Mechanical Turk

A few months ago, on a different blog I posted a method for reading books for free on Amazon. Hopefully they didn’t take offense to this but rather saw it for what I did which was a way to get people interested in a book enough to want to purchase it. But just in case Amazon has any hard feelings, I will make amends here by plugging one of their little-known but extremely powerful services called Mechanical Turk.

Mechanical Turk is matchmaker between people who have spare time do to tasks that humans are good at and people (or organizations) that need such tasks done. These HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) range from doing research to giving opinions for a survey to beta testing a website to giving advice on a travel destination to whatever you can dream up.

If you want a task done, you simply post a HIT description, determine how many different people you want to respond and how much you are willing to pay for each qualifying response (typically between 10 cents and a few dollars). Then you watch people from around the world respond. You accept or reject each response, and only accepted responses get paid the pre-specified amount.

If you are someone with time on your hands and looking to make some cash, you can browse through the posted HITs and choose to respond to whichever ones you like (either because you have easy access to the answer, the cash looks attractive, or you just find the task interesting).

What is compelling about the marketplace dynamic is that HIT posters get their projects done extremely cheaply, certainly for less than they would have to spend doing it themselves or paying for it locally. It’s hard to compete with the combined intelligence and resources of thousands or millions of people on the internet for both cost and quality (after all, there is a self-selection of expertise when people choose to respond to your HIT). From the responder’s standpoint, they get to leverage — and get paid for — their knowledge, expertise and time, whereas without the Mechanical Turk marketplace, they would not have nearly the opportunity to do so on a regular basis. It’s hard to believe that someone would spend any time at all responding to a 10 cent HIT, but when most of the world lives on a few dollars per day, 10 cents here and 10 cents there makes a lot of sense.

As a case study, I recently used Mechanical Turk to gather some data that I was interested in. I knew that there was likely a lot of data out there, but my initial attempts at crafting Google and Wikipedia searches didn’t yield much, probably because I needed to invest more time and be more creative with my search terms.

Before I tried Mechanical Turk though, I tried two other methods: I asked friends and colleagues who I thought might happen to know a bit about the topic, and I also posted a question on Yahoo! Answers. The former yielded nothing due to the fact that nobody had the information at their fingertips and it was not worth their time to do my research for me for free. Yahoo! Answers I was more hopeful for since I have had good success in the past with it, but what I found in this case is that since few people had the answers I was looking for at their fingertips, nobody responded. Seems as though you have to pay people to do actual research, even if it’s not very hard research.

Proving this point, Mechanical Turk yielded 20 acceptable data points over the course of a few days, for which I paid a whopping sum of $20. And I’m convinced that I could have gotten the same response for much less money had I used a strategy of starting low and upping the price I was wiling to pay per HIT as needed to fill my request. At a $1 price point per HIT, mine was on the high end; the average hit seemed to be about 25 cents. Not bad considering that I probably would have been willing to spend a couple hundred dollars to not do it myself. Plus it got done a lot faster than if I were on the case.

Mechanical Turk, like Yahoo! Answers, Wikipedia, Rent-a-Coder and open-source software development, is an example of crowdsourcing. The book, Wisdom of Crowds is a can’t miss if you like this sort of thing (as I do). So is the work of Louis von Ahn, who invented (among other things), CAPTCHA, that security mechanism with distorted text that you have to type to prove you are human.

The beauty of Mechanical Turk and all other crowdsourcing systems is that the more people who use it, either on the demand side or the supply side, the more useful it is it everyone. In other words, value is being created where it existed in only latent form before (more on this subject in a later post).

Check out Mechanical Turk next time you have a task that you don’t want to do yourself, or if you are bored and looking for a way to make a few bucks in your underwear.

  • crashahelmet

    wisdom of crowds- true. I’m a fan of it, wikipedia, askapedia etc etc. not to mention yahoo knowledge. but specific opinions like blogs got left out, they’re too diverse and just one’s opinuon is just not convincing enough.

  • Pat

    It seems good. I’ll check it out. There’s a huge market out there matching demand and supply online. All sorts of typing and writing work can be sourced out through the internet. So is website design work etc.

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