In a special project tailor-made for the Web, Google teamed with the band Arcade Fire and writer and director Chris Milk on “The Wilderness Downtown,” an interactive music video set to the song “We Used to Wait” (The Suburbs, August 2010) in which viewers use mapping technology to contribute aerial and street-level views of the homes they grew up in. Fans were also invited to write letters to themselves as children, some of which would be used in a montage onstage during concerts. It was a great idea, but somebody had to read all those letters, and it wasn’t the band. For that, the team called on Crowdflower, a crowdsourcing company based San Francisco, CA that has over 500,000 workers in more than 70 countries.
Crowdflower’s co-founder and CEO Lukas Biewald was tipped off to “The Wilderness Downtown” by his friend, artist Aaron Koblin, who served as the project’s technology director. “Aaron has always been interested in making art with crowds of people,” he said. Biewald thought the artsy project would be a nice break from “the boring enterprise sales that we normally do,” he laughed, but boring isn’t exactly what he meant.
Launched in 2007, Crowdflower brings quality control to the Web with a human touch, performing necessary tasks like moderating content on social networks and fact-checking business listings. “We break [the work] down into really tiny pieces” called “micro-tasks,” Biewald said, and disperse them across a network of people around the world. This way, the clients can always find labor on demand and the workers have “no long-term tie to one employer.”
For “The Wilderness Downtown,” Biewald said the moderators might not have even been aware they were involved in the project because CrowdFlower just “slipped Arcade Fire into the normal work stream.” The readers were asked to review the letters for appropriateness and entertainment value, determining through multiple ratings which ones would make the cut.
Because most of the letters were written in English, the Crowdflower team prepared international workers who already spoke English with some training about American culture. “We’re teaching the whole world American standards,” said Biewald, which is something that he believes “will have a huge social impact” on globalization.
For now, half of the company’s labor pool is in the United States, where workers are just there for extra money or prizes like airline miles. “Everyone has a relative that can’t hold down a job, or put on a shirt and tie,” said Biewald.
Elsewhere, the projects are viable sources of income. Crowdflower works with the nonprofit organization Samasource to provide opportunities to underserved populations like refugees in Kenya and women in rural Pakistan. “They like us because they can take the right number of tasks” to fill in with their other work as needed, Biewald said. “Our workers love us because [the work] is safe and it pays better than any other job.” According to Samasource, partners like Crowdflower can raise the average monthly salary of a worker in East Africa from $75 to over $300.
“There’s a surprising amount of tech in the developing world,” said Biewald, “but only a tiny fraction of people have access to it.”
(Speaking of access, Arcade Fire’s video is lovely, but it’s best viewed in Google Chrome or an HTML5-compliant browser, and with all your other programs shut down.)