Is Microtask the Future of Work?

A Microtask visualization from an animated promo video the company made

A Microtask visualization from an animated promo video on the company

Crowdsourcing is often used for fairly menial tasks: correcting databases, screening offensive images, transcribing audio. But what if you could make those little bits of human labor even more menial, discrete and interchangeable? That’s what the Finnish company Microtask does. I met with Microtask CEO Wili Miettinen and CTO Otto Chrons earlier this week while they were in town for CrowdConf, the first major gathering for the crowdsourcing industry.

Miettinen calls Microtask “the extreme approach to digital labor.” The company’s software divides work into highly standardized tasks — on the level of validating the data in a single form field — that can be completed in 1 to 2 seconds. Unlike something like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, workers don’t get to choose their next project; Microtask queues up new tasks for as long as the person works. Because Microtask can create “strictly defined inputs and outputs” and use redundancy, it can offer customers service level agreements to guarantee its results. You don’t usually see SLAs in crowdsourcing.

Microtask sells its product in two ways. Companies who want to use their own workforce pay for seat licenses. So for example, an existing insurance company customer outsources the process of entering information from paper forms into a database to a division of its own company in the Baltics, Miettinen said, where labor is one-fifth as expensive as at its home office. Or, Microtask will use its own worker pool and extract 10-15 percent of the cost of labor as its cut based on the number of transactions completed.

Miettinen thinks he thinks the next big thing could be outsourcing labor to social games. “Game designers are the experts in motivating people and getting them to do repetitive stuff,” he said. So for example, Zynga could contract Microtask to have its FarmVille players complete menial tasks, rather than pay money or credits, to buy virtual goods to help tend their farms within the game. That might increase the number of players Zynga can monetize; right now only a small portion of players ever pay for virtual goods in social games — less than 5 percent. Finding ways around paying real money for virtual goods is a known opportunity, though offers from companies like Offerpal have been tainted by scamming, and surveys from companies like Peanut Labs are hard to scale in part because the self-selecting userbase of survey takers may not be a great representative sample.

Microtask employs 12 people and has raised €1.2 million ($1.7 million USD) in two rounds from investors including Sunstone Capital. Miettinen previously sold his real-time 3-D graphics company Hybrid Graphics to NVIDIA in 2006.

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