Forget Teaching a Man to Fish, Here’s How Texting Can Save the World

If you are out of work, dead set on self-employment or just bored, you may have tried your hand at making money online.  As charming as the myriad of internet scams can be, there are some legitimate services like Elance that allow you to earn money by doing freelance work remotely.  Other online innovation has come in the form of services like ShortTask and Mechanical Turk that focus on outsourcing small (and often no-brainer) tasks to qualified internet users that are looking for work.  For better (work opps in an economic downturn anyone?) or for worse (complaints of unfair compensation and mind-numbing tasks), these services have taken off and tasks are uploaded and tackled daily.  All this is fair and well but up until recently, little of it was helpful to the developing world.  Enter txteagle, a company that boasts a “virtual workforce” that can “harness the capacity of 2 billion people in over 80 countries to accomplish work with unprecedented speed, scale and quality.”  The best part of this?  The work is done by people in developing countries and all that is needed is literacy and a cell phone.  It is really that easy.

MIT faculty member Dr. Nathan Eagle and Dr. Ben Olding from Harvard’s Statistics Department founded txteagle and have created the following process:   On the client side, large projects such as major translation projects are broken into bite-size mini-tasks that can then be solved by an army of cell phone or computer users via crowdsourcing (openly inviting a large amount of people in finding the solution to a task).  Take phone company Nokia and their work in Kenya for example:   Springwise explains:  “Tasks are sent to multiple phone users by text message—”translate the phrase, ‘address book’ into Giriama,” for example—and answers are accepted as accurate when the majority of users provide the same response. Compensation is determined by the number of times an individual’s response agrees with the consensus; penalties are imposed for wrong answers, while “don’t know” responses make no contribution.”  The smart technology behind txteagle is able to, over time and repeated use, match users with tasks appropriate to them.

The range of work txteagle can facilitate makes it valuable to companies that use its services  – from the txteagle website:  “Major applications of the txteagle platform include business process outsourcing (e.g., forms processing, translation, audio transcription, fact checking) and local knowledge gathering (e.g., business information, investment/market research, points of interest).”

The difference an opportunity like txteagle offers to many in the developing world is substantial.  If you are literate and reasonably diligent, it is possible to make a decent supplementary income (or phone credit) for doing these tasks.  The genius of this lies in the technological realities of many developing countries.  Of the 4.6 mobile phone users in the world, 3/4 of them live in the developing world and, although 18% of the population of the developing world has access to the internet, 50% have mobile phones. This means that tapping into mobile phone technology for outsourcing work to developing countries can open vast opportunities for both outsourcing companies and those they “employ”.

Unlike traditional aid or poverty reduction, what txteagle offers is not a handout as “employers” are simply compensating freelancing locals for legitimate work tasks completed.  It therefore is not only practical and genuinely useful but actually makes economic sense on both side. And big money is listening.  txteagle has already attracted investors that include Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Ventures, Esther Dyson, Flywheel Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures.

Obviously one technology or company is not going to be the silver bullet that miraculously brings widespread change, improvement and poverty alleviation to the developing world.  But this is certainly an example of how business and technology can be intelligently used to bring tangible improvements to countries and areas that have traditionally suffered from lack of infrastructure and employment.  It proves that savvy, international efforts can bring about positive change and that entrepreneurs can live generously.

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Bjorn Karlman

10 thoughts on “Forget Teaching a Man to Fish, Here’s How Texting Can Save the World”

  1. The other side of the story that goes unmentioned is the artificial and political maintenance of world economic disparity for the purpose of making services like that seem attractive.

    All would be great and philanthropic if I hire an army of homeless guys to do my household chores. Yet, if I’ve had something to do with their homelessness… that would certainly seem questionable. On the macro scale, this is how the world runs.

    There are very easy and simple solutions to world poverty and hunger. The amount of subsidies given to Iowan farmers is roughly equals to a price of 1 stealth bomber (1.3 billion). Hydroponic technology, coupled with solar technology can solve the problem of African hunger.

    Well, a Republican (I’m not a democrat either, but that’s the typical response) would say… but wait a minute, Andrey. These people may have nothing, and now they would benefit at least something. I find such ideology repugnant on many levels:

    1) It allows exploitation of desperate economic conditions
    2) It creates an illusion of help, while people are really become dependent on obscene (not in a good way) wage disparity.
    3) In the end, it creates more wealth polarization in hands of those on the side of money… because now, the person on the side of outsourcing is the one making money, and the only reasonable way for other companies to compete is in fact through outsourcing.

    So, it hardly helps anyone. You might think it’s insane, but I think a better solution would be to close all of the borders to the developing world, except for basic necessity trade (food and medicine). The country should have some leverage before it inters the global market. Such was the case for China, South Korea, and Japan. They’ve waited quite some time before opening up their markets… and they are benefiting immensely from it right now, because they actually have local production economy that does not solely depend on foreign companies establishing production shops for cheap labor.

  2. I didn’t know that people still held the old superstitions of free trade. If closing borders to trade was good for countries, why are countries so afraid of economic sanctions? North Korea should be the crown jewel of the world. By the way, it isn’t just Republicans promoting Free Trade. Bill Clinton got NAFTA passed with a Democratic House and Senate. And of course, Obama was just in South Korea getting turned down by the South Korean’s for a free trade agreement.

  3. Countries like Japan, South Korea, and China are developed today mainly due to their policy to close the borders and develop internal industry before they can compete successfully in the global trade.

    The nature of the global trade is such that it benefits the rich countries with established currency valuations. When a country is opening its borders and the only thing it has to offer is cheap labor and natural resources handouts, then how exactly does it benefit this country to use that cheap labor to sell those resources for pennies on the dollar because of bribery or debt pressure put on such country?

    No need to trivialize my point by making it a “superstition”.

  4. Most people who are superstitious against free trade would argue that China is the best example of a third would country that is exploited for its cheap labor. You seem to think China is not in that group. I can’t imagine why. I guess free trade has made them too wealthy too quickly for many to consider them exploited. What countries are the best examples in your mind of third world countries exploited for their cheap labor?

  5. David,

    I’m not superstitious agains the free trade. I’m for it… in due time. We have child labor laws and education requirements in the social world. We don’t allow children to work, and we have certain education requirements. The reason being that we believe that a person has to undergo a certain preparation before being able to compete fairly. That was not so in past century… with children working in factories for fraction of cost of adults.

    If country does not prepare adequately for competition in global market place… it will end up in perpetual poverty, constantly dependent on foreign companies running the show. There’s a pretty book on the subject…

    http://www.amazon.com/Bad-Samaritans-Secret-History-Capitalism/dp/1596913991

    Check it out.

  6. Perhaps I should mention that United States did not become the economy it is today because of free trade. It’s far from it. It has anti-dumping policies. It heavily subsidizes certain industries locally to compete against foreign imports (i.e. agriculture). It has import quotas and tariffs on import, it has anti-dumping legislation. It manipulates exchange rate of the dollar for its benefit. It enforces international patent and copyright system. And, it has much stricter quality control and environmental laws that the countries it pressures to drop these.

    So, in light of the above, which is a classic points of economic protectionism … how can you call it a “superstition”? Protectionism is at the center of US economic prosperity.

  7. I am enjoying the discussion back and forth. I was not so much trying to make a political case as I was applauding the use of crowdsourcing to create employment in the developing world and provide a valuable service to multinationals and other companies. I realize, Andrey that, if the same forces that make this possible, reinforce the underlying disparities, that we won’t make a whole lot of progress. The guys behind txteagle seem to have fairly solid intentions. A good video from a key presentation by Nathan Eagle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBsLAecq6Jw

  8. Any economic protectionism is superstitious in my mind. I agree that the US still has a lot of superstition pervading its economic system. I would say almost all of our government programs and spending are based off of superstitions.

    As for US history, it is definitely true that we started out as protectionist. The only thing is, the world is totally different today than it was 200 years ago. The world is much more entangled economically today. Workers in China must compete with workers in America, the UK, and South Africa. Poor countries are in competition with one another for jobs by multi-national corporations. Either they can allow foreign companies to exploit their work force, or not. If they allow foreign investment, they will have more jobs and more tax revenue. If they decide to be superstitious, then the companies invest somewhere else and they have nothing. However, politicians can still pretend like they are protecting whatever it is they are pretending to protect.

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