Sunday, November 8, 2009

Intro to Amazon's Mechanical Turk

Mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing network set-up by Amazon. The service gives you access to a network of freelancers, who log-in to an online system and can pick and choose tasks to work on. The key distinction: unlike Elance and other outsource portals, Mechanical Turk is aimed at piecework, not entire projects.

There's an e-commerce set-up on both ends. Tasks are uploaded by "requesters" - companies and individuals that define the work to be performed. Requesters deposit funds and set pricing for the tasks, while workers who perform tasks get funds transferred to their accounts. These are conventional accounts, so they can be linked to bank accounts or used for purchases on Amazon.

Real world experience

That's the long-story-short version - what's it like to actually use Mechanical Turk? I've assembled some of my experiences below, as well as links to tools and info I've stumbled upon along the way.

What tasks can be performed by Mechanical Turk workers?

MTurk is ideal for any task that involves the manipulation of small amount of information: data entry, analysis of written or photographic materials, research, and transscription of audio recordings are common tasks.

So far, I've assigned work in two areas: writing content, and doing web research. As a web marketer, I'm always looking for ways to generate useful content for websites, and I've been impressed by the high quality of writing that I get from Turk workers.

Typically, I'll send out sets of 50-500 tasks. A set of several hundred tasks typically gets done in a day or two, although this will vary depending on the complexity of the task, the time of day they're posted, etc. Some requesters launch thousands of tasks at a time, which I've seen workers churn through with a week.

Why use Mechanical Turk?

As a solo consultant, MT gives me access to a very flexible, always-on labor pool. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and have access to college students in a wide range of disciplines - they're smart, in plentiful supply, and generally inexpensive. But MT is an easier resource, a more reliable resource, and (at least for now) a much cheaper resource.

What are the advantages, versus employing a traditional subcontractor?

From the requester (employer) standpoint, it has several advantages: not having to scout for talent, file paperwork, keep track of invoices or timesheets. Mechanical Turk automates HR, and allows you to structure freelance work in a way that isn't otherwise possible.

The key to using MT profitably is to recognize what types of projects can be diced into the taskwork that MT can digest easily. MT is best for tasks that are easy to define, and can be clearly expressed in a text message without any back-and-forth clarification. It takes a bit of upfront work to define the tasks, and prepare instructions that can't be misinterpreted - this is crucial to ensuring that the results are accurate, and returned to you in a usable format.

One aspect of the system that helps improve results is the ability to pre-screen workers using a test. If they pass the test, they receive a "qualification" which then allows them to perform tasks available only to them. I have a copywriting qualification set-up for my tasks, and other companies have created dozens more, focusing on areas like language translation or technical expertise.

Finally, it's incredibly scalable. If you have thousands of tasks, so much the better - the upfront cost of preparation work can be spread across those tasks. And workers tend to swarm on larger groups of tasks, realizing that they can settle-in for a few hours and make larger amounts of money.

What are the wages like?

Amazon sets a very low floor of 1 cent per task, so it's left to the free market to decide what rates are fair. At the moment, there are only a few companies participating on a regular basis, so there's a tendency to price tasks very, very cheaply: they know that someone, somewhere will eventually pick-up the assignment.

Wages have become a contentious matter among workers, especially now that the system has been operating for over a year. The overall sentiment expressed on MT forums and blogs is that pricing is too low, and the most active workers seem to be expressing the most dissatisfaction. I think effective wages have to go up to retain workers of the caliber that I've dealt with.

Some companies are trying to remedy this by assigning bonuses or awarding prizes to the best workers, but this creates its own inequities. It also creates a gold-rush mentality, as workers swarm-in to perform tasks that are linked to a bonus.

Eventually more companies will enter the system, and competition for workers' attention will drive prices to a more equitable level. But that depends on how well Amazon will succeed in attracting companies with large workflows to perform. If free market activity can't float a higher wage, and workers begin to drift off, then a more hands-on policy may be necessary.

What tools are available to access the system?

To access the system via any method, you first must sign-up for an Amazon account at

  • True power users will want to take advantage of the API - developer resources can be found at the Amazon Web Services site.
  • Intermediate users may want to check out HIT Builder, a web-based interface for piping tasks into the system. It's a bit kludgy at times, but allows you to do bulk uploading of assignments without touching code.

Posted via web from sdn's posterous

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