Kenyans from "the toughest neighborhood on earth" trace pixels all day to train autonomous vehicles

The Nairobi neighborhood of Kibera is Africa's largest slum, and it's home to an unlikely, Silicon-Valley-style tech park operated by Samasource (motto: "Artificial intelligence meets human dignity"), who serves clients from Google to Microsoft to Salesforce, using clickworkers who get paid $9/day, compared to the going wage of $2/day in the region's "informal economy" (the company believes that paying wages on par with rich-world clickworkers would "distort the local economy").

One major project at Samasource's Kibera office is producing training data for self-driving cars: workers carefully trace pixel-accurate outlines around road-features like signs, cars, license plates, etc.

There are many ways in which Samsource benefits Kibera: workers are paid a living wage and enjoy better working conditions than are standard in Kibera, and women make up about half of the workforce, and can take 90 days' maternity leave and use a lactation room when they return. Workers who leave Samasource continue to thrive, pursuing higher education and/or "more formal work."

But the work is still unpleasant in ways that are familiar from other places where this kind of work is done, from the poor ergonomics to the worker metric tools that encourage workers to skip breaks in order to make quota (Samasource said it would re-evaluate the ergonomics).

More problematic is that Kibera's residents are unlikely to benefit from self-driving cars at any time in the foreseeable future — while they could benefit from much lower-tech interventions, like clean water and sanitation.

Samasource is a really good example of both the possibilities and limitations of the economic development for "lifting people out of poverty." Kenya is a rich country with many natural resources that has struggled with the legacy of colonialism: much of the wealth of the former colonizers can be traced to extraction from Kenya, and today, those colonizing powers turn a blind eye to the laundering of the billions extracted from the region by corrupt officials and businesspeople.

Samasource is an example of a single firm that is making a large, positive difference in the lives of the people who work for it — but it is able to do so because it is making a much larger positive benefit to the bottom line of the most profitable corporations on earth — corporations whose tax-dodging has contributed to falling levels of direct aid to the region, and whose tax-evasion tactics are shared by the region's looter class.

Samasource has a huge and laudable effect on a relatively small cohort of workers, and for that it deserves praise. But even a thousand Samasouces wouldn't make population-scale changes to the region — unlike eliminating tax evasion, paying reparations that could be used to supply clean water and sanitation, and other nation-changing interventions.

Therein lies the problem: in an increasingly unequal world where inequality-producing markets are posed as the best (or only) tool for solving our problems, Samasource shows that the very best we can hope for is not nearly enough.

Founded in 2008, Samasource received a frosty reception in its early days. In recession-hit America, outsourcing a large number of jobs to the developing world was not seen as a welcome idea. It arguably still isn't.

Those who did like the concept worried there were too few people with the digital skills necessary to do the work to a standard the tech giants would accept.

"Very smart people in the tech world, and in the world of big philanthropy said this was a wonderful idea, but that it would never work," Janah recalled. Today, Samasource is the largest organisation of its kind in East Africa, and also has facilities in Asia and North America.

Janah touts the company's record for accuracy and security as the major reasons why Google et al come to them for this work. But of course, there's an obvious motivation for these companies to use workers in parts of the world where wages are rock bottom, and where locals are desperate for steady work.

Samasource targets those currently earning around $2 a day, or less, in the so-called informal economy of odd – or dangerous – jobs. Samasource instead provides a living wage of around $9 a day. That's an improvement, but still a pittance for Silicon Valley.

Why Big Tech pays poor Kenyans to programme self-driving cars [Dave Lee/BBC]

(Image: TUBS, CC-BY-SA; Cryteria, CC-BY)