Guest Post: How Online Work Can Save America

On a dusty summer day in July 2009, I taught a young, impoverished refugee in Dadaab, Kenya, to earn money online.

Paul Parach (pictured left, video below) had fled South Sudan at age seven and lived in the camp for fifteen years, suffering persistent shortages of everything from water to firewood while he struggled to learn English.

In a small computer center, donated by the Danish Refugee Council and hooked up to a satellite dish, I showed Paul and 15 other refugees to use Google to search for phone numbers and paste them into a web form for a Silicon Valley client.

Several months earlier, I had founded a non-profit called Samasource to connect people living in poverty to sources of work, via the Internet. In two years, we’ve employed over 900 people in Asia, Africa, and Haiti to do small tasks, or “microwork,” for companies including and Intuit. Unlike traditional outsourcing, this work sits in the cloud, requires little training, and is paid per task. Big companies use microwork to improve and enrich large sets of data, to train computer algorithms, and to handle many other routine business processes.

Each task Paul completed was worth a few cents; an untrained refugee with a secondary school education can complete forty or fifty in an hour. Not long after I left, Samasource sent Paul and his co-workers a few hundred dollars in payment for these small tasks. And as of today, about a year later, we’ve paid out roughly $800,000 to people living in poverty around the world.

I am proud of our work abroad. But I am also worried about the lack of work at home. For twenty months, US unemployment has remained above nine percent. People who have worked all their lives in factories across America’s rust belt can’t find a role for themselves in the new economy. Nor, for that matter, can many white-collar workers with advanced degrees.

President Obama recently told his staff: “I want you to come to me with ideas that *excite* me.” Microwork pays little – it’s the digital equivalent of basic manufacturing — and encouraging Americans to work for a few dollars an hour is not very exciting. But, taken as a wider category, Internet-enabled working has massive potential to both boost jobs and excite politicians. Two opportunities in particularly already provide work to hundreds of thousands of people. Scaling them up should feature prominently in the President’s agenda.

The first, online work, includes any type of knowledge-based task that a person can do online — from outbound calling, data entry, and bookkeeping to transcription and translation. By the end of 2010, over one million contractors were registered on various online work sites. Many of those workers are based in the US. The sector is doubling in size each year. American firms such as LiveOps have pioneered a new model for call-center work that allow tens of thousands of people around the country to work from home, and oDesk, an online marketplace for small projects, has paid out over $240M to hundreds of thousands of freelancers since 2003.

A second opportunity for American workers involves using the web to make offline work more efficient. Construction workers, house-cleaners, and other service-sector employees, who depend on word-of-mouth referrals and are often at risk of abuse and underpayment, benefit from the new reputation systems, background checks, and feedback tools available on web-based work channels. San Francisco-based WorkersNow, for example, highlights profiles of pre-screened “post-recession” construction workers on their homepage. A similar firm, ReadyForce, replaces the traditional temp agency with a web-driven evaluation system.

We cannot rely on the government alone to fix our employment problem. While the stimulus created five million jobs, it did so at great cost to taxpayers and without any guarantee that those roles would be needed a few years from now. If we invested similar resources in scaling up Internet-enabled work, there would be a tidal wave of new startups in this space. There would be a WorkersNow or ReadyForce for every industry. The Obama administration should fund and support technology that reduces the cost of discovering and hiring workers.

Critically, we also need to help workers understand how to make the most of the Internet. America has made major investments in rural broadband connectivity, but vocational training programs largely ignore the role of the Internet. Every jobless American should have a profile on a professional networking site like LinkedIn, or an account to complete work on a site like oDesk. Some of the largest web platforms for work were built in the United States, yet much of their growth is international because we don’t train our own people to use them. A little government support could change that.

Our economy is not the only thing at stake — work is at the core of the American dream; it’s how we define ourselves as a nation. President Obama might recall the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at a similar moment several decades ago, issued a grave and poignant warning: “Not only our future economic soundness, but the very soundness of our democratic institutions depends on the determination of our government to give employment to idle men.”

Leila Chirayath Janah (@leila_c) is the founder of Samasource, a social enterprise that connects people living in poverty to work via the Internet. Janah received the World Technology Award in 2010, and serves on the board of Tech Soup Global. She lives in San Francisco.