Digital age platforms are providing researchers the ability to outsource portions of their work – not just to increasingly intelligent machines, but also to a relatively low-cost online labor force comprised of humans. These so-called “online outsourcing” services help employers connect with a global pool of free-agent workers who are willing to complete a variety of specialized or repetitive tasks.
Because it provides access to large numbers of workers at relatively low cost, online outsourcing holds a particular appeal for academics and nonprofit research organizations – many of whom have limited resources compared with corporate America. For instance, Pew Research Center has experimented with using these services to perform tasks such as classifying documents and collecting website URLs. And a Google search of scholarly academic literature shows that more than 800 studies – ranging from medical research to social science – were published using data from one such platform, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, in 2015 alone.1
The rise of these platforms has also generated considerable commentary about the so-called “gig economy” and the possible impact it will have on traditional notions about the nature of work, the structure of compensation and the “social contract” between firms and workers. Pew Research Center recently explored some of the policy and employment implications of these new platforms in a national survey of Americans.
Proponents say this technology-driven innovation can offer employers – whether companies or academics – the ability to control costs by relying on a global workforce that is available 24 hours a day to perform relatively inexpensive tasks. They also argue that these arrangements offer workers the flexibility to work when and where they want to. On the other hand, some critics worry this type of arrangement does not give employees the same type of protections offered in more traditional work environments – while others have raised concerns about the quality and consistency of data collected in this manner.
A recent report from the World Bank found that the online outsourcing industry generated roughly $2 billion in 2013 and involved 48 million registered workers (though only 10% of them were considered “active”). By 2020, the report predicted, the industry will generate between $15 billion and $25 billion.
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is one of the largest outsourcing platforms in the United States and has become particularly popular in the social science research community as a way to conduct inexpensive surveys and experiments. The platform has also become an emblem of the way that the internet enables new businesses and social structures to arise.
In light of its widespread use by the research community and overall prominence within the emerging world of online outsourcing, Pew Research Center conducted a detailed case study examining the Mechanical Turk platform in late 2015 and early 2016. The study utilizes three different research methodologies to examine various aspects of the Mechanical Turk ecosystem. These include human content analysis of the platform, a canvassing of Mechanical Turk workers and an analysis of third party data.
The first goal of this research was to understand who uses the Mechanical Turk platform for research or business purposes, why they use it and who completes the work assignments posted there. To evaluate these issues, Pew Research Center performed a content analysis of the tasks posted on the site during the week of Dec. 7-11, 2015.
A second goal was to examine the demographics and experiences of the workers who complete the tasks appearing on the site. This is relevant not just to fellow researchers that might be interested in using the platform, but as a snapshot of one set of “gig economy” workers. To address these questions, Pew Research Center administered a nonprobability online survey of Turkers from Feb. 9-25, 2016, by posting a task on Mechanical Turk that rewarded workers for answering questions about their demographics and work habits. The sample of 3,370 workers contains any number of interesting findings, but it has its limits. This canvassing emerges from an opt-in sample of those who were active on MTurk during this particular period, who saw our survey and who had the time and interest to respond. It does not represent all active Turkers in this period or, more broadly, all workers on MTurk.
Finally, this report uses data collected by the online tool mturk-tracker, which is run by Dr. Panagiotis G. Ipeirotis of the New York University Stern School of Business, to examine the amount of activity occurring on the site. The mturk-tracker data are publically available online, though the insights presented here have not been previously published elsewhere….(More)”