Think You’re Doing a Good Job? Not If the Algorithms Say You’re Not

Relying on data collected through smartphones, Gigwalk says it knows more about its workers than any company ever has

When job opportunities come through a mobile app
When job opportunities come through a mobile app Photo courtesy of Gigwalk

As we in America head into the Labor Day weekend, let us pause to consider that these days when you refer to an army of workers, you could be talking about people managed by their smartphones. That’s pretty much how it works with an outfit called Gigwalk,which has found a way to build a big temp worker network strictly through a iPhone app–and now it’s become available on Android phones.

Gigwalk’s M.O. is to use its app to quickly mobilize temp workers for projects that cover a lot of territory. Say, for instance, a big company needs pictures of restaurants or current menus for an online guide. Gigwalk puts out the word on its app and people get a chance to make a little extra money, usually at $12 to $15 an hour.

Kudos to Gigwalk for creating a new type of labor market to deal with jobs that otherwise would probably be too complex logistically to get done. It’s been suggested that it could become the “eBay of work.”

Somebody’s watching

So it’s all good, right? Well, mostly. But there’s another aspect of Gigwalk’s model that may give you pause. It scrupulously gathers performance data on it each of its temps, with the goal of being able to better match them with future gigs. It tracks how long it takes a person to respond to a job alert on their app–too slow and you ding your rating. It tracks the GPS on a temp’s phone see how long they spend on a job and takes that into account in measuring his or her productivity. It analyzes customer surveys, naturally, but it also evaluates how much complexity a person can handle on a project before they seek help.

All of this is wrapped into a “mathematical profile” that Gigwalk says makes it more likely that their temps will succeed because it’s easier to assign them to work for which they’re best suited. And the Gigwalk people are quite proud of that. As CEO Bob Bahramipour told Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “We know more about our workers than anyone has ever known about workers.”

Co-founder and CTO Matt Crampton had more to say in a recent interview on Salon:

“Behind the scenes we are watching everybody while they are going about doing their work. We are building these mathematical profiles on top of people, figuring out who is doing good jobs on a variety of gigs. We can figure out what kind of jobs you do well and start routing more complex, higher-paying jobs to you based on the skills we see inside our system. And then we can provide companies with workers with the specific kind of skill sets they need to get work done.”

It’s all perfectly logical, a deep bow to meritocracy, and as Crampton notes, if businesses–particularly retailers–find that this approach can consistently provide them with competent, geographically distributed temps, they’ll start to look for other ways to use them. And that could end up creating new kinds of jobs.

But there is the matter of Gigwalk’s worker profiles. Sure, they may be well-intentioned, but what to make of job performance grades largely driven by data and spawned by algorithms? How inviolable will they be? And who ultimately could have access to them?

Maybe I’m being paranoid–writing about algorithms as the engine of 21st century life will do that to you–but are we seeing the first hint of something like career credit ratings? Could you one day moan that your data points have done you wrong?

Matters of privacy

Here are other recent developments in the realm of digital privacy:

  • Is it in your DNA to want to let people know what’s in your DNA?: A small start up in Minneapolis named Miinome wants to create what it calls the first “member-controlled human genetic marketplace.” It would electronically store the DNA data of anyone who has had their genome sequenced. Haven’t gone there yet? Well, Miinome would do this for you for free or at low cost. In return, you’d have the option of sharing select aspects of your DNA data–say, gluten intolerance or a genetic disposition to male pattern baldness–with marketers who could target offers to you based on what your genes say about you.
  • It’s my life and you’re not welcome to it: According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of all U.S. teenagers who use mobile apps have avoided certain ones because they would have to share personal information. And just under half of the teenagers surveyed said they have turned off location-tracking features in apps they’ve downloaded. The researchers said they found that American teenagers tend to think about privacy in the sense of “social privacy” or whether an app is “creepy,” but don’t seem to worry much about personal data being captured through advertising or governmental surveillance, as adults do.
  • Thanks for sharing: Medical and health mobile apps are a boom business–an estimated 97,000 different ones now are out in the marketplace. And plenty of people are sharing lots of very personal information through those apps, assuming that it will stay secure and private. Not quite. A recent study found that many health apps firms don’t encrypt the data they receive and that fewer that half of those analyzed didn’t post privacy policies. Others didn’t disclose that captured data could be made available to third parties.
  • Not that I don’t trust you: A “Boyfriend Tracker” app was removed from the Google Play app store in Brazil last week in response to complaints about potential invasion of privacy abuses–but not before tens of thousands of Brazilians downloaded it. The app lets users obtain a call history, receive any incoming or outgoing text messages, identify a partner’s location on a map using GPS, and actually turn on the phone to listen in to the surrounding environment.
  • Help us help you get pregnant: Earlier this month, an app called Glow was launched with the goal of helping women get pregnant. Technically, it’s a free fertility app, but one that goes way beyond just tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle. It asks users to enter very detailed information about their health and sex lives–including frequency of sex and sexual positions. The more detailed the info is, say Glow’s creators, the more precise the app can be in projecting a woman’s best chance for getting pregnant. Glow is unique in another way, too. Users who sign up for a service called Glow First can get help paying for fertility treatments.

Video bonus: Rick Smolan, author of “The Human Face of Big Data” weighs in on how much we don’t know about what happens to all the personal info we’re so happy to share.

Video bonus bonus: It’s so hard to make Big Data entertaining. So Intel turned to monkeys and cats.

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