FDA OKs Mechanical Turk digital sweat-shopping

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle at 3:20 pm by George Smith

At a time of great unemployment, poverty wages and increasing inequality, the Food and Drug Association has committed to employing Mechanical Turk digital sweat-shop labor through a private sector sub-contractor. Pure and simple, it is the use of taxpayer money in the nullification of people for the siphoning of the money to corporate America. Think of it as anti-stimulus. (What percentage of Mechanical Turk workers are in the food stamp program? Rhetorical. There are no statistics as the service and the businesses that use it are non-transparent.)

Plus human beings working for twenty or thirty cents a job are more reliable and so much cheaper than crappy optical character recognition software.

The pertinent details:

The Food And Drug Administration is trying something new to tackle a massive paper backlog: Amazon Mechanical Turk, a popular marketplace for low-cost freelance digital piecework. At the Amazon Web Services re:Invent Conference in Las Vegas, the FDA announced they’re partnering with OCR firm Captricity–which uses Mechanical Turk–to take care of months of unprocessed drug accident safety reports. Even before the government shutdown, the FDA publicly complained about “unforeseen issues in data entry operations” slowing the processing of drug safety reports …

According to Captricity, the company’s solution in proof of concept testing was just as accurate as manual data entry for the FDA, but eight times cheaper and 50 times faster.

Here’s the answer. At a time when the economy is not producing jobs or a living for many Americans, the government response should not be to fill a labor need by leveraging desperation digital sweat shop labor.

This is wrong. The US government, specifically the Food and Drug Association, should hire Americans and get the job done, not resort to machine-like digital chiseling through a third party because it is allegedly swamped by a work load. Alternatively, it can use tax dollars to buy more automation and keep the work within the agency.

There are many paper shuffling and data entry jobs in the US government, all performed by civil servants. And a lot of that work, without labor protections, could simply be turned over to digital crowd-sourcing in network sweat-shops.

The government must still pay workers according to some set of civilized standards. And in no cases can the federal government refuse to pay civil servants if it doesn’t like the cut or result of their work on any given day. Yet that is the model put in place when a federal agency transfers data transcription to labor on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. On Mechanical Turk, below subsistence pay workers can be denied mere dimes if their work is deemed sub-standard. And there are no appeals.

This isn’t where the government should be leading. And whoever came up with the idea at the FDA need some bad publicity and brush-back.

The dystopia that’s the Amazon Mechanical Turk digital sweat-shop.


  1. Tom Paterson said,

    December 5, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    *the FDA publicly complained about “unforeseen issues in data entry operations??? slowing the processing of drug safety reports …*

    The data entry clerk should have received a good general education with a strong knowledge of English, mathematics and at least one hard science. They should possess good communications skills and the ability to liaise comfortably (by telephone or e-mail) with the original authors of the reports. The clerk must have the ability to consult and make sense of published reference material. During transcription the clerk will prepare a separate list of any queries which they have been unable to resolve (with the author or from published reference). Each transcribed report and the clerk’s error and comment list should be reviewed by a pharmacologist; the original authors should also verify the newly digitized report. The record should be amended as necessary when it may then be added to the database; the record should be subject to final review before being allowed to go live.

    But what do I know?

  2. George Smith said,

    December 5, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    None of these news stories or analyses about crowd-sourcing ever deal with the reality of how crapped up Mechanical Turk is with incompetent employer, ahem, requester error. Their HITs don’t work right with certain browsers or have technical software/scripting conflicts, fail completely at some point after one has invested time in them, have nonsensically phrased queries indicating the “requester” has not even bothered to proof read or take the job as a test run themselves … I could go on. It’s far from frictionless. One looks at the total number of jobs listed per day, 400 some thousand and the number doesn’t change much. The market is not growing and the jobs, many of which are not done, hang around. How does 400 some thousand compare with what has to be done in one big city in the US every day? Rhetorical. Ten percent of the jobs are either total junk, spam, illegal under terms of service in some way, pay for reviews, cheap pay for “articles” to be posted on websites you’ll never be interested in, solicitations for articles which are totally fabricated. Another unknown percentage don’t work. And some even the most desperate workers won’t take because they’re so bad or the requester comes off as someone who’s a predator in the solicitation.

    Then you read about the FDA where some higher-up swine has figured out it all needs to be outsourced to crowd-source and why didn’t they do that in the first place because human wetware is better than software but still just ware so why should we pay much for it? The same week the president delivers a speech about inequality and how steps must be taken to reverse it by allowing people to have a shot at a working living.

  3. Tom Paterson said,

    December 5, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    Imagine the billionaire fastened into a frameless robotic radiosurgery system now designed and built in accord with his new economic system. *Sei gerecht!*