Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mechanical Turk changing the defaults: The game has changed

Back in the summer of 2011, Mechanical Turk introduced a new type of qualification, the Mechanical Turk "Masters". The Master qualification was assigned by Amazon to workers that have proven themselves in the marketplace.

What exactly makes someone "proven"? This is, understandably, a well-kept secret by Amazon. The opacity of the qualification process annoys many workers: It is hard to prove that you are a Master and qualify for it, when you do not know how this qualification is granted. The rumor says that Amazon deploys decoy tasks on Mechanical Turk just to examine the performance of the workers and decide which ones to qualify as Masters. If this is correct, then it also explains why Amazon is rather secretive about the exact requirements: Workers would try to ace these test tasks, and let their guards down in others.

The existence of Masters was an good development towards creating a true reputation scheme for Mechanical Turk.  However, an action taken by Amazon a month back has changed the dynamic of the market: Now the default requirement, for all tasks created through the UI interface, is to require using Masters workers. Removing the requirement is done only through the "advanced" menu, and is followed by a warning that you may not get good results if you opt not to use Masters.

Tiny change? No. This is huge. Here are a few of the immediate, positive effects:
  • People that use the Web UI are typically the newcomers, that do not know (or want) to implement sophisticated quality control schemes. They just want to execute some simple tasks. The task templates help a lot to create a usable interface, and the Masters requirement ensures that they are not going to get back crappy results. A happy customer, is a long term customer.
  • Masters will not touch badly designed and ambiguous tasks. This enforces discipline from the requester side, to get things designed properly. Otherwise the tasks are left untouched, which is a good signal that something is wrong with the task.
  • Masters will not touch offensively priced tasks, paying less than minimum wage, while demanding high-quality work. This (hurray!) removes the impression that Mechanical Turk is about dirty cheap work and emphasizes what crowdsourcing is about: Dynamic allocation of labor on tasks, without the overhead of hiring, negotiations, etc.
There are of course, a few downsides:
  • There are much fewer Masters workers. A current search reveals 20,744 workers. This is at least an order of magnitude lower than the number of active workers that Amazon used to advertise. Of course, these Masters are much more active than the average worker, but still there are not enough of them for all the tasks that require them.
  • There is now a significant lag in the task being picked by workers. Masters are much more careful about the requesters they work with, and a new requester will need to prove that is not rejecting work unfairly, and that they pay on time. Until then, the task will get only a few workers willing to test it.
  • The tasks now take much longer to complete. My current sense is that there is a 10x slowdown, (but the improvement in quality is definitely worth it).
  • There is an increased cost. Masters require decent wages (so no more 5 cents for 5-minutes of work), and there is an increased overhead from Amazon (30% overhead for Masters vs 10% for regular workers). My take? You get what you pay for.
  • It is not clear in what tasks the Masters are tested and how a new worker can become a master. It would be great if Amazon also gets quality signals from a few reliable big requesters, but I can see many practical problems in implementing such a solution.
Overall though, this change in the defaults is showing that Amazon started acting on the criticism. It is clear that this is a risky move, as there will be a lot of work posted on Mechanical Turk will not get done due to lack of interest for poorly paying or badly designed tasks. 

But on the other hand, it shows that Amazon is looking for the long term: Let newcomer requesters get guaranteed results, and if they want to get things done faster they can focus on pricing and better task design. If they want to get further and engage other Turkers, such requesters will be aware of the risks and benefits of such a move.

So, effectively now we have the "novice" requesters, who get protected by default through the Masters qualification, and the "advanced" requesters that can implement their own qualification schemes to replace the Masters qualification. This default level of protection makes the life of wannabe-scammer workers very difficult: no obvious victims to attack. Just hunting down for a victim requester will become so difficult that it makes sense to just give up scamming and either convert into doing real work, or abandon the market.

A tiny change in the defaults with short-term problems and many big, long-term benefits. Personally, I find this move exhilarating.