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.