Last year, a group of researchers led by a computer scientist at the University of Rochester put out a brilliant app called VizWiz with the very simple, but very powerful, idea of using what’s called "microwork" to help people with vision impairment navigate the sort of everyday visual questions that most of us don’t even notice. The app works like this: A user takes a picture of something—a piece of currency, say—with their phone and asks a question, like "How much is this bill worth?" In near real-time, the photo and question get routed through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or through a user’s Facebook network, to find out their bill is worth $10.
The app represents an example of the emerging category of microwork, where complex informational questions are broken down into discrete tasks that require human intelligence and distributed to individuals who perform those tasks for small payments of just a few cents. While medical microwork is almost unheard of outside of a handful of examples like VizWiz, it represents a kind of work that could become increasingly important over the next few years as both a tool to improve health and as a development strategy.
In fact, microwork is already being explored as a development strategy. For example, the social enterprise Samasource partners with large-scale corporate customers to distribute much smaller microtasks to workers in six countries, generating work for more than 2,000 people since its 2008 launch.
Similarly, the World Bank released a report that identified microwork as one of a handful of emerging categories of jobs that anyone with a mobile phone, regardless of other circumstances, could do to make a living. The report estimated that while the current global marketplace for microwork is in the neighborhood of "double-digit millions," a very rough calculation estimates "the microwork market could be worth several billion dollars within the next five years." The World Bank has since partnered with Nokia to launch a global contest to generate new ideas into the kinds of microwork that people could do with just a smartphone, which point toward some of the ways that microwork could advance global health and well-being.
One group suggested that when someone is sick in a rural village, they could text that they needed a specific medicine, and microworkers could look through pharmacy supplies to see if the medicine is in stock—a pilot they’ve been running with professional staff, but which could scale with microwork. The contest’s first winners had an even more ambitious vision for medical microwork. They proposed that interpreting results of some basic medical tests, such as digital X-rays, could be distributed to groups of paraprofessionals trained not as doctors but just to analyze these kinds of exams, which would not only expand access to advanced medical diagnostics, but simultaneously increase the supply of qualified health workers.
Stepping back from these examples, it’s easy to see all sorts of potential benefits to this kind of distributed medicine. In developed countries like the United States, medical microwork offers an opportunity to cut costs, while in the developing world, it represents a means to fill basic medical needs.
The broader point is that finding ways to distribute basic health tasks—from helping people with disabilities with everyday activities to interpreting medical tests—doesn’t just represent a significant market opportunity. It represents a market opportunity that has the potential to dramatically improve the health and well-being of people all over the world.