How Amazon’s Mechanical Turk will crowdsource the worst part of your job

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a tool that most people have never heard of and even fewer people truly understand. It’s a platform that the media has pegged as the Virtual Sweatshop of the Digital Age. We hopped on the bandwagon and referred to it as a modern form of unregulated factory work, in an article titled, “The Data Factories and Virtual Sweatshops that make the Internet run smoothly.”

To be honest, it’s one of the articles we’re least proud of because we wrote it without doing our own due diligence. We wrote it without digging around to find the good in it. Like how one man used the tool to create thousands of love poems to send to his wife. Now, we’d like to set the record straight.

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What is MTurk?

In layman’s terms, Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing platform that allows anyone to leverage the resources of a group to achieve a goal more efficiently than you would normally. More concretely, it’s used to gather large amounts of data in a very short period of time, by asking thousands of “Turkers” to achieve Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs).

It works like this:

  • Requesters (can be companies, government agencies, academic institutions, or individuals) create HITs that range anywhere from labeling images to answering survey questions to drawing a picture of a sheep. Literally any task within MTurk’s Acceptable Use Policy.
  • Requesters set an estimated time limit to complete that task and the wage for completing it. HITs can range from a few pennies for a 10-second survey up to tens of dollars for a 3-hour activity.
  • Requesters upload the HIT to MTurk and thousands of workers complete the HIT, until the desired amount of data is reached or the time on the HIT expires.
  • Requesters approve or deny each worker’s entry, export the data, and use it however they please.

Most commonly, MTurk is used to outsource tasks that machines are ill-equipped to perform. You’re going to find a lot of HITs that ask Turkers to label images, make sense of images, and transcribe audio recordings – all data that will be used to train an AI. This is why MTurk is referred to as “artificial artificial intelligence.”

However, this is just a sliver of what MTurk is capable of producing. I’ll remind you that MTurk, at its core, is a crowdsourcing platform that allows anyone to leverage the resources of a group to achieve a goal more efficiently than you would normally.

For this reason, I truly believe that Mechanical Turk is one of the next frontiers all small to medium-sized businesses need to explore. Additionally, it’s an extremely low-entry point for businesses to gain an edge on their competition.

What is MTurk for Business?

Look at any business and you’re going to find a multitude of simple tasks that are hemorrhaging both time and money. These tasks are occupying employee’s valuable time and need to be delegated to MTurk.

Take, for example, lead enrichment. It’s a repetitive task that all salesmen dedicate long stretches of time to every single day, where they fill in information about their leads to better inform their sales pipeline. Generally, the task consists of browsing the LinkedIn profile of the lead, copying some information about the lead, and pasting it in a spreadsheet. Ask any sales rep at your company and they’ll probably tell you that it consumes time, but is an integral part of closing the deal.

Data gathering for lead enrichment is one of the easiest tasks a company or sales representative can outsource to MTurk. And there are many businesses doing it already.

On the marketing side of the equation, MTurk is great for conducting market research through surveys. For a few hundred dollars you can receive thousands of valuable (open-ended or multiple choice) insights on your market in less than a few hours.

Ultimately, there are many ways to utilize this unique crowdsourcing platform. I even came across a vintage postcard business, CardCow, that uses MTurk to categorize thousands of postcards into different customer interests every day.

I guarantee there’s at least one task at your company that is taking time away from a valuable employee (maybe you?) that can and should be completed via MTurk.