Crowd-Sourcing the World

Computers can’t match humans (yet) when it comes to such tasks as describing the contents of a picture, assessing the quality of Web search results, or transcribing and translating languages. Using human expertise to solve problems that computers struggle with is a growing business: Google lets customers refine its search results, and Amazon uses a system called the Mechanical Turk to outsource simple tasks to humans around the world; people willingly work on these tasks, even for small amounts.

Now Nathan Eagle, a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, has begun a project in Ethiopia and Kenya similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk that distributes tasks via cell phones. The goal of his project, called txteagle, is to engage an underused work force in some of the poorest regions of the world.

Eagle says distributing questions to participants in developing countries via text messages or audio clips could make certain tasks more economical. Eagle’s studies have shown many tasks can be completed in fewer than two minutes, and he believes that an able user could earn about $3 an hour doing the work, which would be 60 percent cheaper than today’s transcription rates.

“We’re trying to . . . tap into a group of people to complete these tasks who haven’t been tapped before,” says Eagle. “And we’re using mobile phones, which have a high penetration rate. More people are mobile-phone subscribers in developing countries than in the developing world, so we can get a user base of billions of people.”