Category Archives: “The Future of Work”

Crowd Sourced Research Projects

There are many “citizen science” initiatives, and many of them are variations on crowd sourcing. One prominent example, Zooniverse, is a veritable cottage industry creating one crowd sourced project after another. These projects employ ordinary people, AKA “citizens”, in real scientific research.

These collaborations can be very effective, magnifying the efforts of our few remaining professional scientists and research dollars. Unfortunately, in most cases, the civilians are employed in routine, low skill roles. In the case of Zooniverse, the projects are almost exclusively visual (or aural) recognition tasks, asking people to look for significant objects in visual (or sound) data. These internet volunteers occupy the ecological niche that we used to pay students to fill, back when we had money for scientific research.

Is it possible to have more people participate in science in more interesting ways?


In the last couple of years, a Stanford-Santa Cruz project has deployed digital collaboration tools to create “Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories,” [1] The idea is to involve volunteers from around the globe in the full array of research activities, including decision making, problem solving, and professional publishing.

Most important of all, the projects were not reduced to “Mechanical Turk” microtasks, but functioned more like actual science labs. The projects were organized akin to conventional university research, directed by a professional Principle Investigator, with institutional techincal support. The participants were recruited through open calls, and invited to study, investigate, propose, and critique the research problems.

The Crowd Research project uses techniques and tools familiar from virtual organizations and collaborative on-line work. Each project developed milestones, which were reviewed in periodic (weekly) meetings. These tasks might involve many familiar research activities, including reading papers, interviewing informants, generating ideas, or prototyping.

The large number of responses are peer evaluated to select a handful to discuss in the video conference. This process is essentially the same as reddit-style upvoting. It is interesting that “randomized a double-blind assignment, anonymous feedback was needlessly negative and evaluative” ([1], p. 834), so they use completely public reviews.

A small group of participants connects to the live video discussion, others can participate through digital comments and anyone can view the archived meeting. The weekly meeting discusses the top submissions, and decides what to do next. The PI may assign reading or other training activities. In some cases, an individual may be designated to lead execution of a particular milestone, e.g., when multiple efforts need to be coordinated.

I note that participating in the video conference is a “prize” for submitting a high rated response to the milestone. This converts the mandatory, “oh, no, not another meeting” situation, into a sought-after opportunity to meet the PI and top colleagues. I.e., this is an improvement over many collaborations, virtual or physical.

The project results are written up to meet profession style and standards. The contributions of individuals are visible in the digital collaborations, so the paper can assign credit as due. This is a significant opportunity for the participants to achieve visible academic credentials that usually are only garnered by students at elite schools.

The Crowd Research project created a decentralized system to assign credit to the contributions of each person. This helps the PI write letters of recommendation, even when the research group is too large and distributed to know every individual.

The Crowd Research Initiative has evaluated these techniques in a metastudy [1]. The digital infrastructure makes it possible to not only track participation, but also who did what. They document that most of the final ideas originated from “the crowd”, and most of the writing also was done by the crowd. It is important to note that this is about the same as a university lab, except the participants are not limited to selected enrolled students.

While there was little formal screening of participants, there was high attrition that filtered out the majority of initial sign ups. Many were not able to commit enough time due to other commitments, though there are also indications that some lost interest in the work as it developed.

The researchers document the relatively democratic spread of access and benefit from the experience. With publications and letters from PIs, many students gained admission to programs of study that they otherwise would not have.

The reputation system was correlated with the assignment of authorship and acknowledgement on the publications. Their algorithm (similar to PageRank) tended to reflect concrete contributions (such as checkins), though it was still possible to game the system to increase personal credit.

In their recent paper, they draw conclusions about “How to run a bad Crowd Research project” ([1], p. 838). They note the need to expect drop outs and conflict, and suggest that the project be carefully selected to match the strengths of the format. Also, as noted, they don’t recommend a competitive vibe.


This is an interesting and somewhat heroic project, harking back to the good old days when university researchers were generously supported and could tackle ambitious projects involving dozens of students.

One very important point to emphasize is that these projects were much more like “regular research”, and absolutely not the usual trivial crowd sourcing tasks. I would also say that they strongly resemble many software projects, and also collaborative non-profit projects (e.g., organizing a community workshop). I think this is not a coincidence, in that these virtual collaborations are similar social groups. As such, the lessons of Crowd Research probably should apply well to other digitally enhanced collaborations.

There are a couple of important caveats about this approach.

First, as they intimate in their anti-patterns, not every research topic or project is a good match to crowd research (or digital collaboration). A good project should “leverage scale and diversity to achieve more ambitious goals” (p. 838) I would also say that the project needs to have primarily digital deliverables. Obviously, it would be difficult to coordinate and share a single physical prototype or materials, with any digital technology.

Second, the high satisfaction of the participants, professional and non-professional, has to be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, the participants were self-selected at the beginning, and through attrition. Crowd Research is well designed to create a sense of commitment and ownership in the project, at least in those who persist. However, it isn’t possible to extrapolate these results to people in general.

Even in these experiments, more than half of the initial recruits dropped out. Whatever the reason for leaving (generally, lack of time), these drop outs did not benefit and could not have a very high satisfaction with the experience. This was a great experience for a tiny, select group of people. The successful participants were highly motivated, and had skill and interest matches. This is a natural feature of collaborative research, and crowd technology neither can or should change that.

A third point to consider is that these young (mostly undergraduate students) were surely digital natives, quite used to social media and communication media such as reddit and reputation systems. This study showed that these technologies can be used effectively, at least for a self-selected group who are proficient and comfortable with these digital interactions.

It isn’t clear how universal this sort of digital literacy may be, or whether there are different styles. The study had to deal with cultural and personal conflict, but it could only deal with them within the digital arena. People who could not or would not play the game were simple not in the sample.

Obviously, technical and language limitations could preclude effective participation. In addition, people with limited vision or motor skills would be at a disadvantage. And, of course, people who lack confidence or are just shy will be hard to get.

These challenges are important issues for all digital life and digital work. Indeed, at its best, Crowd Research is a great approach, because the PI and RAs offer positive and encouraging leadership. My own view is that the attention and leadership of the PI probably spells the difference between the successful CR project and the hundreds of failed digital collaborations. In this, CR is recreating one of the ways that university education succeeds through mentoring and exposure to professional role models.


  1. Rajan Vaish, Snehalkumar S. Gaikwad, Geza Kovacs, Andreas Veit, Ranjay Krishna, Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Camelia Simoiu, Michael Wilber, Serge Belongie, Sharad Goel, James Davis, and Michael S. Bernstein, Crowd Research: Open and Scalable University Laboratories, in Proceedings of the 30th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. 2017, ACM: Québec City, QC, Canada. p. 829-843. http://hci.stanford.edu/publications/2017/crowdresearch/crowd-research-uist2017.pdf

 

What Shall We Teach The Next Generation of Gig Workers

In this age of the Gig Economy, what will happen to our children? Much of what passes for “work force readiness” is alarmingly backward looking. Pretending that kids in high school today will employed in retail, manufacturing, or transportation seems naïve. Worse, teaching how to be a good “employee” seems to be all the wrong skills for a freelancer.

Assuming that the opportunities of the future are going to be freelance contracts, independent start ups, and coworking synergy, what should we be teaching kids?

With these questions in my head, I was interested to read Jeriann Ireland this week, on “Preparing children for the freelance economy” [1]. Writing in the Freelancers Union blog, she has the perspective of a parent who is a freelance worker.

So what are the important points?

It is interesting that her first point is “boundaries”, i.e., life-work boundaries. This is a critical challenge for freelance workers, but she makes the interesting point that children need to understand the boundaries, too. (Hoping that cats will respect boundaries is beyond reason.) She says that a parent must “set examples of positive boundary setting”, including family-only times (no calls or email).

One side effect of this is that it sets an example of work ethic. Seeing that mom and dad have to spend time, work hard, and meet responsibilities can be an amazing lesson—and one that kids might not see when parents work in an office.

The second point is teaching business skills. (Ick!)

It’s never a good idea to force your child into anything, but if they show passion for a certain activity, get them thinking about how they could monetize it.

The third point is educating about finances. Whether connected to work or not, kids need to learn and practice handling money, planning budgets, and ideas about saving, borrowing, and investment. Freelancers have to learn this stuff, and are in a good position to teach by example.


Sensei Jeriann seems to be speaking from experience, and makes sense. Not that I’m seeing any thing “disruptive” or rocket scientific here.

It is kind of a cool to flip the difficult challenges of working at home with kids, and turn that into an opportunity for home schooling by example. I can’t think of anything that is likely to prepare a kid for “the workforce” as much as seeing parents work.

I’ll add another topic that might be worth thinking about: collaboration.

Successful business and freelancing require working with other people, sharing and contributing to the group.  Again, work at home parents have an opportunity to show how this works by example. For example, explain that the reason you need to finish this task today, is because your collaborators need it so they can do their thing. And explain that you are working with “Alice” and “Bob”, who are really smart so together you all can be great. And that is why you need to talk on the phone to them today, so we can all be great together. Etc.


Finally, I’m a bit worried about the “business skills” part of the lessons. I’m not saying it isn’t important and useful, but my own view is that once you know the word “monetize”, childhood is over! :-(.

Yes, everyone has to grow up eventually and learn about “monetizing” their time and passion. But I hate to see them grow up too soon!


  1. Jeriann Ireland, Preparing children for the freelance economy, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/09/01/preparing-children-for-the-freelance-economy/

What is Coworking? It Can Be Rural

Coworking is generally associated with urban or suburban settings, serving dense populations of independent workers and start ups.

What about rural areas, with much lower population densities, and correspondingly sparser social networks?

It is certainly possible to do digital work anywhere, including out in the country. Many rural areas have technical infrastructure to support remote working, and talented workers. However, in there are fewer people overall, and therefore fewer workers. In addition, many workers migrate to commercial centers.

So, can coworking succeed in a rural area?


Tim Ford blogs about Cohoots Coworking in rural Australia. Cohoots is located in a small town in a rural area, so it has been a struggle to get enough members to pay the bills.

The facility itself is conventional; featuring desks, networking, and events. But they advertise that if you “scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find some magic”. These “magical” features includes the memorable tag, “Members Who Want To Be Here”, i.e., a community of like-minded workers.

Ford is clear that the emphasis and the value added is community. Given the small population (and lack of competition), they have found little point in advertising ‘we have the best space’. Instead, they take what he calls an “inside out” approach. Community is not something that happens inside the coworking space, it connects out into the whole region.


I think this workspace is another example of how flexible and diverse coworking is. The physical and social setting is quite different from urban centers, but there is still entrepreneurship and community happening.

To my mind, this reflects the most important features of coworking. The space itself can be in the Bronx, Santa Clara, or Castlemaine, Victoria; and it can look and feel a lot of ways. What matters in every case is the presence of a thriving community; a group of people with shared interests meeting face-to-face, helping each other.

I’ll also note that this space almost certainly would not exist without the leadership cadre, who are all worked up about coworking and community. You can have the coolest office space in the world, but nothing will happen without community leaders.


Clearly, finances and low population are a challenge for any rural business, not just coworking. However, rural areas have some distinct advantages.

The cost of living is generally lower, and the lifestyle can be attractive. A small town already is a community and a regional center of social networking, so a coworking space fits naturally into the historic cultural patterns.

One of the best things about rural coworking is that it offers opportunities for people, especially young people, who want to stay home. Digital networks make it possible for kids to have a career without splitting for the city. Coworking, in turn, can be the social infrastructure that is a “respite from our isolation” (to quote Zachary Klaas [2]).

One thing that won’t work is a ginormous space like many operations are developing.  Think small and intimate, not large and generic.

But I’m sure that competent local leadership will understand this necessity well enough.


  1. Tim Ford, Rural Coworking – Our Journey, in Cohoots Blog. 2017. http://www.cohoots.info/rural-coworking-our-journey/
  2. Zachary R., Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity

 

What is Coworking

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

A Map of the Gig Economy

Speaking of the Gig Economy….

The iLabour Project (“Investigating the Construction of Labour Markets, Institutions and Movements on the Internet”) [3] has begun to try to track workers and work using online job and task services. This isn’t the whole of the Gig Economy, but it certainly is an important sector. Indeed, their data showed a 26% increase between 2015 and 2016—this is why we’re all interested in it!

What does that headline number mean? The data is amassed by retrieving “vacancies” from the most used online job markets. (This is done via a web crawl, so it is snapshots.) When possible, they record the type of work (‘occupation”) and the country where the worker resides. The gigs are “different market mechanisms and contracting styles, from online piecework to hourly freelancing.” [2].

One wonders if Uber and is included in this index? It’s not an open market, but it sure as heck is at the dark heart of the gig economy.

This index is an “indicator”, not an absolute measure. The year to year growth is a growth in…this index. Mainly, this means more “vacancies”, and presumably, more vacancies filled. Given the nature of these platfoms, that could mean more workers, or more work per worker, or both.

The iLabor project produced a supplement that describes the geographic location of the gig workers sampled, and the type of work.

Online Labour Index top occupation by country, 1-6 July 2017

The data confirms our expectations that India and Bangladesh are large sources of labor in these services, though US and UK also supply labor in certain specializations.

This index seems very limited to me. It has nothing to say about many vital aspects of this job market.

There is very little about the employers. There is nothing about outcome: productivity, satisfaction, value added.

As noted, there is little information about the number of workers, the hours per workers, and the income of workers. We are all concerned about the widespread trend toward very low wage piece work, that cannot support the workers.


The Oxford group makes their data available for others to use, which enabled Andrew Karpie to add his own analysis [1].  His analysis shows that “the U.S. and Canada account for over 50% of the global total projects requested”, with the overall finding that “it is clear that online work exchange activity today is largely between the U.S. and certain less-developed Asian countries.

Well duh!

He concludes that “this is likely true for three main reasons: (1) wage arbitrage (frequently), (2) lower transaction costs and (3) supply of skilled labor/talent (with shortages in the U.S.).”

No kidding?

This is not a pretty picture, and I’m always surprised by people who think this “innovation” is even remotely a good idea.

But it’s very good to see some actual data about the gig economy, even if it is limited in so many ways.


  1. Andrew Karpie, Where Are Online Workers Located? — Oxford Internet Institute Tool Breaks it Down, in Spend Matters Network. 2017. https://spendmatters.com/2017/07/13/online-workers-located-oxford-internet-institute-tool-breaks/
  2. Otto Kassi, How the Online Labour Index is constructed, Oxford International Institute, 2016. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/how-the-online-labour-index-is-constructed/
  3. Oxford International Institute, Introducing the iLabour Project. 2016. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/
  4. Kevin Stark, Oxford Internet Institute Launches Interactive Map of the Global Gig Economy. Sharable.July 27 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/oxford-internet-institute-launches-interactive-map-of-the-global-gig-economy

 

 

What is Coworking? GCUC On “Back To Our Roots”?

From its origins in the small, informal coworking movement, the Global Coworking Unconference (GCUC) has evolved into an industrial association, cheerleading coworking as a sector of the “Social Office Industry”. For many, this is quite a divergence from the roots of the coworking movement, e.g. as per the Coworking Manifesto [2, 3].

Michael Benson (of CSBC & ClearEdge Offices) blogs this month about “Coworking A Return To Our Roots” [1]  Appearing in GCUC’s blog, I was interested to see what he has to say about roots.

In this post, he summarizes recent trends from the point of view of the Office Center Industry,

“Coworking is being touted as a brand new Social and Workplace movement, which is sweeping worldwide across the Real Estate and Services Industries.”

This is as clear of a statement of the gospel according to GCUC as I’ve seen. The capitalized words even tell us the salient audiences and viewpoints. (Hint: Coworking does not seem to be about “Workers” or “Working” at all.)

He goes on to give reasons for this worldwide sweeping”.

  • “Growth in part time employment.

  • Growth in the consultant industry.

  • A connected community able to engage with each other in the space.

  • Interesting accessible, relevant events.

  • Comfortable edgy fit outs [sic], which allow people more access to common and casual spaces.

  • Interesting, functional and accessible meeting rooms, function rooms and training rooms.

  • Access to reasonably priced, well located, well designed workspaces.

  • Access to an immediate and open business network.

  • Large Businesses are also trying to connect and take advantage of small business entrepreneurial skill and growth and connect with their market.”

This is a pretty good list of how the “Service Office Industry” views it’s offerings. At the head of the list is “the gig economy”, which is surely a driver for small scale office rentals, social or not.

(I’m not sure “Comfortable edgy fit outs” means, but it’s a great name for a band, no?)

From the point of view of the Office Center Industry, the important trend is that

“The gap between Coworking organisations and Business centres/ Serviced offices/ Executive Suites also seems to be starting to narrow”

Benson favors this trend, which offers two important benefits to companies and workers: the value of “inter-business and inter-personal interaction” and nice surroundings in which to do so.

We are social and our ability to connect collaborate, enjoy our surroundings as well as the interactions with our co-workers is critical to create a balanced and efficient work experience.

This is the essence of the “social” aspect of Social Offices: a nice place to interact with other workers.

Adopting the social aspects of coworking is revitalizing “the Business centre model”.


Benson gives a clear and concise statement of the trends in the “Social Office Industry” that is GCUC’s focus these days.

But I’m having difficulty figuring out what the title of the item means. What “roots” are being returned to?

This post doesn’t seem to be about returning to the roots of the coworking movement. Those roots are definitely not about integrating Coworking into Office Centers. If this is about the “roots” of the Office Center Industry, it’s not clear to me.

Frankly, I think this is a misleading headline that was attached when the item was reposted to this blog. (Benson will be speaking at GCUC AU, so it is possible that he has more to say about “roots” that simply aren’t in this teaser.)

But, my own view is that this article actually is about current trends away from the roots of coworking. Benson thinks these developments are a good idea, and gives a clear statement of why he thinks so, but he’s not really interested in returning to the roots of coworking or GCUC.


  1. Michael Benson, Coworking A Return To Our Roots, in GCUC Blog + Press. 2017. http://au.gcuc.co/coworking-return-roots/
  2. coworking.org. Coworking Manifesto: The Future of Work. 2012, http://coworkingmanifesto.com/.
  3. The Coworking Wiki, Coworking Manifesto (global – for the world) in The Coworking Wiki. 2015. http://wiki.coworking.org/w/page/35382594/Coworking Manifesto %28global – for the world%29

PS.  A couple of great names for bands:

Service Office Industry
Comfortable edgy fit outs

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Freelancer’s Toolkits?

The members who are “managed” by cool coworking software are mainly freelancers and independent contractors. These workers rent their workplace, and bring their own tools. So what is in their tool box?


Michael Katz has some suggestions for what you should have [1] .

Actually, his list are pretty simple, and mostly about being organized, getting “more efficient we can get managing repeatable, often mundane aspects of our work”.

  • Directions to my office
  • Standardized cards (e.g., “Thank you for the referral”)
  • Service descriptions (i.e., what you do)
  • New client questionnaire
  • Newsletter sign-up form

I note that all of these things are non-digital though all of them can be implemented in digital forms. In fact, every one of these ideas predate the ubiquitous internet.  They are about good business practices and relationships, not about technology.


Jeriann Ireland offers another take on this question, suggesting “The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers[2].

  • A Ready-to-Go Resume Template (and use LinkedIn to get it out there
  • A Decent Phone Plan (with call waiting)
  • A Dedicated Work Space (and separate computers and accounts)

This is a good list, and definitely a sound foundation.

His discussion of the “dedicated” workspace captures the essential psychology “Whether it’s a home office, a shared office space, or even a corner in your home, have a place where you only store work-related paperwork and itemsNaturally, “a dedicated workspace” might be membership in a local coworking space.

(I did raise an eyebrow at the comment that this is “the same concept as not spending non-sleeping time in your bed.”  Hmm.  I should never do anything in bed except sleep?)


Anyway, together these articles make clear that much of the challenge of freelancing is to be well organized, and to have a clear understanding of your own work processes.

“Templates” seem to be an important thing.  Basically, a template represents your understanding of how you work, and, as Katz puts it, the mundane and repeatable aspects.

I think this is a good point. Furthermore, the templates these guys mention most prominently are the “scripts” used for finding gigs and making contracts. There are other repeatable processes, such as billing, but connecting with new clients needs to be personal—so you need customized conversations.  

All this sounds like work!

Worse, it sounds exactly like “looking for a job”—which it is.  Gig workers have to really, really good at job hunting because they have to do it all the time. 

(Yet another reason I’ll never be a good Freelancer:  I absolutely hate, hate, hate job hunting.)


1. Jeriann Ireland, The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/07/are-you-a-freelancer-or-entrepreneur-2/

2. Michael Katz,, What’s in your tool chest?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/13/whats-in-your-tool-chest-2/

What is Coworking? It’s Partly About Office Management

Coworking spaces have emerged as one of the places where independent workers and small startups choose to work

Coworking is enabled by ubiquitous digital technology, which makes it possible for workers to “bring your own device”, and to work from pretty much anywhere.

The same technology has enabled office managers to operate not only anywhere, but at very small scales. From the point of view of the operator, the challenge of coworking is to be able to slice up workspace into one worker pieces, and very short time periods. Some coworking spaces are willing to rent a single desk for an hour at at time.

This granularity, and a desire to offer an array of packages, means that the office management must be extremely efficient and inexpensive. These processes have been automated for decades, of course, But now there are an increasing number of packages designed for the lowest budget operations, including coworking spaces.

Not only can workers work anywhere, it’s pretty easy to set up almost any space to be a rental workspace.

For example, Andy Alsop of “The Receptionist.com” (maker of office management products) wrote about the “5 Best Coworking Office Space Management Software Solutions [1] .His list gives us an idea of the tasks that are commonly needed.

The five products listed may be a bit out of date, there will surely be many more entries in the intervening years.

But the important thing is, what do coworking space operators need?

The basic core is managing memberships and payments. The latter is a straightforward billing/invoicing task. The former combines elements of property leasing with customer relations, and different tools offer different features for this.

Nexudus (one of the biggest players) manages stuff like events, newsletters, and also printers and so on. Optix also has member-to-member messaging (redundant with Facebook etc.?) and a market for desk space. Coworkify has sales and marketing features (i.e., for recruiting members to fill the desks). Happy Desk has wifi network management and door access features.

All of the systems are designed to be sold or leased at low cost to even the smallest operator.

I note that this article is in the blog of The Receptionist, a company that makes “The Receptionist for iPad”, a versatile, effective and easy-to-use visitor management system available”. This suite of features includes annoying stuff like logging visitors to your office, integrated with deeper annoying features that connect these logs with security or sales data bases. All on an iPad connected to cloud services.

Overall, it is clear that complex business office processes are available to pretty much anyone.

In the case of the products that are specialized for coworking, the business features are combined with social features (e.g., mail and chat groups), PR stuff (event management, “customer relationship” stuff), and technical managements (wifi, doors, printers).

Phew!

This job is harder than I realized.

But the best thing about these products, to my mind, is that they enable a good community leader to provide professional quality business services with relatively little effort. This frees time and energy for the most important part, schmoozing, connecting, teaching, and listening.


  1. Andy Alsop, 5 Best Coworking Office Space Management Software Solutions, in The Receptionist – Blog. 2015. https://thereceptionist.com/5-best-coworking-space-management-software-solutions/

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.