Microwork: Making money from mobiles

The growing trend for "microwork" means the phone in your pocket could earn you extra cash one tiny job at a time.

A problem shared is a problem halved, so the old phrase goes.

But today, in our hyperconnected world, a problem shared is more likely a problem distributed amongst hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.

That is the basic principle of a growing trend called microwork. If you have heard of e-commerce giant Amazon's Mechanical Turk, then you are already familiar with the basic idea. People sign up to do bite-sized computer-based tasks, perhaps helping to translate chunks of text into different languages for an electronics firm wanting to localise its instruction books, in return for small amounts of money.

But what has until now largely been confined to computers is about to get a shot in the arm. An increasing number of projects are targeting mobile. After all, with almost seven billion mobile subscribers in the world today, you can potentially tap a massive workforce at the touch of a button. It also pays off for the mobile subscribers, who can exchange their work for money or phone credit – something that can potentially change lives, particular in areas of the world with very low wages.

It was that combination of ideas that struck Aadhar Bhalinge, as he drove through the streets of Mumbai in India. "I regularly travel by rickshaw and I always chat with the drivers," says the IT manager. "I know quite a lot about their problems, their economic status, the traffic, and their daily rent."

Bhalinge started to wonder if there might be some way to use mobile technologies to make life a bit more productive for rickshaw drivers. What if those moments stuck in traffic jams could be put to good use? What if there were little tasks that could be performed on a mobile phone that might generate extra income for the driver?

It was that thinking that resulted in an idea he calls the Smart Rickshaw Network (SRN). Using the system, drivers, armed with GPS enabled smartphones, would be able to send in regular check-ins from their routes via the internet or SMS. The information could be traffic updates, or information about a city's landmarks or tourist hotspots. "Rickshaw drivers cover most roads and areas," says Bhalinge, "and they are continuously on the move day and night. They are aware of most locations, and know which ones are currently popular."

In other words, if he could build the system, he would have a pool of skilled, knowledgeable professionals crowd-sourcing important information about the city. Information, Bhalinge notes, "that can be of great use to clients." You can imagine someone willing to pay for a subscription service to real-time traffic updates, or tourists wanting information about the newest hotspot, he says.

"With just a few taps on a touch screen, or with a voice command - when they are waiting at traffic lights, or dropping off a passenger - a driver could earn an extra two to three dollars a day," Bhalinge says.

Inspired, he entered his idea into a competition called m2Work, an intitiative by the World Bank and mobile phone maker Nokia. The project aims to find “models that no one in the microwork industry, or even our own experts, had thought of yet," according to the World Bank’s Toni Eliasz. The judges liked what they heard. Bhalinge's "Smart Rickshaw Network" idea beat more than 940 other entries to win the grand prize of $20,000.


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