updated 3/30/2012 12:54:21 PM ET 2012-03-30T16:54:21

Many people are familiar with microloans, but what about microwork? Around the world, especially in developing countries, people earn money doing small tasks online, such as tagging photos, transcribing videos and sorting products on e-commerce websites. 

Now, the World Bank is holding a contest for a mobile app that will bring more of these microwork jobs to people in developing countries, where citizens often have a cellphone, but not a computer.  The organization announced its fourth and final interim "spot prize" winners for app ideas on March 23.  The winning ideas would outsource X-ray reading, security camera surveillance and more to microworkers around the world.

London School of Economics students Nadia Millington and Luis Rosenthal submitted two winning ideas as a duo. In one, a medical app, users would see an image from an X-ray, for example. The instructions on the app could be something like, "Press 1 if there's a spot on the left. Press 2 if there's a spot on the right. Press 0 if there is no spot." Up to 30 percent of these amateur reports could be checked for quality control. The app then sends a report on the results to the medical center that needed the X-ray diagnosed. The system could drop workers who do poorly.

The workers might not be total amateurs, either, according to a presentation by Millington, who comes from Trinidad and Tobago, and Rosenthal, who's originally from Brazil.  Microworkers could train to recognize a very small range of symptoms. Breaking down a medical skill into smaller pieces worked for eye-care clinic Aravind in India, Millington and Rosenthal wrote. 

The judging panel, which includes the World Bank's chief information officer, found the diagnosis app impressive because there's a high demand for diagnosis help, so it would create many jobs, according to infoDev, which partners with the World Bank to develop new technology. 

In Millington and Rosenthal's second winning app idea, the app's clients scan in receipts they want digitized for budgeting software such as Mint. The microworkers would then manually type in the amount, currency unit and expense category for each receipt. In the future, computer programs will be able to do simple transcription jobs, but for now, it's difficult for a computer to recognize and read most printed text.

The third spot prize winner was Art Ilano from the Philippines, whose app would send surveys to microworkers so researchers can gather data for companies that want to make products for people in developing countries. The fourth interim prize went to a developer who submitted under the pseudonym "Frequent Flyer." Frequent Flyer's app sends feeds from security cameras to microworkers to watch. To keep the watchers from getting bored, they get new feeds every few minutes, but the app distributes the work to make sure any one camera is continually watched.  

Judges were interested to find the majority of their submissions so far have come from developing countries, judge and World Bank researcher Vili Lehdonvirta blogged. "This is a striking result, considering that rich countries are generally overrepresented on the Internet," he wrote. The top four submitting countries are Armenia, India, Pakistan and Kenya. Fifth is the U.S., with just 18 submissions. Microwork is well-known in India, Pakistan and Kenya, so that may account for those countries' participation, Lehdonvirta wrote, while a mobile tech lab in Armenia has been advertising the contest widely. 

infoDev is still looking for more submissions, due April 2. Finalists earn a $4,000 prize and coaching from infoDev to help them develop a business plan and a pitch for the $20,000 grand prize. If finalists are interested in turning their ideas into startup companies, infoDev will put them in touch with incubation labs, mentors and investors. If the finalists aren't interested in becoming entrepreneurs, infoDev itself will take promising ideas to labs, said Nicolas Friederici, who works in the mobile innovation department of infoDev. 

If the contest draws good enough ideas, infoDev even has "limited seed funding" for a startup. "We're not promising anything, but we're definitely supporting the entrepreneurs to go further if they can and if they want," Friederici told InnovationNewsDaily. The contest isn't just about coming up with good ideas, he said. For infoDev, the best possible result would be several app startup companies. 

© 2012 All rights reserved. More from


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments