YC-Funded MobileWorks Aims To Be A Hands-Off Mechanical Turk

If you regularly have to deal with a lot of repetitive data entry or sorting, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The promise is appealing: you can hire workers to complete basic tasks for a relatively small amount of money. And, in theory, everyone wins. You get your tasks completed on the cheap, and your outsourced workforce gets to make some supplementary income from the comfort of their computers.

Unfortunately things are a little more complicated than that. Coordinating these jobs requires quite a bit of effort to ensure you’re getting quality results — you need to choose workers, figure out what price to set, and so on — and it isn’t necessarily easy for newcomers to get started. And then there the concern that Mechanical Turk workers aren’t getting paid enough.

Now a Y Combinator-funded startup called MobileWorks wants to provide an alternative to Mechanical Turk — one that’s as easy to use as possible, with no hands-on management required once a task is submitted. In fact, MobileWorks is promising a service that’s so hands-off that developers can use it as a sort of API — you make your data request, and a human ‘returns’ the result, with no intermediary steps. And they’re promising that its workers will be paid better than they are on Amazon.

Of course, Mechanical Turk and similar services require hands-on attention for a reason: you’re dealing with real people, many of whom are untrained, and aside from their modest pay they don’t have a particularly strong incentive to produce work of the highest quality.

MobileWorks knows this, but it thinks there’s a better solution than micromanagement. The company has set out to build a workforce comprised exclusively of workers who output consistently good results, to the point that users don’t have to worry about managing their tasks.

MobileWorks first got its start in January, when it set out to launch a service for crowd-sourcing tasks that would be completed exclusively by workers on mobile devices (in other words, people would be entering data from their cell phones). The company began approaching mobile retailers in India, asking them to identify and recruit customers who might serve as good candidates. The retailer’s incentive? Anyone wanting to be a MobileWorks worker would need a mobile data plan.

The MobileWorks team says that this worked well to seed its workforce with high quality workers, but that it’s since recognized that there are tasks that are better suited for completion on a computer, so it’s letting workers use computers as well. And it’s also letting its initial workforce organically recruit their friends and family (they say that these workers have an incentive to ensure that the people they recruit are also solid workers). The workforce is now up to around 150, mostly in India and Pakistan.

As for wages, MobileWorks says that the majority of its workers were earning less than $2/day before joining the service, and that after working 2-3 hours per day they’re earning $4/day.

The other key to ensuring quality, says MobileWorks, is that most of these manual tasks fall in one of twenty or so buckets. So the company is doing everything it can to optimize around these common tasks (which currently include data scraping and form entry), to make it easier to both submit a task and for workers to complete them. And the team says it has algorithms in place to ensure quality.

MobileWorks has set the bar very high for itself — if users notice that some of their work is coming back with shoddy results, they’re going to quickly learn to distrust this hands-off approach. And the service’s quality controls won’t really be tested until it starts reaching scale (it gets much harder to ensure high quality jobs when you’re employing thousands of workers rather than 150). But there’s certainly room for improvement in this space, and if they nail it, a large potential market.

We’ll keep an eye on MobileWorks’s progress going forward.