Eric Tyler

A 5 Billion Mobile Workforce

This is one in a series of Big Idea articles that examines how businesses are using mobile applications to develop and serve base of the pyramid markets and customers. More articles and posts on this topic can be found in The Big Idea section.

This past month, in Armenia, Kenya, Nepal, South Africa, and Vietnam, the World Bank organized hackathons bringing together over 300 mobile phone technologists and entrepreneurs. The gatherings focused on leveraging the spread of mobile phones to three-quarters of the world to connect excluded populations to the digital economy.

The hackathons built on an M2Work competition that the World Bank hosted at the beginning of the summer. The challenge solicited almost a thousand proposals from around the world working to unlock the job-creation potential of mobile phones. The grand prize winner was India born Aadhar Bhalinge, who is working to employ Indian rickshaw drivers to map traffic updates of roadways using their mobile phones.

Already companies around the world are hiring online “microworkers” in the millions. In China, the website reportedly employs an estimated 4.2 million people to do a range of online micro tasks. This amounts to nearly double the number of people employed by Walmart, the largest brick and mortar employer in the world. And the American Internet giant Amazon also hosts an online marketplace of microwork called Mechnical Turk, which currently offers over 300,000 tasks to be completed on its website. This microwork falls within a responsibility limbo; it’s often too complicated for a computer to complete, but do not require a full-time employee or even a temp. The tasks can range from translating a sentence into Chinese to designing the color scheme for a logo, and earn the laborer a couple of cents and, at the very most, a fistful of dollars.

And with the number of mobile connections in the developing world recently reaching 5 billion, the potential of tapping into this global workforce may very well be transformative for these emerging economies.

Eric Tyler is an analyst with the New America Foundation’s Global Assets Project.