With a Global Mission

Summary
This interview discusses the innovative data outsourcing services model invented by Leila Janah of the non-profit organization Samasource. This is a disruptive outsourcing model that every location-based information provider should know about.


astrick BACKGROUND When it comes to location-based data systems, a system is only as good as the data input by humans. Maintaining this data can be both time consuming and costly. Anti-poverty programs at home and abroad are fraught with political and economic issues that all too often render them ine ective. Data quality and poverty are two vicious cycles.
One non-profit organization has found a way to provide quality data services while simultaneously
helping lift individuals out of poverty across the globe. Based in San Francisco, California, Samasource provides data services to businesses with broad, computer-based project needs that cannot be managed in-house. Samasource turns these projects into “microwork,” which consists of breaking down large digital projects into smaller units of work. This microwork is performed by educated workers in developing countries and provides these workers with real living wages.
Samasource Founder and CEO Leila Janah had a vision for connecting a company’s data quality maintenance needs with untapped educated workers in impoverished countries (coming soon to distressed U.S. cities). This innovative service o ering sits somewhere between a crowdsourcing model like Mechanical Turk and traditional BPO (business process outsourcing) rms. We spoke with Karolina Zajac to learn more about the Samasource mission. Samasource seems to have succeeded where many aid programs have failed at lifting people out of long-term poverty.

*header image FIGURE 1. Samasource worker. Graphic courtesy of Samasource.


LBX: What was the problem that Samasource set out to solve?

ZAJAC: Unlike most businesses, we didn’t set out to solve a business problem. Samasource started with the mission of how to solve the problem of poverty. When our CEO Leila traveled to Africa as a student, she was struck by the level of poverty, and realized that there was an abundance of untapped workers available in developing countries. She saw people living in an area where the only option was physical work. Women were looked down upon for such work. These people were educated and could speak English, but had no opportunities outside of physical labor. After she studied abroad, she worked for a consulting firm that provided outsourcing services. She used her consulting rm experience to think differently about the poverty problem, and asked, “Why can’t the poverty problem be solved by funneling the profits to the people?” So she came up with the idea of microwork. As it turns out, we ll a gap in cost-effective data quality services.

LBX: What is microwork?

ZAJAC:  Microwork is the breaking up of digital tasks into small units of work that can be easily identi ed, completed, and managed. It includes such tasks as nding a phone number on a business website, tagging an image, or transcribing a business card. Samasource has brought English-speaking, educated, but poor workers from six developing countries (India, Pakistan, Haiti, Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya), who would otherwise not have higher-wage job opportunities at home, into the digital economy.

FIGURE 2. Samasource workers from refugee camp. Graphic courtesy of Samasource.
FIGURE 2. Samasource workers from refugee camp. Graphic courtesy of Samasource.

LBX: What type of data services do you offer?

ZAJAC: We offer a wide range of data services from business listing verification and geotagging, to cleaning up or adding information to a product catalog, to transcription and complex image tagging for enterprise customers. Our criteria for taking on projects is 1) high volume work that can be broken down into smaller tasks; 2) work that can be taught in a short period of time; and 3) six months minimum length of time. Our professional services team designs every project to determine the best way to set it up and is responsible for quality on the project.

KarolinaZajacimage


KAROLINA ZAJAC

National Sales Manager for Samasource
specializing in Enterprise Software/
Hardware, eCommerce, and Geo-Spatial
Information Systems sales


LBX:  How do you di er from Mechanical Turk services?

ZAJAC: We do similar types of work, but we do a few key things differently that makes us distinct. First, we guarantee our work to 95% or higher accuracy. We can do that because we train and manage our workers closely within centers. After training at local centers, workers submit microwork via the SamaHub for feedback and quality control by a team based in San Francisco. See Figure 3 for the Samasource process.

zajaciamge3
FIGURE 3. This illustrates the Samasource process and business model. Graphic courtesy of Samasource.

Second, our unique microwork process enables us to handle more complex projects for our clients. We hire an expert team of project managers that work to understand each client’s unique needs and customize the stream of microwork accordingly. In contrast, companies like Mechanical Turk utilize crowdsourced services, which means that work is farmed out to an unmanaged crowd that works remotely with little supervision. This leaves the burdensome task of setting up projects and quality testing to the client and often results in variable-quality work and a low level of accuracy. Our project management team of experts provides hands-on guidance and support for each of our clients’ projects.

Our third major differentiator is related to project-based training. We train our workers to recognize that every data project is quite different. This requires the workers to understand the speci cations and what technical information they need to understand about the project, and helps us to understand how motivated someone is to do the work correctly.

LBX: How large are the projects?

ZAJAC: We typically take on a six month project at the minimum. The costs of projects depend on time per task, total project volume, and type of quality analysis needed. To date, an average one-time project runs about $40,000 and on-going projects are estimated based on the project scope and duration.

LBX: How many work centers do you have?

ZAJAC: We have 16 centers in six developing countries, and we are expanding into the U.S. this year.

LBX: How competitive are you price-wise?

ZAJAC: We are lower than the average BPO form, and just slightly higher than the average crowdsourcing company. We pay our workers based on the living wage per area, o ering them a wage higher than what is otherwise currently available.

LBX: Your not-for-profit business model is a potentially disruptive outsourcing model. Can you speak more toward that?

ZAJAC: We launched Samasource as a result of grants we received. We are simultaneously still pursuing grants while developing a self-sustaining revenue model. As a not-for-profit, there is no doubt that we do not have the same margin pressures as for-profit companies, but we still have to gure out funding sources. While it is a disruptive model, the factors for our success are providing a top-quality service and partnership at a fair price.

LBX: What types of companies are utilizing your services?

ZAJAC: Microsoft, eBay, LinkedIn, and Navteq are some examples.

LBX: What are your thoughts on the App development frenzy and data quality?

ZAJAC Data quality is critical. Established companies and start-ups all need to look for a company that is providing the most accurate and up-to-date data to support their applications.


astrick For more information on Samasource, visit their website at www.samasource.org or email info@samasource.org.