Leila Janah: No one should be jobless because of the birth lottery
Leila Janah is a social entrepreneur using technology to promote social and economic justice. The concept of “sama,” the root word for equality or fairness in many languages, is the guiding principle behind the Sama Group, a family of impact enterprises Janah founded and runs. The first of these is Samasource, an award-winning non-profit business that connects women and youth living in poverty to microwork — computer-based tasks that build skills and generate life-changing income, now part of the broader field of impact sourcing. Samasource has moved 20,000 people over the poverty line and spun out a domestic program, SamaUSA. In 2011, Janah co-founded Samahope, a crowdfunding site for medical treatments in developing countries.
Leila Janah: The core concept of Samasource is essentially that technology helps us unlock human talent wherever it may happen to reside. That we should no longer be victims of the birth lottery. That no one should be stuck in a poor place where they don’t have a job simply because of an accident of birth. And what technology enables us to do now is to tap into this brain power through the Internet through a concept that we built called microwork. So Samasource’s mission is to give work to people who need it most using the Internet and we do that by sourcing large technology contracts from big enterprises like Google, Linked In, Ebay, Walmart.com and Microsoft which are all our customers.
And we gather this work and then we unitize it into small tasks. And the small tasks we call microwork. And then those small tasks we train people on the other side of the world to do them from local computer centers. So the tasks might be as simple as tagging an image. For example, we work with the largest image archive in the world that supplies images of celebrities for major tabloid magazines and media agencies. We work with companies that catalog images as part of major databases. We work with companies that use images for essential processes. For example, one of the companies we work with uses our image tagging to teach cars to stop before they hit a pedestrian, to automate the process of recognizing when a car is going to be close to a pedestrian. It’s a new application of what’s called machine learning. So a basic task like tagging an image and telling us whether there’s a person in this image or whether this is Rihanna or Andy Samberg, all of these types of tasks can be used for major applications. At the higher end of the spectrum we do things like content production. So we actually train people in low income countries who speak English fluently to write content, write custom content for websites and that’s part of a growing need for people to have unique content on their website to draw customers to it. And this kind of work didn’t exist ten years ago, right. I mean we didn’t have these complicated machine learning algorithms that were teaching cars to, you know, to drive by themselves. And now that we do there’s a huge need for people to help with these small tasks with microwork. So the way it works in practice is I have a team based in San Francisco that sources work from major companies and we source these contracts.
We compete based on quality and cost and turnaround time just like any other data services provider. And then on the back end we have workers all over the world. We have about 900 workers globally now in East Africa, South Asia and Haiti who do these pieces of microwork from these local computer centers. And we partner with local entrepreneurs who run computer centers that maintain the infrastructure for us. For the customer, for Google or Microsoft, it’s just like working with any other data services company. They can log into our platform and see the work being done in real time. But on the back end it looks totally different. It looks like a man waking up in a rural village in Northern Uganda and walking to a computer center where there’s high speed internet and air conditioning and a computer screen and where he’s able to do these tasks through our technology platform.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton
Leila Janah describes how the idea of microwork can be used to employee those in need of work in the developing world. Janah is the founder and CEO of Samasource.
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