Fix­ing the chaotic crowd­worker econ­omy

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Mary L. Gray

For two years, I have been part of a re­search team study­ing the lives of "crowd­work­ers" -- peo­ple who per­form online jobs that range from tweak­ing al­go­rithms, which im­prove the per­for­mance of search en­gines, to in­putting and or­ga­niz­ing doc­tor's visit notes. We in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of peo­ple in the U.S. and In­dia who are do­ing the dig­i­tal piece­work re­quired to make the In­ter­net seem mag­i­cally au­to­mated.

Crowd­work rep­re­sents a small but rapidly grow­ing mi­cro­cli­mate in the ecosys­tem known as plat­form economies. These busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties are bur­geon­ing through the ties that bind the In­ter­net, smart­phone apps and so­cial net­works. It's hard to be­lieve, but we have no ac­cu­rate head­count of this work­force, even though econ­o­mists es­ti­mate it could make up al­most 30 per­cent of the U.S. la­bor mar­ket by 2035. The boss here is not a mi­dlevel man­ager but an "ap­pli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming in­ter­face," or API, soft­ware de­ployed through a cloud-based web plat­form.

The plat­form -- owned and op­er­ated by com­pa­nies like Ama­zon, Up­work (for­merly oDesk) and Lead­Ge­nius -- op­er­ates in con­cert with an API to gen­er­ate and ver­ify work­ers' ac­counts, han­dle the flow of mil­lions of online job post­ings, and route pay­ments to peo­ple once they com­plete their tasks and sub­mit them for ap­proval from an in­vis­i­ble "em­ployer."

From our sur­veys of thou­sands of such work­ers, we know a lot of them string to­gether 30 to 50 hours of work a week, earn­ing a cou­ple of cents to a few dol­lars per task. They rely on work­ers' fo­rums to share in­for­ma­tion about how to sign up for plat­forms, what jobs to con­sider, which "task cre­ators" to avoid, and even how to do cer­tain jobs when the in­struc­tions leave out key de­tails.

The plat­forms them­selves pro­vide lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about those post­ing the jobs. The work­ers have to scour thou­sands of tasks posted to the site each day and quickly de­cide which ones are worth do­ing. A task cre­ator can, uni­lat­er­ally, re­ject the com­pleted work and refuse to pay some­one, with no sys­tem in place for peo­ple to ap­peal the rejection. Nor does the plat­form al­low work­ers to pro­mote their own abil­i­ties. There is sim­ply a tally of how many tasks some­one com­pletes suc­cess­fully, putting peo­ple at the mercy of the plat­form's al­go­rithms and the good­will of the task cre­ators us­ing the site.

Pro­mot­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion among these work­ers would not only help them be more ef­fi­cient at mak­ing a liv­ing, but also help busi­nesses and oth­ers look­ing to find the best peo­ple to do spe­cific tasks. The high at­tri­tion of la­bor in this sec­tor comes in part be­cause many don't find their way to the work­ers' fo­rums or oth­er­wise find a way to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers in the on­de­mand econ­omy.

More than any­thing, this new econ­omy needs an ob­jec­tive third­party reg­istry that al­lows crowd­work­ers to build their re­sumes and es­tab­lish rep­u­ta­tions, in­de­pen­dent of the plat­form. They should be able to take their record of ac­com­plish­ments with them, no mat­ter where they pick up their next gig.

Un­like a typ­i­cal re­sume, a reg­istry would al­low work­ers to dis­play val­i­dated letters of rec­om­men­da­tion from pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ers. Po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers could register for ac­cess to this in­for­ma­tion or it could be made public, with re­stric­tions on pri­vate in­for­ma­tion. Such a reg­istry would serve as the on-de­mand econ­omy's Bet­ter Busi­ness Bureau, au­then­ti­cat­ing work­ers' iden­ti­ties and rep­u­ta­tions, while sav­ing the plat­form com­pa­nies and task cre­ators the en­gi­neer­ing costs cur­rently poured into block­ing bad ac­tors from bom­bard­ing the plat­form with shoddy or fraud­u­lent work.

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