Monday, March 05, 2007

Amazon Turks and Phones

Many of the people who approached me after my talk at O'Reilly emerging telephony were interested in the use of Amazon Turks in the mashup. An Amazon Turk is a real human being, found through the Amazon Turk Web service, hired to do a small job. By small, I mean something they can do in a matter of minutes. In most cases, Turks are unskilled workers, and are given simple jobs to do like choosing the best picture from a series, or identifying if an item is in a picture. A poetic example is the recent, failed search for a Microsoft Fellow, lost at sea off of San Diego. Real time satellite pictures were posted into the Amazon Turk service, where real people would l look at them searching for any sign of the missing scientist.
My example used skilled workers, in particular, nurses. Voicemails left at doctor's offices by patients were reviewed by nurses, and were determined to be urgent or routine. Urgent messages were forwarded to doctors, routine messages were saved until the morning. Voice mails were automatically retrieved, and jobs for Turks were automatically posted. Amazon Turks have a facility to qualify workers using a number of methods. Some qualifications may be done online using a simple test. Qualifications may be assigned to workers, as would be appropriate for this example, as medical certifications and other licencing issues exist. Nurses would be paid for their work directly by Amazon, once the assignments were approved. A history of successful assignments provides a platform for establishing and measuring quality metrics.
Economically, this is a win for all parties. Most sole practitioners cannot afford a full time nurse to handle calls when the office is closed. For them, they only pay for the nurse when there is a message to handle, and is therefore affordable. Since most visits to the emergency room are unnecessary, and cost nearly $900.00 more than a doctor's office visit, prompt returns of urgent messages are in the best interest of both patients and health care providers. Nurses now have a high paying, work at home option. In Web 2.0 fashion, the service gets better the more doctors and patients use the service.
This mashup was only an example, and there are many other examples of skilled workers that can be used in a Turk deployment. Accountants may use it for error detection for tax forms. Software engineers can use it for code reviews of recently written software. This mashup used Turks to transcribe the voice mails, so that they may be added to the permanent record. Services that use Turks have the singular advantage that large workforces can be delivered "just in time", with measurable quality and controllable costs. Workers have advantages as well - they may live anywhere, work any hours, and spread their employment risk over dozens of employers at the same time.
This is also an excellent example of computer-to-human interfaces, where people become part of the program itself. I can recall many times, at tradeshows and in conference rooms, when I wished I had some component that had a functionality I could describe, but couldn't possibly implement. With Amazon Turks, anything I can describe, and a human can do, can be part of an application. Ultimately, this will be the unique contribution of the technology.

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