These companies claim to provide “fair-trade” data work. Do they? - MIT Technology Review
A lot of human labor goes into building artificial-intelligence systems. Much of it is in cleaning, categorizing, and labeling data before AIs ingest it to look for patterns. The AI Now Institute, an ethics body, refers to this work as the “hidden labor” of the AI pipeline, “providing the invisible human work that often backstops claims of AI ‘magic’ once these systems are deployed in products and services.”
By contrast, most people doing data annotation don’t work in Manhattan offices but from their homes in places such as India, Kenya, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They log in to online platforms for anywhere from a few minutes to several hours a day, perhaps distinguishing between bunches of green onions and stalks of celery or between cat-eye and aviator-style sunglasses. As detailed in the recent book Ghost Work by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri, most of them are gig workers with low pay, insecure employment, and no opportunity for career advancement.
A small group of data annotation firms aims to rewrite that narrative. But these firms aiming to “do well by doing good” in AI data services are finding the path to enterprise enlightenment can be a rocky one.
“It is really a race to the bottom,” says Daniel Kaelin, director of customer success at Alegion, a data annotation services company in Austin, Texas. “This whole industry is very, very competitive; everybody tries to find that little cheaper labor force somewhere else in the world.”
What does “impact” really mean?
Alegion is one of several platforms, including CloudFactory, Digital Divide Data (DDD), iMerit, and Samasource, that say they want to make AI data work dignified. They call themselves “impact” companies and claim to offer ethically sourced data labor, with better working conditions and career prospects than most firms in the industry. It’s like fair-trade coffee beans, but for enormous data sets.
However, there are no regulations and only weak industry standards for what ethical sourcing means. And the companies’ own definitions of it vary widely.
Troy Stringfield, who took over as Alegion’s global impact director in 2018, defends the “impact” label—which the seven-year-old company has adopted only in the past year or so—by saying impact means creating work that improves people’s lives. “It’s going in and saying, ‘What is a livable wage? What is getting them better than where they’re at?’” he says.
But Sara Enright, project director at the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition (GISC), a member-funded industry body, says it’s doubtful that such work should be called impact sourcing: “If it is solely gig work in which an individual is accessing part-time wages through an hour a day here and there, that is not impact employment, because it does not actually lead to career development and ultimately poverty alleviation.”
Getting into the US market
In their bid to expand, companies like Alegion and iMerit are also trying to build a pool of data workers in the US, drawing on underprivileged and marginalized populations there. That gives them lucrative access to government, financial, and health care clients that demand stringent security measures, work with regulated medical and financial data, or need the work done in the US for other legal reasons.
To recruit those US workers, the impact firms can go through companies like Daivergent, which serves as a conduit to organizations such as the Autism Society and Autism Speaks. (That’s where Campbell, whom we met earlier drawing boxes around cars, works.) Alegion also did a trial using workers provided through IAM23, a support group for military veterans.
Unlike with fair-trade goods, there is little public pressure on the companies to be honest, because they provide their services to businesses, not directly to consumers. “Consumers can value ethical sourcing—for example, at Patagonia and various consumer brands—and you kind of buy into that as a consumer,” says iMerit’s Natarajan. But “it remains to be seen what ethical sourcing means in the b-to-b sector.” As a 2014 issue of Pulse, an outsourcing industry magazine, noted, companies would have to make a choice to use impact-conscious labor providers. Without laws or public pressure it’s not clear what can impel them to make such a choice, and without standards and accountability, it’s not clear how they should evaluate the providers.
In the end it may be only regulation that changes labor practices. “There is no way to change employment from the inside of markets. Yes, they’re doing everything they can, and that’s like saying I’ve got a bicycle with no pedals, and I’m doing everything I can to ride it as quickly as this thing is built to go,” says Gray, the Ghost Work coauthor. “There is no organizing of the rights of workers and fair employment without involving civil society, and we haven’t done that yet.