Here's how the iPhone could bring jobs to Haiti

CrowdFlower has an iPhone app that brings work to Africans in refugee camps...

Late last year I met with CrowdFlower, based in San Francisco. It was in the news this week because it raised $5m [CrowdFlower Raises $5 Million to Boost Crowdsourcing - Bits Blog - NYTimes.com]

I met CrowdFlower CEO Lukas Biewald and we chatted about his company and about his iPhone app that lets people employ an African refugee, to do real work for them.

And this is probably why CrowdFlower managed to attract investors because it is potentially a way to harness tons of very cheap labor. But what's cheap for us, can be very substantial and life saving, in the desperate environment of a refugee camp.

The refugees are given work assignments that can be done over the Internet. It's very mundane work of the kind that you might farm out to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and the refugee earns points — a type of virtual currency that can be traded in for food and services.

Here's the rate card:

  • 5 points = 1 tomato, 1 large banana, a small bunch of greens
  • 10 points = 1 SMS (text message); 2 oranges
  • 50 points = 10 sweet potatoes, small bag of sugar
  • 100 points = 1/2 a fish, portion of locally made bread
  • 500 points = 1 large sack of charcoal for cooking
  • 1,000 points = 5 minutes of cell phone airtime

Right now, the CrowdFlower app works with Dadaab, in Kenya, which is the world's largest refugee camp.

This approach could be used in Haiti. After all, humanitarian aid only goes so far, and runs out at some point. Teach a person to fish, or in this case, sort through databases of addresses looking for matching solar panel customers, and they can put those skills to good use in many other work assignments. It's not the most exciting work . . . but it is work.

CrowdFlower and iPhone users could make a difference in the world. We just need a few computers, and an Internet connection in refugee camps. Maybe the one-laptop-per-child organization can get involved. We might need some guidelines regarding child labor. And of course, this approach is not limited to iPhone, any smart phone could be used. All that's needed is some work assignments.

There is more info on the CrowdFlower iPhone apphere.

I must admit to mixed feelings with CrowdFlower. On the one hand, I don't like the way it can allow people to use the Internet to exploit others already in desperate situations. A refugee camp is not a leisure center. On the other hand, it is bringing work to people in a desperate situation. A refugee camp is not a leisure center.