When it comes to location-based data systems, a system is only as good as the data input by humans. Maintaining this data can be both time consuming and costly. Anti-poverty programs at home and abroad are fraught with political and economic issues that all too often render them ineffective. Data quality and poverty are two vicious cycles. One non-profit organization has found a way to provide quality data services while simultaneously helping lift individuals out of poverty across the globe. Based in San Francisco, California, Samasource provides data services to businesses with broad, computer-based project needs that cannot be managed in-house. Samasource turns these projects into “microwork,” which consists of breaking down large digital projects into smaller units of work. This microwork is performed by educated workers in developing countries and provides these workers with real living wages. Samasource Founder and CEO Leila Janah had a vision for connecting a company’s data quality maintenance needs with untapped educated workers in impoverished countries (coming soon to distressed U.S. cities). This innovative service offering sits somewhere between a crowdsourcing model like Mechanical Turk and traditional BPO (business process outsourcing) firms. We spoke with Karolina Zajac to learn more about the Samasource mission. Samasource seems to have succeeded where many aid programs have failed at lifting people out of long-term poverty.
LBx: What was the problem that Samasource set out to solve?
Zajac: Unlike most businesses, we didn’t set out to solve a business problem. Samasource started with the mission of how to solve the problem of poverty. When our CEO Leila traveled to Africa as a student, she was struck by the level of poverty, and realized that there was an abundance of untapped workers available in developing countries. She saw people living in an area where the only option was physical work. Women were looked down upon for such work. These people were educated and could speak English, but had no opportunities outside of physical labor. After she studied abroad, she worked for a consulting firm that provided outsourcing services. She used her consulting firm experience to think differently about the poverty problem, and asked, “Why can’t the poverty problem be solved by funnel- ing the profits to the people?” So she came up with the idea of microwork. As it turns out, we fill a gap in cost-effective data quality services.
LBx: What is microwork?
Zajac: Microwork is the breaking up of digital tasks into small units of work that can be easily identified, completed, and managed. It includes such tasks as finding a phone number on a busi- ness website, tagging an image, or transcribing a business card. Samasource has brought English-speaking, educated, but poor workers from six developing countries (India, Pakistan, Haiti, Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya), who would otherwise not have higher-wage job opportuni- ties at home, into the digital economy.
LBx: What type of data services do you offer?
Zajac: We offer a wide range of data services from business listing verification and geotagging, to cleaning up or adding information to a product catalog, to transcription and complex image tagging for enterprise customers. Our criteria for taking on projects is 1) high volume work that can be broken down into smaller tasks; 2) work that can be taught in a short period of time; and 3) six months minimum length of time. Our professional services team designs every project to determine the best way to set it up and is responsible for quality on the project.
LBx: How do you differ from Mechanical Turk services?
Zajac: We do similar types of work, but we do a few key things differently that makes us distinct. First, we guarantee our work to 95% or higher accuracy. We can do that because we train and manage our workers closely within centers. After training at local centers, workers submit microwork via the SamaHub for feedback and quality control by a team based in San Francisco. See Figure 3 for the Samasource process.
Second, our unique microwork process enables us to...
Complete interview available in LBx Journal Spring 2012 Digital Issue.