to cause dramatic social change. Perhaps it might be a bit much to expect microtasking to bring about the revolution, but while we wait, it might just help to get some good stuff done.

Shining a light on local government

October 28th, 2010 by

Worker repairing streetlight, 1950 by Seattle Municipal Archives @ FlickrRecently, after long days at work, I find myself cursing the Government.

It’s not that I’m an anarchist, or because I am particularly upset about taxes or government policy. What annoys me is the streetlight outside my house.

Last month, after a brief, flickering illness, it died. Without its guiding light, fitting my key into the door to my apartment building has become an annoying game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

To be fair, the issue is probably not incompetence on the part of the Government, but rather ignorance of my particular problem. I suspect my local council is as in the dark about it metaphorically as I am literally. If I could only be bothered ringing them to make them aware of the broken lamp, I’m sure it would be eventually fixed.

Like all citizens in fully developed democracies, I am fortunate to have the freedom to make demands of the government – even if I don’t get around to actually making them. In this case, as soon as I manage to unlock the door my annoyance subsides rapidly, and finding the right person to contact and calling them seems like far too much hassle.

Everything is illuminated
Happily, such annoyances may soon be a thing of the past. New methods of sharing information and allocating tasks – such as crowdsourcing – mean that difficult or time consuming jobs can be broken into bite sized microtasks. Numerous organizations are now using such platforms, together with the internet, to facilitate user-friendly and effective interaction between citizens and their governments.

A good example is Fixmystreet, run by mySociety in the UK. Now in England, when a pothole makes you spill your coffee all over yourself, rather than writing a letter to your local MP, you simply log the problem on an online map. It is then automatically forwarded to the appropriate government employee.

Such websites not only allow the public to easily notify the government of issues, the publicity they generate also pressures bureaucrats to resolve the issues quickly. At the time of writing 1,878 problems logged on Fixmystreet had been fixed in the last month alone.

Another example is Project Fosbury. Also run by mySociety, it is a wider project intent on bringing people together to solve everyday problems like those dealt to by Fixmystreet.

Project Fosbury is a modular platform that breaks down complicated civic tasks into pieces which can then be allocated to one or more people. Each task is completed within a joined up infrastructure and is designed to be easy and satisfying for someone who’s never engaged politically before. Driving the success are incentive structures, peer pressure, and a sense of fun.

The possible applications for this sort of transparent interaction between citizens and their governments are widespread and are increasing all the time. I’m not suggesting that such developments will suddenly make governments perfect, but they will certainly improve it, by increasing transparency, efficiency and accountability. By encouraging interaction between government and citizens they are bringing government out of the dark ages. Such interaction, I hope, may be the key to solving many of life’s little annoyances.

The Travelling Salesman, one man and his crazy dream

October 25th, 2010 by

Microtask Travelling Salesman“The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein

Once upon a time, if you wanted to talk to a friend, you paid him a visit. With the invention of smoke signals, carrier pigeons and more recently Twitter, it is now possible to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world at anytime.

This is why Kristoffer Lawson’s plan to visit startups all over Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden is so cool. In a world where making “friends” is as easy as clicking your mouse button, we believe actually taking the time to meet with people and establish a real human connection is nothing short of genius.

It is also crazy (don’t tell Kristoffer’s mom.) He is planning to go way, way up north. Although I’m lending him my Land Rover Defender – which has a winch and a cute little snorkel – the truth is it may not help much. Last winter even in Helsinki it got so cold that the windscreen froze and I had to drive with my head out the window. Although it is a good way to wake up, it makes for a mean ice-cream headache. (On the upside, if he ever decides that the entrepreneurial lifestyle is not for him, he has a future with those other highly intelligent Finns, the Dudesons.)

Start me up: Silicon Valley of the north?
But the main reason why Microtask, Nokia and Microsoft are sponsoring this adventure is because of who Kristoffer is going to meet, and what he will learn. For, in this land of extremes – with midnight sun and freezing, constant darkness – an exciting phenomenon has emerged. All over the region, poking their heads out of the snow with surprising frequency, are tech startups.

Everyone, everywhere knows about Nokia and Ericsson, but in their shadows are ever increasing numbers of companies more closely associated with Silicon Valley than the Arctic Circle. One only needs to scroll through a few editions of Arctic Startup to get a feel for what is going on.

Perhaps, when Kristoffer has met these people and brought their stories to the world, we may find an explanation for this phenomenon. Is it because of great education systems? Support from governments or the influence of giants like Nokia? The fact you can’t leave your house for half the year and the other half you can’t sleep?

If anyone is going to find the answers, it is Kristoffer. Stay posted for answers to these questions (and what a 40-day ice-cream headache feels like) on his blog.

The Travelling Salesman left Helsinki on Monday 24 October. I plan on joining him for the ride from Gothenburg-Copenhagen in early November, to check out some of these startups and make sure he is wiping his feet before getting in the car.

TeleVisions of the future

October 21st, 2010 by

Television by Stewf @ FlickrIn an era where the traditional media industry has struggled, one medium has proven surprisingly resilient. Despite the huge array of entertainment now available, TV is more popular than ever. North Americans spend more time watching television than they spend consuming all other media put together. Nielsen recently found they watch, on average, over five hours a day — a high since it began records in the 1950s.

The reasons for the continued popularity of TV seem to relate to social issues as much as convenience and the quality of the viewing experience. People like to watch shows together and at the same time as their friends see them. Despite attempts from Apple and Microsoft, most people still watch TV the way they always have.

If it only had a brain
Things are changing though. While only a few years ago the amount of video available on the internet was limited, now there is a huge amount, with most major networks offering free content. Hulu, a website that offers shows from three of America’s four big broadcasters, streamed more than 1 billion videos in December 2009.

Even so, for most people the living room TV experience is still based around set programming and advertising. Despite their slim and sexy new appearance, beneath the surface TVs are as dumb as ever. Viewers waste time scrolling for shows that have inevitably just finished and are forced to sit through expensive advertising which they have no interest in. On average, after watching four hours of TV a viewer will see one hour of advertising, which will lead them to spend just $2 on the advertised products.

This may soon change. The Wizard of Google has announced few weeks ago its plan to finally give the television set a brain, seamlessly combining it with the internet. Instead of locking down its product like the wicked witches of Apple and Microsoft, Google TV will be an open-source operating system running on its Android. It has signed deals with TV manufacturers such as Sony and set-top box makers such as Logitech to build TVs that will run on Android.

Rather than scrolling across archaic spreadsheets of TV listings, users will type the name of the desired show into the Google task bar, which will search conventional television signals, saved recordings and the net, including both network re-runs and of course Google sites like YouTube. It will link social networking sites, photo albums and music collections.

Follow the interactive road
While a terrifying threat to networks’ traditional business models, it also presents great opportunity by allowing for the collection of information about viewers and greater interactivity between them and their TV sets. It is a future that the networks have already been moving toward.

BSkyB is already tailoring some advertisements on Sky Player, using its information about where people live. Such targeting will mean that inner-city couples will no longer have to sit through adverts about farm machinery, which they are never going to buy. No one is better at this type of targeting than Google, which also makes you wonder about Google’s “accidental” collection of wifi information in many countries.

It is also an opportunity for broadcasters to move increasingly into the gaming world. BBC Worldwide recently employed the former Electronic Arts executive Robert Nashak to direct its move into gaming and the UK’s Channel 4 has several divisions looking into the crossover opportunities. ESPN has done a deal with Microsoft to make thousands of hours of its content available to owners of the new motion sensing Xbox 360 console. Interactivity will not be limited to gaming, with Al Gore just announcing that his Current TV network will soon introduce Crowdsourced TV. It seems viewers will become producers, and communities will source, distribute and promote professionally curated content.

The future has never looked brighter
With all these changes the future is anyone’s guess. In case you are wondering, here are a few of mine:

With 20 minutes until the 2014 soccer World Cup final between Finland and the USA begins, I decide that I want to watch the 1000th episode of The Simpsons again. No time to sit through adverts, I elect to complete a few quick CAPTCHA-style microtasks for Fox’s crowdsourcing partner Microtask, instead. Afterwards, with the game about to start, rather than make a micropayment to access coverage I decide to recite the details of McDonald’s special World Cup meal deal. To upgrade to 3D coverage, I also say three fillings I would like to see in a Finnish version of a Big Mac. At half time I notice that a few of my friends are also watching the game, so instead of watching Nike’s revised “write the future” advert, I agree to a prompt asking me to like a new running shoe on Facebook. In return I am offered the chance to challenge my friends to an online virtual re-enactment of the last goal.

Before history shatters my technoutopia, I admit there are a few key hurdles to overcome. Importantly enough for the future of TV, is the history of failure. Apple TV, Boxee, Joost, Roku all sounded good in theory. All promised to deliver TV the way people want it, yet in practice no one wanted them (the new Apple TV seems more successful, though). Guessing the future is fun, but only time will tell what the television of the future will look like.

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