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IEET > Rights > Life > Vision > Affiliate Scholar > Melanie Swan

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Crowdsourced Labor, Digital Marketplaces, and the Future of Self-Actualized eWork


Melanie Swan
Melanie Swan
Ethical Technology

Posted: Nov 14, 2012

The third annual CrowdConf on changing the future of work through Internet-based crowdsourcing labor models was held in San Francisco on October 23, 2012. The field is much larger compared to prior years (2011 and 2010), both practically and intellectually, as a range of industry vendors and other ecosystem members (e.g.; research organizations, foundations, financial community) attended the conference.

Participation in crowd-based models has been increasing this year. Crowdfunding (raising money to back projects through an open call on the Internet) platforms like Kickstarter and indiegogo have been used to raise millions of dollars for projects (although both of these sites have announced that they will not be launching a new development, equity crowdfunding). Crowdsourced labor marketplaces too have been growing significantly.

What is Crowdsourced Labor? 
Crowdsourced labor is sourcing human workers via the Internet for any variety of tasks or work product, with or without remuneration, usually including an online system for bidding, quality tracking, and reputation feedback. There are digital labor marketplaces for general tasks, both short activities (e.g.; to recognize images, validate information, create electronic forms, read handwriting, classify data, tag images, transcribe audio, translate languages, and verify business listings) and professional services engagements at sites like CrowdFlower, CrowdSource, oDesk, ClickWorker, Mechanical Turk (from Amazon)) mobileworks (including real-time task-routing to the best candidate online right now), and vocational specialties such as software programming (TopCoder, Elance, vWorker (was Rent a Coder) and Guru), graphic design (99designs, crowdSPRING), writing, editing and proofreading (CloudCrowd, Soylent), document processing (microtask), and customer relationship management (LiveOps).

Figure 1. Real-Time Barometer of CrowdFlower's Digital Labor Market (source: CrowdFlower)


Crowdsourced labor also includes uncompensated work in the volunteer, gift, and reputation economies in examples like Twitter’s localization service, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge (a $1.4 m X Prize for solutions to accelerate oil spill cleanup), and crowdscience games and competitions for protein folding prediction, and genetic and other science data analysis at sites like foldit, EteRNA, Phylo, and Kaggle.

The digital marketplace concept extends more generally to that of resource allocation, allowing supply and demand to meet in real-time on the Internet in other models such as a labor markets for physical-world tasks (e.g.; TaskRabbit and Zaarly), and resource allocation (e.g.; AirBNB (apartment rental) and Uber (private driver ride service on-demand)).

Microtask Design 
Crowdsourced labor is starting to be seen as a general resource that any individual or business can tap on demand. To do so, it is helpful to know how to design a microtasking project, which can be done either independently or through third-party vendors like CrowdFlower and CrowdSource. At the conference, YP (Yellow Pages) shared best practices from a photo moderation project: they used Mechanical Turk’s Master’s Pool of photo reviewers (96% accuracy vs. 80% for unqualified task-completers), had a batch size of 40 photos (more produced worse quality), 8 buckets of keep-suppress gradations for evaluation, and a price of $0.04 per batch (1/6 the price quoted by a third-party vendor).

The Future of Work 
The conference considered more broadly the future directions of work, labor, and organizations. One analogy is that similar to the cash register being a decisive node that allowed business to explode from small family-owned, trust-based activity to large-scale enterprise, crowdsourced labor could be a similarly explosive node. Productive enterprise is no longer confined to physically-based organization-internal corporate structures. Management has been a technology, and crowdsourcing and algorithms are disrupting it. The new challenge becomes how to build and structure work for large-scale crowdsourcing, for many kinds of productive enterprise. There are new capital streams (e.g.; social, political, intellectual, and affective) available to be directed for productive construction on a global, flexible, fungible, and accountable basis. Workers and more generally humans can be put together in new ways, likely in increasingly automated ways to direct individuals to projects in areas of personal interest, for example rated on a self-actualization and contribution scale.


Melanie Swan, MBA, principal of the MS Futures Group, is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. Ms. Swan is a science generalist, hedge fund manager, and founder of citizen science organization DIYgenomics.
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