Counting online workers

I have just discovered this very interesting new paper by Otto Kässi, Vili Lehdonvirta and Fabian Stephany. Their data-driven count of online workers is not without reminding of this research published last year, which I did with Clément Le Ludec and Antonio A. Casilli.

There are differences of course: theirs is a large multi-country study while we focused on one national setting (France). Also: Kässi et al. consider online labour in general, while we looked specifically at micro-work.

Nevertheless, there are striking similarities. Both studies included larger as well as smaller and more peripheral platforms, often left aside in previous research. Both started from the numbers of registered users declared by the platforms in scope, although this is likely an upper bound. Indeed registering may not mean using, and for example researchers (like ourselves) and journalists would register only to observe, especially when registration is open and easy.

Also, both studies used web traffic analysis data but for different purposes. We used them as an estimate of minimally active users – those who connect at least monthly, as per the definition given by the providers of these data. For the platforms we observed, these numbers tend to be lower than registrations.

Instead, Kässi et al. have used these data to assess registration numbers for the platforms that do not report them. My first reaction would be to think their estimates are likely a lower bound. But presumably their use of a mix of sources, and the seriousness and caution with which they have conducted their estimate, provide enough correction.

Finally, both studies attempted to correct estimates downward by taking into account multi-homing – the tendency of users to rely on multiple platforms. The coefficient of Kässi et al. is 1.83, ours was 1.27. The gap is due to the fact that we focused only on micro-work: if we had counted participation across all types of online labour platforms, our coefficient would be just below 2 – not far from theirs! Kässi et al. also correct for the possibility of multiple workers using a single account, which we did not observe in our French sample. One might imagine other corrections depending on observed usages. For example my ongoing Latin American study of micro-workers suggests that there are unofficial sales and purchases of highly rated platform accounts, more likely to access better-paying tasks – again, something we did not observe in France. Kässi et al. rightly note that all these corrections come from ad hoc surveys and should be interpreted with caution.

Overall, I would say that both studies point to the need to put in place new and creative methods to account for these new forms of labour that traditional statistical studies fail to capture well. The price to pay, as both studies stress, is a high degree of uncertainty. I also dare suggest that both are mixed-method studies: while the design is essentially quantitative, input from smaller and even qualitative research is crucial – for example to get insight into multi-homing and multi-working.

Before concluding, let us recall the key results. Kässi et al. reckon that there are 163 million freelancer profiles registered on online labour platforms globally, of whom approximately 19 million have worked at least once, and 5 million work more intensely. We estimated that approximately 260,000 French residents are registered with micro-work platforms, of whom some 50,000 are ‘regular’ workers who do micro-tasks at least monthly, and a more restrictive measure of ‘very active’ workers would decrease this figure to 15,000.

Are these numbers large or small? Curiously, our French study attracted both criticisms: some worried that we might be overstating the importance of micro-work, others wondered why we bothered for such a tiny part of national GDP. It is not easy to answer this question, as the answer depends on the perspective taken and the goals – the same numbers would mean different things to policymakers and researchers, for example. Nevertheless, I think that the point that is important to all, is to say that this population exists and needs attention – despite its limited visibility and the fuzzy boundaries that make it so difficult to assess its size.

Internship offer (3 months, master’s level, spring 2021)

The research project TRIA (from its French title “Le TRavail de l’IA: éthique et gouvernance de l’automation”) is a study of the production systems of artificial intelligence. We investigate “micro-work” platforms, which allocate small standardized tasks to crowds of providers, and use the outputs of their work to prepare and annotate data for machine learning algorithms. We study the ramifications of this phenomenon in Spanish-speaking countries, which have remained under-researched so far despite their strong participation. With data from an empirical survey already started in 2020, and to be analyzed through mixed methods (including advanced NLP techniques), we will address important issues related to digital platform governance, online work ethics, and consequences (e.g. in terms of bias) of the use of these humans in the production of artificial intelligence.
Funded by the French National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), the TRIA project resembles research teams in the Paris and Rennes regions in France, as well as partners in Spain (Barcelona and Valencia) and Canada (Toronto).

We are currently looking for a student intern to help us set up a survey targeting micro-workers in Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
He/she will help us to :

  • update an inventory of micro-work platforms operating in Spanish-speaking countries, a first version of which was created in 2020;
  • launch a replication of the online questionnaire, already fielded on Microworkers.com, on another micro-work platform;
  • to liaise and ensure communication between the project teams.

The applicant should :

  • be enrolled in the first or second year of a master’s degree in social science (like sociology, political science, management or economics) ;
  • have skills in the design and/or execution of questionnaire surveys;
  • have some prior knowledge of, or at least interest in, the transformations of work and/or the societal effects of digital technology;
  • be able to work independently, with advanced relational skills;
  • have a fairly good command of French or English, and at least a basic knowledge of Spanish.

More information is available in the enclosed job description.

Crowdworking Symposium 2020

With Antonio A. Casilli, I will be presenting a paper tomorrow at the Crowdworking Symposium organized by the University of Paderborn, Germany. Unfortunately, we will participate only online because of the health situation.

Our mini-paper (3 pages), entitled ‘Portraits of micro-workers: The real people behind AI in France’, is available here.

How many ‘micro-workers’?

Finally published! Counting `micro-workers’: Societal and methodological challenges around new forms of labour is a paper that I co-authored with Clément Le Ludec and Antonio A. Casilli, and that hs just been published in a special issue of the journal Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation.

What is it about? ‘Micro-work’ consists of fragmented data tasks that myriad providers execute on online platforms. While crucial to the development of data-based technologies, this little visible and geographically spread activity is particularly difficult to measure. To fill this gap, we combined qualitative and quantitative methods (online surveys, in-depth interviews, capture-recapture techniques, and web traffic analytics) to count micro-workers in a single country, France. On the basis of this analysis, we estimate that approximately 260,000 people are registered with micro-work platforms. Of these some 50,000 are ‘regular’ workers who do micro-tasks at least monthly, and we speculate that using a more restrictive measure of ‘very active’ workers decreases this figure to 15,000. This analysis is important to better understand platform labour and the labour in the digital economy that lies behind artificial intelligence.

The trainer, the verifier, the imitator: Three ways in which human platform workers support artificial intelligence

New article, co-authored with Antonio A. Casilli and Marion Coville, just published in Big Data & Society!

The paper sheds light on the role of digital platform labour in the development of today’s artificial intelligence, predicated on data-intensive machine learning algorithms. We uncover the specific ways in which outsourcing of data tasks to myriad ‘micro-workers’, recruited and managed through specialized platforms, powers virtual assistants, self-driving vehicles and connected objects. Using qualitative data from multiple sources, we show that micro-work performs a variety of functions, between three poles that we label, respectively, ‘artificial intelligence preparation’, ‘artificial intelligence verification’ and ‘artificial intelligence impersonation’. Because of the wide scope of application of micro-work, it is a structural component of contemporary artificial intelligence production processes – not an ephemeral form of support that may vanish once the technology reaches maturity stage. Through the lens of micro-work, we prefigure the policy implications of a future in which data technologies do not replace human workforce but imply its marginalization and precariousness.

The three main functions of micro-work in the development of data-intensive, machine-learning based AI solutions.

The paper reports results of the 2017-18 DiPLab project, and is available here in open access.

Internship offer, TRIA project

I am currently seeking to hire a student intern for new research project TRIA (Les TRavailleurs de l’Intelligence Artificielle / Los TRabajadores de la Inteligencia Artificial). Start as soon as possible, conditional on evolving regulations at the end of the current lockdown. Max 6 months.

A full description of the project is enclosed (in French).

Microwork platforms: a challenge for artificial intelligence, a challenge for employment?

With our sponsors France Stratégie and MSH Paris-Saclay, we convene an international conference on micro-work in Paris on June 13, 2019, followed by the first INDL (International Network on Digital Labor) workshop on June 14. The event will include a “meet the microworkers” panel on June 13, where workers, platform owners and client companies will take the stage. There will also be presentations of the results of national and international surveys (notably ours, DiPLab) on these emerging forms of work, and discussions with French and international academic and institutional experts.

Bandeau-SITE-Microtravail-FR-1280x640

After Uber, Deliveroo and other on-demand services, micro-work is a new form of labor mediated by digital platforms. Internet and mobile services recruit crowds to perform small, standardized and repetitive tasks on behalf of corporate clients, in return for fees ranging from few cents to few euros. These tasks generally require low skills: taking a picture in a store, recognizing and classifying images, transcribing bits of text, formatting an electronic file… Despite their apparent simplicity, these micro-tasks performed by millions of people around the world, are crucial to create the databases needed to calibrate and “train” artificial intelligence algorithms.

Internationally, Amazon Mechanical Turk is the most widely known micro-work platform. In France and in French-speaking Africa, other platforms are attracting a growing number of workers to supplement or even substitute for their primary income. How widespread is the phenomenon? How to recognize, organize and regulate this new form of work? How, finally, does it relate to traditional forms of employment?

Presentations and discussions are held in French and English, with simultaneous translation.

The programme is available here.

Back from Reshaping Work 2018

I was last week at the second Reshaping Work in the Platform Economy in Amsterdam. The interest of this small conference is tht it brings together different actors of the platform economy, from academics and students to policymakers, union leaders,  workers, and representatives of platforms to discuss.

In an overview of preliminary results of our project DiPLab, Antonio A. Casilli and I presented our reflection on how micro-work powers artificial intelligence (AI), in three main ways:

  1. Training AI
  2. Validating outcomes of AI
  3. Impersonating AI when it is cheaper or simpler that real AI

AI

No more details for now… it will come out as a working paper very soon!