Ethical crowdsourcing? NGO app pays refugees to ‘train’ AI

LevelApp allows refugees to earn money by training AI algorithms, in an example of 'ethical' crowdsourcing.
23 November 2018

Syrian refugees families who came from Kobani district. Source: Shutterstock

Tech companies could help refugees make a new start in life by paying them to improve artificial intelligence (AI) on their phone.  

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), REFUNITE— an NGO which seeks to help refugees and displaced personal search for missing loved ones and family— has developed an app which allows those who have been uprooted by conflict to earn money by ‘training’ AI algorithms from their smartphones.

For the 68.5 million people that have been displaced by “wars, persecution and other violence” and have been forced to leave behind livelihoods, generating a source of income is an additional struggle.

Dubbed LevelApp, and being piloted among refugees in Uganda, the app allows refugees to gain “a foothold in the global gig economy”, according to REFUNITE co-chief executive Chris Mikkelsen.

A refugee in Uganda currently earning $US1 a day doing menial work could instead make up to US$20 a day doing “simple AI labeling work on their phones” for an AI computing platform called DeepBrain Chain. REFUNITE says the app could be beneficial to women, enabling them to work from home.

The hope is that cash generated through the app could open doors for refugees to improve their quality of life— allowing them to purchase livestock, educate their children and access healthcare— while also fostering digital skills through interaction.

“This would give them the ability to rebuild a life … and the dignity of no longer having to rely solely on charity,” Mikkelsen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The app allows its users to ‘teach’ machine to mimic human intelligence, by repeatedly labeling images and other data until the algorithm can detect patterns without human intervention.

REFUNITE says it’s currently working with 5,000 refugees in Uganda— the majority of which have fled South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The intention, however, is to roll it out to a further 25,000 within the next two years.  

While its focus is more charitable, REFUNITE’s app forms part of a larger discourse around the growth of global ‘gig economy’.

In many countries, particularly those in Southeast Asia and Africa, rapid growth in internet and smartphone penetration has seen freelance, short-term work—such as that provided by Uber, Airbnb and gig platform Fiverr— form a large part of many countries’ income.

While this is boon for employment opportunities, the disruptive impact of this work on more traditional sectors, as well as the share of revenue taken by the actual workers— issues we’re well-acquainted with in the Western world— is emphasized even more in poorer markets.

Ethical questions have also been raised about the concept of crowdsourcing itself. While for many companies, the approach offers a method of securing a wide pool of feedback relatively quickly and at low cost, some have said the process can be “exploitative”, with participants paid a fraction of what the company would pay on other methods of research.

Indeed, Mikkelsen himself reportedly called LevelApp’s work with Ugandan refugees a “win-win”, as it would also benefit companies by “slashing costs”.