Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

CrowdFlower: Can iPhone Apps Bring Jobs To Haiti?

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 20, 2010

CrowdFlower, based in San Francisco, has been in the news today because it raised $5m [CrowdFlower Raises $5 Million to Boost Crowdsourcing - Bits Blog - NYTimes.com]

I met CrowdFlower CEO Lukas Biewald in November and chatted with him about his company and about his iPhone app that lets people employ an African refugee, to do real work for them.

The refugees are given work assignments that can be done over the Internet. It's very mundane work of the kind that you might farm out to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and the refugee earns points -- a type of virtual currency that can be traded in for food and services.

Here's the rate card:

  • 5 points = 1 tomato, 1 large banana, a small bunch of greens
  • 10 points = 1 SMS (text message); 2 oranges
  • 50 points = 10 sweet potatoes, small bag of sugar
  • 100 points = 1/2 a fish, portion of locally made bread
  • 500 points = 1 large sack of charcoal for cooking
  • 1,000 points = 5 minutes of cell phone airtime

Right now, CrowdFlower works with Dadaab, in Kenya, which is the world's largest refugee camp.

Maybe this can work in Haiti too? After all, humanitarian aid only goes so far, and runs out at some point. Teach a person to fish, or in this case, sort through databases of addresses looking for matching solar panel customers, and they can put those skills to good use in many other work assignments. It's not the most exciting work but it is work.

CrowdFlower and iPhone users could make a difference in the world. We just need a few computers, and an Internet connection in refugee camps. Maybe the one-laptop-per-child organization can get involved. We might need some guidelines regarding child labor.

There is more info here.

I must admit to mixed feelings with CrowdFlower. On the one hand, I don't like the way it can allow people to use the Internet to exploit others already in desperate situations. A refugee camp is not a leisure center.

On the other hand, it is bringing work to people in a desperate situation and potentially save lives. A refugee camp is not a leisure center.


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