Digital Sweat Shops

The fear is that online labor markets, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, allow unscrupulous employers to exploit disadvantaged workers. The truth appears somewhat different.

Last month, Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, published an article in Newsweek about online labour markets such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Here, employers advertise mindless tasks that are too complex for computers but which workers from anywhere in the world can do for a few pennies per pop; things like labelling pictures with keywords or writing and sending spam.

The online labour market is transforming the world of work. It gives workers the chance to work for themselves in relatively safe conditions away from tyrannical bosses and at times that suit them. It also gives employers access to a global pool of flexible workers, 24 hours a day.

On the face of it, that looks great, said Zittrain. But there’s a darker aspect to all this. “Online contracting circumvents a range of labor laws and practices, found in most developed countries, that govern worker protections, minimum wage, health and retirement benefits, child labor,” he wrote.

And since workers may not have any idea of who they are working for or why, they can unknowingly become involved in nefarious activities. He suggested: “Iran’s leaders could ask Turkers to cross-reference the faces of the nation’s 72 million citizens with those of photographed demonstrators. Based on Mechanical Turk’s current rates, Repression 2.0 would cost a mere $17,000 per protester.” The online labor market is just another sweat shop in digital form, says Zittrain.

These are certainly reasons for concern but what do the workers themselves think of their newfound employers? This is the question that John Horton from Harvard University investigates today.

He carried out a survey of 200 workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT). (He paid 12c per response which is equivalent to an hourly rate of $5.68, good money on AMT, if you can get it.) He asked each respondent one of two questions. Either:

What percentage (between 0 and 100) of Employers in your home country would you estimate treat workers honestly and fairly?


What percentage (between 0 and 100) of Mechanical Turk Requesters would you estimate treat workers honestly and fairly?

AMT requesters can choose to pay out after a task has been completed so they have the option of cheating their employees with little or no comeback. But if that actually happened, online workers ought to have a dim view of online employees.

The results of the survey show something else. Online workers view both offline and online employees more or less equally. In other words, they believe their chances of being treated fairly are as good or better online as they are offline. “Contrary to our prior expectations, rampant exploitation is a mischaracterization,” says Horton.

Of course, perceptions of fairness are not necessarily a measure of actual fairness but they give an interesting window into this debate.

As with almost any endeavour, the benefits of online labour have to be balanced against the disadvantages. Horton points out that the benefits are potentially huge: the markets give people in poor countries access to buyers in rich countries.

He reports in the same paragraph that “the World Bank estimates that in 2008 remittances to developing countries were over $305 billion, which exceeds both private capital flows and social development aid.” (Although it isn’t clear how much of that money is generated from online labour markets.)

These changes are potentially transformative for the world’s poor.

That’s why calls to regulate the online labour market need to be carefully judged. One idea is to force Amazon to verify that each new task is not being used to generate spam. That seems overly draconian. If the price of transformative change for some of the world’s poorest people is that spam filters have to work a little harder, so be it (perhaps workers on AMT could filter spam in inboxes).

What’s needed of course is more research studying these workers and the effect that the online labour market is having on them. At $5.68 an hour, most AMT workers would be happy to help.

Ref: The Condition of the Turking Class: Are Online Employers Fair and Honest?


DOE’s Chu kicks off green-tech transfer fund

by Martin LaMonica

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Monday announced the creation of a program to transfer clean-energy technologies to developing countries at the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

Called the Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative (Climate REDI), the goal is to promote the use of efficient and renewable energy products to cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve the quality of life in poor countries, according to the DOE.

Climate REDI will be coordinated with existing technology transfer programs and organizations. Total spending will be $350 million over five years with the U.S. funding $100 million.

Click on image to see photo gallery of low-cost lighting technologies.

The three areas that the U.S. portion will fund will be:

•  Combination solar panels and LED lights, which can be used as an alternative to polluting and unhealthy kerosene lamps.

•  Incentive programs in the so-called Major Economies Forum to make more efficient appliances commercially available.

•  Technical and policy support for low-income countries establish renewable energy strategies.

The details of the green technology transfer program, part of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, comes the same day that delegates from developing countries withdrew participation from negations, although talks were expected to resume later.

Turning Desert into a Garden/Food Forest

before_after_field_jordanWritten by Zachary Shahan

About two kilometers from the Dead Sea and two from where Jesus was christened, in the country of Jordan, Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute and his crew created a near miracle turning desert into a lush permaculture garden.

In August in this location, Lawton says that temperatures could rise above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). People farming there were farming under plastic strips and using tons of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. The idea to grow a lush forest or garden of edible plants would probably make people laugh or roll their eyes. Nonetheless, the permaculture crew had exactly this vision in mind and a little funding to help them to do it.

Lawton and his group were given about 10 acres of extremely salty and flat soil 400 meters below sea level. They designed a system to collect as much of the rainwater as possible into swales (”water-harvesting ditches on contour”), bordered the swales with mulch and, on the uphill side, nitrogen-fixing trees that helped to shade the water and prevent evaporation. Underneath the mulch, they put mini-irrigation systems. On the downhill side, they planted fruit trees — date palms, fig trees, pomegranate trees, guava trees, mulberry trees, and some citrus — mixed in with non-fruit trees and more mulch (very non-traditional agriculture).

Within four months, they had figs growing. Local agriculture experts had told them that figs could not grow there, so when the figs started growing they invited these local experts to come determine if they had de-salted the soil or if they were growing things in salty soil which “could not” grow in salty soil. They found the salt levels were dropping, but could not determine why, initially (watch the video to see why, exactly, the soil was “de-salted” — at about minute 6:00).

In December, the locals were shocked to find mushrooms growing underneath the mulch, something they had never seen due to the extreme dryness in the area. The ecosystem itself had created deep, extremely fertile soil, an amazing feat there!

The project ran out of its main funding source (due to the nature of the funding) but even without the money, the place is now “developing itself” and producing more and more on its own. It essentially just relies on the area’s small amount of rainfall now.

As a result of this project (on the most horrible land for such a project), Lawton concludes that they could re-green the Middle-East or any desert. A garden could be grown in the driest, saltiest soil. Deserts thought to be ruined by grazing, deforestation, harmful agriculture, or nearly anything else, could be re-greened with permaculture practices.

This is an amazing discovery based on simple, but well-thought out design. The methods could help solve problems in countless places. Permaculture, if ever spread to the broader world, could bring relief to millions (or more) people.

Image Credit 1 & 2: Geoff Lawton (Jamal Al Deen)

Follow Link for Video –


Cocaine, Spices, Hormones Found in Drinking Water

tap waterChristine Dell’Amore
National Geographic News
November 12, 2009
This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographic’s Freshwater Web site.

How’s this for a sweet surprise? A team of researchers in Washington State has found traces of cooking spices and flavorings in the waters of Puget Sound. (See map.)

University of Washington associate professor Richard Keil heads the Sound Citizen program, which investigates how what we do on land affects our waters.

Keil and his team have tracked “pulses” of food ingredients that enter the sound during certain holidays.

For instance, thyme and sage spike during Thanksgiving, cinnamon surges all winter, chocolate and vanilla show up during weekends (presumably from party-related goodies), and waffle-cone and caramel-corn remnants skyrocket around the Fourth of July.

The Puget Sound study is one of several ongoing efforts to investigate the unexpected ingredients that find their way into the global water supply.

Around the world, scientists are finding trace amounts of substances—from sugar and spice to heroine, rocket fuel, and birth control—that might be having unintended consequences for humans and wildlife alike.

Vanilla Seas?

When spices and flavorings are flushed out of a U.S. home, they travel to a sewage-treatment facility, where most of them are removed.

In the area around Puget Sound, the University of Washington team found, the spicy residues that remain in wastewater end up flowing into the sound’s inland waterways.

Of all the flavors trickling downstream, artificial vanilla dominates the sound, Keil said. For instance, the team found an average of about six milligrams of artificial vanilla per liter of water sampled.

The region’s sewage runoff contains more than 14 milligrams of vanilla per liter. This would be like spiking an Olympic-size swimming pool with approximately ten 4-ounce (113.4-gram) bottles of artificial vanilla.

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Cinderella fruit: Wild delicacies become cash crops

mg20427331.200-1_300by Charlie Pye-Smith

IF YOU had come here 10 years ago, says Thaddeus Salah as he shows us round his tree nursery in north-west Cameroon, you would have seen real hunger and poverty. “In those times,” he says, “we didn’t have enough chop to eat.” It wasn’t just food – “chop” in the local dialect – that his family lacked. They couldn’t afford school fees, healthcare or even chairs for their dilapidated grass-thatch house.

Salah’s fortunes changed in 2000 when he and his neighbours learned how to identify the best wild fruit trees and propagate them in a nursery. “Domesticating wild fruit like bush mango has changed our lives,” he says. His family now has “plenty chop”, as he puts it. He is also earning enough from the sale of indigenous fruit trees to pay school fees for four of his children. He has been able to re-roof his house with zinc sheets and buy goods he could only dream of owning before. He even has a mobile phone.

From Salah’s farm we gaze across the intensively cultivated hills which roll away towards the Nigerian border. “Ten years ago, you’d hardly see any safou [African plum, Dacryodes edulis] in this area,” says Zachary Tchoundjeu, a botanist at the World Agroforestry Centre‘s regional office in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé. “Now you see them growing everywhere.”

The spread of African plum through these hills is one small part of a bigger movement that could change the lives of millions of Africans. The continent is home to some 3000 species of wild fruit tree, many of which are ripe for domestication. Chocolate berries, gingerbread plums, monkey oranges, gumvines, tree grapes and a host of others could soon play a role in ensuring dependable food supplies in areas now plagued by malnutrition (see “Future fruits of the forest”).

One of the architects of the programme is Roger Leakey, a former director of research at the World Agroforestry Centre. He calls these fruit trees “Cinderella species”: their attributes may have gone unrecognised by science and big business, but the time has come for them to step into the limelight.

“The last great round of crop domestication took place during the green revolution [in the mid-20th century], which developed high-yielding varieties of starchy staples such as rice, maize and wheat,” says Leakey. “This new round could scarcely be more different.” Sparsely funded and largely ignored by agribusiness, high-tech labs and policy-makers, it is a peasant revolution taking place in the fields of Africa’s smallholders.

The revolution has its roots in the mid-1990s, when researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre conducted a series of surveys in west Africa, southern Africa and the Sahel to establish which indigenous trees were most valued by local people. “We were startled by the results,” says Tchoundjeu. “We were expecting people to point to commercially important timber species, but what they valued most were indigenous fruit trees.”

In response to this unexpected finding, the World Agroforestry Centre launched a fruit tree domestication programme in 1998. It began by focusing on a handful of species, including bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis), an indigenous African species unrelated to the Indian mango, African plum – not actually a plum but a savoury, avocado-like fruit sometimes called an afrocado – and a nut tree known locally as njansan (Ricinodendron heudelotii). Though common in the forests and as wild trees on farms, they were almost unknown to science. “We knew their biological names, but that was about all,” says Ebenezar Asaah, a tree specialist at the World Agroforestry Centre. “We had no idea how long it took for them to reach maturity and produce fruit, and we knew nothing about their reproductive behaviour.” Local people, in contrast, knew a good deal about them, as the trees’ fruits have long been part of their diet.

Rural Africans consume an enormous variety of wild foodstuffs. In Cameroon, fruits and seeds from around 300 indigenous trees are eaten, according to a study by researchers at Cameroon’s University of Dschang. A similar survey in Malawi and Zambia found that up to 40 per cent of rural households rely on indigenous fruits to sustain them during the “hungry months”, particularly January and February, when supplies in their granaries are exhausted and they are waiting for their next harvest (Acta Horticulturae, vol 632, p 15).

Some of these so called “famine foods” have already been domesticated by accident, says ethnoecologist Anthony Cunningham of People and Plants International, an NGO based in Essex Junction, Vermont. He cites the example of marula (Sclerocarya birrea), a southern African tree in the cashew family with edible nutty seeds encased in a tart, turpentine-flavoured fruit. “Long before the development of agricultural crops, hunter-gatherers were eating marula fruit,” he says. “They’d pick the best fruit, then scatter the seeds around their camps.” These would eventually germinate and mature into fruit-bearing trees, ensuring, in evolutionary terms, the survival of the tastiest. Marula is now fully domesticated and the fruit is used to make juice, a liqueur called Amarula Cream and cosmetic oils.

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In Just 4 Short Years, Kiva Hits $100 Million In Microloans

kiva-microloansby Jaymi Heimbuch, San Francisco, California

Back in 2005, Warren wrote about Kiva, and making history on a one-to-one basis. Kiva was a brand new idea, an easier, more human-centered way for struggling business owners to get the helping hand they need. Now, four years later, Kiva has hit a record – $100 million in microloans.

As of October 31, Kiva has facilitated the movement of $100 million between people, helping small businesses stay above water. “What’s even more amazing to me is that it took over 1 year to raise our first $1 million . This year alone, we’re on track to raise nearly $60 million.”

TechCrunch notes, “The company has brought together 573,000 lenders (people like you and me putting in $25 or more towards a specific project), and 239,000 entrepreneurs.”

We are big supporters of the microlending system. Many of us TreeHugger writers have invested funds in Kiva, and a similar system that offers a return on investments called MicroPlace was part of our Holiday Gift Guide for Philanthropists last year.

It’s an amazing way to help people help themselves, and redistribute wealth. Congratulations Kiva, on such a significant achievement.

More on Microlending
Green Investing with Microloans
MicroPlace and How Micro Loans Make a Big Difference (Video)
How to Go Green: Investing


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Maldives President Calls Underwater Cabinet Meeting: Tells His Ministers to Take Scuba Lessons, in Maldives

mediumMaldives president Mohamed Nasheed has asked his cabinet members to take scuba lessons and learn underwater signs in preparation for a cabinet meeting he has called for October 17 — the reason for the lessons and sign language is because the meeting

will be held 20 feet underwater.

The small low-lying nation archipelago averages only seven feet above sea-level, and may be one of the first nations to disappear entirely due to sea level rise from global warming.

“The intention is to draw the attention of the world leaders to the issue of global warming and highlight how serious are the threats faced by Maldives as a result,” said Aminath Shauna from president Nasheed’s office. “If we can stop climate change, the lowest-lying nation on earth will be saved.”

The meeting will take place off the island of Girifushi, a twenty minute boat ride from the capital of Male.

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