August 21, 2009

Harnessing the crowd for social good

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Crowdsourcing event

From left, Jon Bischke of eduFire, Leila Chirayath Janah of SamaSource, Jacob Colker of The Extraordinaries and Robert Chatwani, Head of Global Citizenship, eBay.

JD LasicaLast night was another one of those eye-popping events where large numbers of people turn out for an event to discuss how new technologies can be used to advance social change. In this case, about 120 people turned out for Crowdsourcing for social good, sponsored by SocialEarth, and Hub Bay Area and hosted by Chronicle Books and organized by Sundeep Ahuja.

The gathering triggered a dozen ideas for future blog posts on Socialbrite, and since I don’t have time today to research all of the sites and initiatives mentioned, I’ll pass along some of the best nuggets:

• I met Leila Janah of Samasource (“computer-based work for women, youth and refugees living in poverty)” at last fall’s Craigslist Nonprofit Bootcamp when her nonprofit was just getting launched. Here’s our earlier interview: Samasource enables socially responsible outsourcing. The goal, she said last night, is to offer “dignified computer-based work to the most marginalized communities in world.” At the moment, Samasource has brought in $210,000 in payments from project leaders to 517 people in six countries, many of whom had been making than $125 a year. (Become a fan of Samasource on Facebook. The event raised $380 for the nonprofit.)

Jon Bischke, founder of eduFire, talked about his start-up — an open education platform that is pioneering live video education. On the year-old site, more than 5,000 people have signed up to become instructors and 30,000 people take lessons in a wide array of subjects. Based in San Francisco, eduFire has three full-time employees and several part-timers. (Become a fan on Facebook.) See an earlier video interview of Jon produced by

• Fun factoid from Bischke: “It took 100 million hours to build Wikipedia, and that’s the same amount of time that Americans spend watching TV in a typical week.”

• I invited Jacob Colker, co-founder of The Extraordinaries, to join me in speaking at Net Tuesday on Sept. 8, and Jacob once again dazzled the audience with accounts of how crowdsourcing can be used for positive social change in your spare time. “The Extraordinaries are here to make it ridiculously easy for you to do social good,” he said. You can translate documents, or identify figures in a painting, or help with science and medical problems, among many other options. (Become a fan on Facebook.)

Mechanical Turk from Amazon took up a surprisingly large amount of the discussion. It’s a way for people to earn small amounts of money by doing mostly repetitive online chores (with a few exceptions that require creative thinking). According to the latest stats, 76 percent of those who work on Mechanical Turk are from the United States, followed by India (now that Amazon supports payments there), with workers from the Philippines joining at a rapid clip.

Typically, a person signed up for a Mechanical Turk project makes 2 to 6 cents per task. “That’s real income in some of the poorest areas of the world,” Leila said. “I’m shocked at how many cost-conscious start-up CEOs haven’t heard of it,” Jon added.

• Great idea from Leila: “Maybe Amazon should do a Facebook Connect implementation so you can see the real person behind the work [on Mechanical Turk] instead of a faceless entity — an invisible unit of labor.”

Turkopticon is helping to organize Mechanical Turkers.

“We’re at the beginning of a fascinating time in how we organize human labor,” Jacob said.

True. Much more to come on this subject.


Recommended reading from last night (at Amazon):

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

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JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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5 thoughts on “Harnessing the crowd for social good

  1. Pingback: The Extraordinaries: Building the ‘micro-volunteering’ movement | Socialbrite