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it's a hard turk life

I signed up for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service a little while ago. As a worker. My theory was, I’m sitting around watching Glee, but there’s all this plot and drama stuff I don’t care about happening between the Journey song performances. I could read or code or something, but then I get sucked into that and miss the song. A micro tasklet I could complete in a few seconds sounded like just the thing, and making five cents a minute was five cents more than I normally make watching TV.


First task I found was to categorize government purchase orders by industry, using a dropdown containing approximately 3000 categories, so that enterprising companies in those industries could find and bid on the orders. Purchase order was for 30 replacement QWE-789654 parts. What are they? There’s a link to more info, which leads to another link, and another. At some point I landed on some DoD splash screen where they assured me they were most definitely logging all activity and I had to assure them I most definitely wasn’t up to no good. After this all I learned was that somebody, somewhere, wanted more QWE-789654s. Was this a part kept in stock? There’s a category for that. Maybe it would need to be manufactured. That could be foundry services. But is it plastic, ceramic, or metal? If metal, ferrous or non-ferrous? I gave up, but it was fun to imagine how this order found its way to me. Some military base captain ran out of QWE-789654s (I can only imagine the local slang used to refer to this part), and he needs to reorder them. But due to procedural restrictions, he can’t just send Private Pyle out to pick some up; he’s got to fill out the form and send it into the bid-o-matic. He knows exactly which company is going to get the order and they know it, too, but nobody gets paid until the order does a full circuit of the requisition system.

Next I tried searching for keywords (something or someone) on Google and entering the link to the top result. For some reason, they disabled text highlighting so I couldn’t copy the search term. I had to type it in by hand. Because that’ll improve my accuracy. And for long URLs, you were apparently supposed to copy in the truncated URL (with ... in it) instead of the actual site URL. Because that’s useful.

Third up was the human OCR task for business cards. Look at a scanned image and type the info into a form. This makes some sense, since cards can have some unusual formatting and you ideally want everything standardized in your database. Before turning you loose on real data, they have a series of training cards to practice on where they verify you entered the right data. I failed spectacularly here. Despite Amazon’s claim that these jobs are “human intelligence tasks“, thinking was definitely not allowed. I translated Pennsylvania to PA in an address. Wrong. I decided that a Canadian phone number was a non-US number. Wrong. I entered somebody’s office and fax number in both the office and fax fields. Wrong. Maybe I’m crazy, but if I sent a box of business cards off to some service that promised to extract mailing addresses from them and what I got back was a CSV file of not quite mailing addresses I had to fix up before using, I’d be pretty dissatisfied.

Some other tasks informed me I wasn’t qualified to do them, even though they were on list I was supposed to be able to do, and only after starting the task. Lots more had the training/test component which I inevitably failed. “On a scale of one to ten, how similar are these two phrases?” Three. “Sorry, the correct answer is two.” “Identify the subject of this picture.” It was a work of abstract art, a smudge of color. I kept hoping for one of those draw a cat and upload the picture tasks people experimenting with Mechanical Turk blog about, but alas, no such luck.


After earning a grand total of $1.35, I have retired from Mechanical Turk. This is definitely not the kind of work you could do to idle away some spare moments. You need to be pretty freaking dedicated to grinding out your five bucks an hour to put up with all the aggravation. Which tells me something about the people who are seriously cranking through tasks. I’d have serious reservations about using Mechanical Turk from the other side. In order to get correct work done, you need to apply such a restrictive straight jacket that the only people willing to do the work are precisely those workers who require the most restraints. Vicious cycle.

Posted 07 Mar 2013 19:28 by tedu Updated: 07 Mar 2013 19:35