June 16, 2016

Mechanical Turk

The OG Mechanical Turk. Credit: Karl Gottlieb von Windisch / Wikimedia Public Domain

Here on Innovation Hub, we reference "studies" probably every week. But have you ever wondered where those studies come from?

Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a service that finds people to do jobs that machines can’t. These so-called Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) can range from identifying objects in pictures to cleaning up data sets.

And one of Mechanical Turk’s biggest uses? Enlisting people to participate in research surveys, or those “studies” we’re always mentioning.

As a PhD candidate at Harvard University, Vanessa Williamson used Amazon’s service countless times. But it wasn’t until last year that she asked herself: who are “Turkers”? and how are they being treated?

Apparently, not well.

“A substantial proportion of people who work on Mechanical Turk rely on that job to get by,” Williamson explains. “And they’re not making very much.”

Average pay is about $2.00/hour, because Turkers are paid per task, instead of a fixed hourly wage.

“On the one hand, a fair amount of people do Mechanical Turk as a hobby,” Williamson says. “But for people who have very few employment options, such as elderly people or disabled people who can’t get out of their apartment, there are actually very few options for them.”

So Williamson - interested in learning exactly how dependant people were on Mechanical Turk - decided to survey the surveyed. Her results were upsetting: one in five Turkers earns less than $20,000 a year, and more than one in ten say they use income from the surveys to make ends meet.

Williamson was appalled by her discovery. When she realized the kind of labor she relied on for her research, she went back and repaid her survey participants, retroactively increasing their wages. “[Researchers] have to take account of what we’re doing as a discipline,” she says.

But more and more academics are using Mechanical Turk. Ten years ago, only a couple hundred papers took advantage of the service. Now, searching “Mechanical Turk” on Google Scholar returns over 5,000 academic papers.

Turkers have started to organize online, but Williamson thinks that’s not enough: they need institutional help, too.

“The government has traditionally put in rules to protect workers,” Williamson says. “That’s why we have a weekend and why we don’t have child labor. But the economy changes and those rules have to be updated.”

Looks like the feds need to up their tech game. (Again.)

Kara Miller, WGBH, creativity, Mechanical Turk, Vanessa Williamson, pri

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