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CMU Professor: Online 'Crowd Workers' Need Protections, Organization

Millions of people around the world get paid to perform small online tasks for private companies. By most estimates, these 'crowd workers' get paid anywhere from $3 to $9 per hour to gather information, transcribe text, or evaluate websites. Some work for as many as 50 companies in one day, with flexible hours and little commitment.

Usually, there are no contracts, no unions, and no opportunities for training or advancement. Sometimes, there's no pay at all.

Sound like a line of work you wouldn't want your child to get into? Dr. Niki Kittur of Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute had the same thought. Now, he and other CMU researchers are outlining the changes the $1 billion global industry needs to make in order to become legitimate.

Kittur said crowd workers first need an organization to promote their interests.

"The employers have most of the power in the relationship right now," said Kittur. "An employer right now could actually say, 'You know what? I'm just not going to pay you. I don't like your work.'"

A central organization would also give crowd workers better opportunities to build their reputations as good employees, said Kittur. He said websites that currently offer crowd work options, like Amazon Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower, don't do enough to promote and protect their contributors.

Kittur is wary of contracts, though, because he doesn't want to encumber an otherwise flexible marketplace. He said the idea of a contract for crowd work would be a little different than the traditional contract.

"Maybe they're micro-contracts," said Kittur. "That functionality of a contract definitely needs to be there, but we need to maintain the fluidity of the market so that people can still do a lot of work and it'll be attractive for employers to engage a lot of different people."

Companies should step up too, according to the CMU professor. Companies that request crowd work sometimes hold back pay because they're not satisfied with the work; however, Kittur argues that many of these companies are doing little or nothing to actually train the employees or give feedback.

Ultimately, he said a national policy governing crowd work may be necessary to ensure that the country's millions of crowd workers aren't mistreated.

Kittur and his colleagues will present his plans to the Association for Computing Machinery at its February 27 conference in San Antonio, Texas.