Amazon Mechanical Turk: Hire Your Own Minions for $2.71 an Hour

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I was working on a project that I was NOT looking forward to. You know the kind: hours of tedious mind-numbing work with no foreseeable shortcuts or efficiencies or automation.

About Mechanical Turk

Just when I was about to start I remembered hearing about a service from Amazon I’d been wanting to try. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a marketplace for a “cloud-based” outsourced labor force that will handle your most simple and boring tasks for pennies.

Alternatively, you can sign up as a Mechanical Turk worker and make money doing these jobs for others.

Each job is called a HIT, or Human Intelligence Task.

In total, I had over 1100 of these HITs I needed done. Specifically, workers would have to take input from a spreadsheet, perform a search, and then enter the result into the next cell.

Simple and easy, but time-consuming and boring, especially to do 1100 times. I priced these 1100 mini-jobs at $0.01 each — not knowing what was fair, I figured I’d start low.

Troubleshooting

I had some trouble figuring out how to set up my “HIT Template”, and after probably a half hour I was wondering if I should just bag it and do it myself. Shortly after that though, I found the source of my problem and I was off to the races.

Hint: if you’re getting a weird error that says, “Dhtml template Must contain a question”, it means you’re not providing any place for your workers to put their “answer” to your task. For my spreadsheet task, I used code like this:

${Column_Name}  <input type=”text” size=”35″ id=”Answer” name=”Item_Name”/>

This created a unique HIT for each row in the spreadsheet, where the value to be searched by workers is in the {Column_Name} column, and the result will go in the text box next to it.

My Mechanical Turk Results

After I got this figured out, the results were amazing. Almost immediately after posting my job, an army of workers started filling in the data.

The page was updated in real-time so I could monitor progress as it happened:

I uploaded 3 batches of work, and all were completed in a little over 2 hours.

  • Batch 1 took 15 seconds per job (367 jobs)
  • Batch 2 took 24 seconds per job (332 jobs)
  • Batch 3 took 21 seconds per job (408 jobs)

A total of 25 workers helped out on this project, on a Sunday afternoon, completing an average of 44 rows each.

The accuracy was very good. I spot-checked a few of the results and found no errors, and only had to reject 2 out of 1100+ for being returned blank — a 99.8% approval rate.

If I didn’t use the Mechanical Turk workforce, and instead did the work myself, it would have taken over 6 hours!

How Much Does it Cost?

Each completed row was worth $0.01, so the hourly rate for the workers ranged from $2.40/hr on Batch 1 to $1.50/hr on Batch 2.

My total outlay for the labor was $11.05, but Amazon has to make some money too so they add their fee on top of that. The fee is 10% of the job, with a minimum of $0.005 (half a penny) per task.

Since my tasks were so cheap, I was subject to the minimum fee, which amounted to a 50% surcharge on each HIT. It seemed like a steep increase but it’s all relative; I was getting a ton of mind-numbing work done for 1.5 cents each.

Overall, my cost was $16.58 ($11.05 to the 25 workers and $5.53 to Amazon). It took the workers 22041 seconds (6 hours, 7 minutes) to complete the tasks, and I don’t think I could have done it much faster.

So essentially I outsourced my work for $2.71 an hour with Mechanical Turk.

Is Outsourcing to Mechanical Turk Worth It?

Absolutely. With the data collected I think I can save far more than $16 over the course of the next few months. It’s an investment I hope will pay for itself many times over.

On the downside, I did spend a decent amount of those 6 hours I saved analyzing the work and writing this post.

Who Are These Workers?

Who are these penny minions? I wish I could tell you, but they were anonymous to me (and I assume I was anonymous to them).

All I could see was information like worker A1G**********9 completed 105 tasks. It would be interesting to see a geographic breakdown of where my workers were located. In some parts of the world, where people are living on less than a dollar a day, $2.40 an hour isn’t a bad wage.

I’ve also heard stories of people logging on to do some work while they’re watching TV. Most of the time I imagine the work is pretty brainless, so if you can earn a few extra bucks in your spare time, why not?

And when a job is too hard for the reward, they can simply move on to a new one; at the time of this writing there were 73,909 HITs available.

3 thoughts on “Amazon Mechanical Turk: Hire Your Own Minions for $2.71 an Hour”

  1. Interesting. I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this service. It’s interesting how it works and definitely a lot cheaper than doing minion work by hand. Have you tried it for more complex tasks?

    – Jorge

    Reply
    • So far I’ve only used mturk for simple but tedious stuff like that. Not sure how it work for more complex tasks — any ideas or examples?

      Reply

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