Thursday, July 30, 2009 'Crowdsourcing' offers quick buck Nicholas Diakopoulos / Sacramento Bee With the economy reeling and California's unemployment rate moving toward 12 percent, many people are looking at all options for earning an extra buck or two. Amazon Mechanical Turk -- an online site based on the evolving concept of "crowdsourcing" -- is emerging as a way Web site visitors can make a few dollars, without the hassle of launching a formal search for a job or freelance work. "I'm saving up for some Christmas presents for my wife," said Rob Allshouse of Sacramento, a casual user of the Web site run by Amazon Web Services, the online retailer's foray into computer technology. Crowdsourcing was coined in 2006 by Wired magazine to mean taking work that would traditionally be performed by an employee and outsourcing it to a large group of people on the Internet as an open invitation for work. Via Mechanical Turk, Amazon has established a marketplace where firms -- known online as requesters -- can post tasks that they want crowdsourced. Looking for HITs -- human intelligence tasks -- is a vast pool of about 200,000 people -- called turkers -- ready and willing to do small tasks for small amounts of money -- say 10 cents apiece. Amazon collects a percentage from each transaction. The name Mechanical Turk refers to a chess-playing machine in the 18th century that turned out to be a trick using a hidden human. A typical task posted by a requester at Mechanical Turk is something that's hard for computers to do, but easy for humans to complete in a few minutes. Often these are image-related tasks, according to Chris Van Pelt of San Francisco-based Dolores Labs, a requester who uses Mechanical Turk extensively. "The classic example would be inappropriate image detection," Van Pelt said. For example, current automatic scanning and computing technology can't accurately distinguish between a baby's flesh and pornographic skin tones. "You still need people to look at and OK the images that go up on Web sites," Van Pelt said. Other sites using crowdsourcing have put out calls for information and photos about events, or answers to vexing questions. So just how much can you make as a turker? Joel Ross, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine, studies Mechanical Turk and found that most people use the site casually -- not as a full-time job. Earnings, on average, are about $2 to $5 a week. Some people do earn $50 to $100 or more. A typical hourly wage can range from $1 to about $3. Two-thirds of turkers are from the United States. Another 22 percent use the site from India, where $1 to $3 an hour translates to considerably more money. Van Pelt says that when he creates tasks, he shoots for about $3 per hour but can tweak the rate if clients need results faster. Ross' studies have shown something else, too: People aren't there just for the money. "A lot of workers don't necessarily view it as work," Ross said. "It's a hobby and activity that's almost like a game, yet you make money on the side."