Mechanical Turk app on the iPhone Provides Work for Refugees

Mechanical Turk service provider CrowdFlower and microwork non-profit Samasource have teamed up to make their services available to iPhone users. Users of CrowdFlower’s mechanical turk platform can now opt to send their tasks to iPhone users. Previously, CrowdFlower users could choose between Amazon mechanical turks or CrowdFlower’s stable of turks.

The Give Work iPhone app takes tasks (created by real companies) and sends it to iPhone users who volunteer to complete them. Meanwhile, workers in a Kenyan refugee camp perform the same tasks using CrowdFlower’s regular web interface. In essence, Kenyan refugees work to increase the accuracy of the results provided by the army of volunteer iPhone mechanical turks. In a previous post on Mechanical Turk Best Practices, I highlighted recent research that suggested that for a large set of tasks, the aggregate work of 4-6 turks compare favorably with a single (domain) expert.


The payment for tasks sent to CrowdFlower’s iPhone app goes entirely to the workers in the Kenyan refugee camp. In addition, Samasource has negotiated with money transfer services, so the payment goes through with zero transaction costs.

The turks in the refugee camps are recent graduates of Samasource’s computer training program. Rather than sitting idly while they wait to be employed, they earn money performing simple computer tasks for real companies. On the other hand, Give Work app users volunteer to perform simple tasks on their iPhone knowing that refugees in Africa are benefiting. CrowdFlower founder Lukas Biewald notes that their work with Samasource opens up their platform to companies who want to tap into and help micro-workers in developing countries.

There are other mechanical turk services that employ workers in developing countries (see for example txteagle). What distinguishes CrowdFlower is an innovative web interface that lets companies easily upload/define their projects and choose the set of turks they want to use: Amazon, CrowdFlower, and now iPhone users + Kenyan refugees. CrowdFlower has many other features worth noting including analytics and reporting, tools to increase accuracy, and a services team that works with companies interested in custom solutions.

When I talk to companies about using mechanical turks, many are still unaware†† of what they even are, and most don’t quite know how to use them. In our work, we routinely use turks to build machine-learning training sets, and for tasks that require the levels of accuracy that algorithms are unable to deliver. Thanks to companies like CrowdFlower, it’s now really easy for companies to dip their toes, and experiment with integrating mechanical turks. And with the launch of their Give Work iPhone app, companies can simultaneously opt to provide income to workers in developing countries.

(†) We are users of CrowdFlower’s mechanical turk platform.

(††) Actually nervous laughter is a common response!

tags: , ,
  • How would a Kenyan refugee get access to an iPhone? Even if they had one, it seems likely that it would be immediately stolen or sold. Why not use text messaging with Mechanical Turk and circumvent smartphones altogether? (there is a project called Textonic that is doing exactly that).

    • Hi Cameron,
      As I described in my post, the Kenyan refugees perform their CrowdFlower tasks using a web browser (most likely on a PC).

      Textonic is cool and great for certain tasks, but at the moment, other more complex tasks can probably only be done using a platform similar to CrowdFlower.


  • Tim

    Kenya? phones there are more likely going to be Nokias

  • Danyel

    I am in a visual culture graduate program and would love to write on this. Any suggestions on further info on the on the ground mechanics of these systems?

  • Hi Danyel,

    We would love to help you out. Sounds like a cool angle.

    Feel free to contact me stephanie at crowdflower dot com.


  • Hi Ben, it’s so great to see you covered this awesome iPhone app. Wonderful article, thanks! For your reference, we did a video interview with Leila of Samasource and Lukas of CrowdFlower in which they tell us about “Give Work” directly. Hope you & readers enjoy this as well:
    Thanks again : )