Crowd-workers get organized
by Hal Hodson:
"CROWDSOURCING might be big business now but it has never been fair. The pay is terrible, there is zero regulation and no recourse for workers if things go wrong. But crowdsourcing's Wild West days of exploitation could soon be over. Moves to make employers more accountable and give crowd workers more benefits are helping shift the balance in favour of the employees.
It is crowd-working's original platform, Amazon's Mechanical Turk (AMT), that is the first port of call for reform. Mechanical Turk's entire business model hinges on persuading large numbers of workers to do tiny tasks for pennies at a time. And it relies on turning its group of human workers into "a system that doesn't talk back", says Lilly Irani, a computer scientist at the University of California in Irvine.
Turkers, as they are known, have no idea whether an individual "requester" is likely to pay them promptly for their work, or even at all, as requesters can choose to reject work without any repercussions. This is vital because around 20 per cent of Turkers say that they always or sometimes need money earned during crowd work to make ends meet, according to a small survey carried out by Irani. "There are people for whom this is a crucial source of income," she says.
Irani and colleague Six Silberman have built a review network called Turkopticon to address this lack of accountability. It allows Turkers to leave feedback on requesters that anyone else using the network can see, rating them out of five on "communicativity, generosity, fairness and promptness". Rejecting work out of hand might earn a requester poor scores in fairness and communicativity, while giving high-performing Turkers a bonus for their work might boost the generosity score.
The system, to be presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in April in Paris, runs through a browser plug-in. It scours the Mechanical Turk website for the unique numbers that identify each requester, then searches the Turkopticon database for reviews. The requester's review score is then attached to every task they offer, letting Turkers make more informed decisions about the tasks they choose.
Anne Midwinter is a part-time microbiologist from New Zealand who has completed 28,000 tasks on AMT over the past five years. Now she checks the Turkopticon review for every requester before starting any job. "There's no sick leave, paid holidays, anything like that on mTurk. There is no arbitration, no appeal if you feel that you have been unfairly treated, apart from a stinging review on Turkopticon," she says.
Other crowd-working platforms have already taken some of these issues to heart. "We started as an effort to create a worker friendly crowdsourcing platform, specifically as an alternative to systems like Mechanical Turk," says MobileWorks co-founder Anand Kulkarni.
Unlike AMT, MobileWorks sets minimum wages for its workers tied to the cost of living in the country they are working in. Each worker is assigned to a manager who watches their work and pushes suitable tasks their way, and there are opportunities to ascend the corporate ladder.
Without legal redress for online workers these efforts count for little, says Trebor Scholz at New School University in New York City. "People fought for 100 years for the 8-hour work day and paid vacation, against child labour. All of that is wiped away in these digital environments," he says, and calls for crowd workers to form a transnational union.
The first rumblings of legal action can already be heard. Oregon resident Christopher Otey has filed a lawsuit against crowd platform CrowdFlower, saying it is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying employees a minimum federal wage. CrowdFlower disputes the claims.
Meanwhile, alongside other computer scientists, Niki Kittur at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will outline his vision for the future of crowd work at a conference in San Antonio, Texas, later this month. Kittur says crowd workers need promotions and bonuses - as well as the capacity to take their credentials with them from platform to platform, like a job reference. He is developing tools that will allow more complicated tasks to be crowdsourced because "people will be paid more if what they do is more valuable".
"Forget the perception of unskilled workers - what if you could access the top people in the field?" Kittur says. "If you could get 5 minutes of their time how could you leverage that? We're working on that now."" (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21729036.200-crowdsourcing-grows-up-as-online-workers-unite.html)