Microtasking: the Next Frontier in Government Work?

It’s a way for governments to unleash the talents and energies of hundreds or thousands of people to solve problems and get big jobs done.
 

This fall, a select group of college and university students around the country is joining the U.S. State Department. They won't be traveling very far, though.

The so-called "e-interns" will instead work from their dorm rooms and libraries on projects for U.S. consulates and embassies around the globe. They'll make videos, do research, manage public relations campaigns for specific events and in other ways help thinly stretched consular staffs engage with the rest of the world. This will all happen online.

The U.S. State Department's Virtual Student Foreign Service is a fledgling effort at harnessing technology to expand and improve American diplomacy. What's most striking about it, though, isn't the technology. It's the simple idea that technology can make a pool of people with a variety of skill sets, from film-making to social media, available to help diplomatic missions around the globe tackle new initiatives efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.

And it begs a question. Why should a handful of students get all the fun?

People are what count in the new knowledge economy, specifically those with a broad range of knowledge and skills. Imagine the advantage of leveraging the knowledge and skills of a large number of people—larger even than your workforce—to create value.

"Microtasking" approaches like the one being used by the State Department do just that. They employ technology platforms to distribute small, discrete tasks to online workers. A slew of organizations are popping up to dole out microtasks to willing global good citizens. Organizations have discovered crowd power in everything from charitable donations (Crowdrise) to human intelligence tasks (Amazon Mechanical Turk).

The Chinese microtasking website Zhubajie.com (Witmart.com is the English version) "employs" more than 4.2 million people—more than any other organization in the world. Specializing in a variety of tasks sold to businesses, it offers advanced services such as mobile application design, software development, brand consulting, Web coding and Internet marketing.

Finland is home to one of the most interesting government examples of microtasking. The country is using microtasking to digitize its national library archives. Volunteers play a game called Digitalkoot, which converts image archives into digital text and corrects existing errors. Participants are shown an image of a word and then must type it out to help a cartoon character cross a bridge. In doing so, they turn scanned images into searchable text, greatly improving search accuracy of old manuscripts. More than 50,000 people have completed more than four million microtasks associated with this project.

In some cases, microtasking might be seen as a close relative of crowdsourcing. The city of Boston employs the eyes and ears of thousands of citizens to enhance its awareness of public-works problems that need attention. Boston Citizens Connect, a smartphone app, allows residents to take photographs of potholes, graffiti and other problems and send it to the city. The app automatically collects GPS information and allows the city to instantly generate and assign a work order. It even notifies citizens when the work has been completed. Boston Connect now accounts for more than10 percent of all of the city's service notifications.

The crowd also played a major role in helping the Vancouver police identify rioters after the June 15 melee that plunged the Canadian city into three hours of chaos. Police received 3,500 emails that included 53 videos, 708 photographs and 1,011 hyperlinks to social-media sites such as Facebook. A Facebook page called Vancouver Riot Pics attracted more than 100,000 fans who in turn identified more than 100 of the rioters from pictures posted on the page.

The ability to quickly break large pieces of work into microtasks that can be performed by hundreds or thousands of others is one of the important business trends of our time. The examples listed here demonstrate that this trend is already being capitalized on in the private sector and by charities and governments trying to engage citizens.

What would happen if a government set up a microtasking platform, not just for citizen engagement but as a way to harness the knowledge and skills of its own workers across multiple departments and agencies? If microtasking can work to connect people outside the four walls of an organization, think of its potential as a platform to connect people and conduct work inside of an organization like government.

This article is adapted from Charles Tierney's Deloitte report "Fed Cloud: The Future of Federal Work."

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