AI Freelancers At Omdena.com Team Up To Solve Tough Social And Economic Challenges


We’re only beginning to understand the full potential of AI, but here’s what we do know: without doubt, it’s foundational technology for IoT and the fourth industrial revolution.  We also know that comp sci is just scratching the surface of what’s possible well within the decade, with outcomes that not long ago would have caused more hilarity than knowing nods. 

Exhibit one: AI thought leader Kyle Wiggers wrote in his most recent AI Weekly:

“The fervor around state-of-the-art AI language models like Open AI’s GPT-3 hasn’t died down. If anything, it’s gaining steam. Melanie Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University, found evidence that GPT-3 can make primitive analogies. Raphaël Millière, a philosopher of mind and cognitive science at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, asked GPT-3 to compose a response to the philosophical essays written about it. Among other applications, the API providing access to the model has been used to create a recipe generator, an all-purpose Excel function, and a comedy sketch writer.”

McKinsey & Co calls AI the next digital frontier. Here’s what they found in a recent survey:

“A majority of executives whose companies have adopted AI report that it has provided an uptick in revenue in the business areas where it is used, and 44% say AI has reduced costs.

“The results also show that a small share of companies—from a variety of sectors—are attaining outsize business results from AI, potentially widening the gap between AI power users and adoption laggards. Respondents from these high-performing companies (or AI high performers) report that they achieve greater scale and see both higher revenue increases and greater cost decreases than other companies that use AI. The findings, however, provide a potential road map for laggards, showing that the AI high performers are more likely to apply core practices for using AI to drive value across the organization, mitigate risks associated with the technology, and retrain workers to prepare them for AI adoption.”

Deloitte has made a very strong bet on AI, establishing a partnership with Experfy, the largest AI and ML focused talent marketplace with over 25,000 experts and specialists. Deloitte’s most current survey noted:

  • The potential of AI is clearer and bigger. Adopting organizations say they are realizing significant benefits and expect AI to power a transformation of how they work.
  • It’s a continuing journey of innovation. Deloitte suggests that AI-powered organizations must work harder to maintain their edge as AI is increasingly integrated into applications.
  • It’s transformative, not just better. Using AI for automation and optimization provides significant benefits, but leading organizations are leveraging AI to create new products and ways of working.
  • Be astute consumers.  As AI increases in importance, organizations must be competent at knowing how to deploy, integrate, and scale these technologies.
  • Remember, there are risks to manage. As usage grows, so does risk—for example, unintended AI bias.  Organizations need to be attentive to the risk and invest accordingly. 

In a past article for Forbes, I described Experfy’s commercial focus and relationship with Deloitte. I recently met another AI oriented startup called Omdena that has adopted a strong social entrepreneurial agenda and is focused on solving particularly entrenched and difficult social problems affecting the world’s poorest citizens. Project examples include:

  • How the UN World Food Program (WFP) can more effectively anticipate when a disaster will hit?
  • How the World Resources Institute might better understand the environmental causes of land conflict in India
  • How the UNHCR can better understand the impact of environmental climate change on conflict in selected African countries
  • How a global social services agency can better understand and prevent familial violence during the Covid 19 or other pandemic lock down 

Meet Rudradeb Mitra, founder and CEO of Omdena and Google start up mentor. Mitra would be best called a serial social entrepreneur. The entrepreneurial bones are obvious – solving big problems, passion, innovative design – but the goal is a better world. Omdena was created to bring AI expertise to entrenched and difficult situations that particularly impact the poor and needy, an important focus particularly during Covid 19. 

Think of Omdena as a favored child of four parents: Good Judgement, the commercial arm of the superforecasters movement; Experfy, the largest AI talent platform; Ashoka, the consultancy that works with NGO’s around the world to reduce poverty and increase economic self-sufficiency; and Open Assembly, a crowd-sourcing pioneer led by John Winsor and focused on the future of work.

Mitra is a serial entrepreneur who has been working with AI for a while. His prior startup included an Etsy-type platform that connected buyers to rural artist handicraft communities. He then left the philanthropic world temporarily and built and sold a platform for mobile applications.

Omdena was founded less than two years ago with an interesting twist. His platform membership has grown significantly and now brings together 1300 AI professionals from a wide range (83) of countries. And as he puts it, “I’ve brought together experts that may not have the academic pedigree of a Stanford or MIT but are skilled, passionate, and eager to help. These experts are volunteers who work on Omdena projects without payment and tend to reflect three categories: university students and recent graduates eager for real world experience that will help them grow their career and build their network; established professionals working in corporates and eager to apply their skills on a part time basis to real world problems; and individuals changing career, for example, from medicine, business or research, who find participation helpful and personally fulfilling.  It’s worth noting that 20% of the AI experts on his platform are women; this is laudable and twice the percentage (12%) of women AI professionals globally.

A typical project – 23 have been completed thusfar – would start with an agreement with the host organization, and lead to a staffing call. Most projects are planned to last no more than two months, and Mitra’s plan is three new projects per month. A team of 50-60 volunteer experts is selected and organized based on the following criteria:

  • Availability to participate
  • Relevant tech / skill experiences
  • Motivation to participate e.g., why is this important to you?

At the end of the work stream, the project results are presented to the client.  The cost? Free to NGO’s, and at low cost to NGO funded organizations. The cost is greater for commercial startups and corporates.

 Why would Omdena’s platform members eagerly apply to work for free? Mitra points out: “I tap into professionals who are interested in giving back, are excited by data science, and are eager to have experiences that lift their career prospects and build their network and resume.”  One recent participant put it this way: “All I can say is that it has been simply and truly beautiful: the learning, the cause, the people, the discoveries, the challenge. I feel like I grew as a professional and person in these last two months.”  

And, for many of the AI volunteers, the project they volunteer for has personal meaning. Mitra gave an excellent example: “We worked on a project dealing with PTSD. One volunteer wrote back: ‘I experienced PTSD, and would like to help others avoid the experience if possible, or help them deal with it more effectively.’” 

Project impacts? Here are three client assessments that Mitra shared:

Head of Innovation, Sintecsys. “Working with Omdena brought us a functional AI model within two months. Something that would have taken us at least six months, using traditional development approaches.”

Data Science Associate, World Resources Institute. “The results of this partnership were very accurate and very useful to us. We’re currently scaling up the results to develop sub-national indices of environmental conflict for both Brazil and Indonesia, as well as validating the results in India with data collected in the field by our partner organizations. The data can help supply chain professionals mitigate risk in regards to product-sourcing. The data can also help policymakers who are engaged in active management to think about what works and where those things work.” 

Engineering Head, Safecity India. “In only two months with Omdena, we achieved what we tried for two years working with some of the largest corporations.” 

What’s the future of Omdena? For Mitra, it combines two goals: create a thriving platform for global collaboration in solving the social and environmental problems that limit the poorest countries from raising people out of poverty. And, create a powerful educational marketplace to grow, support and distribute AI skills through solving challenging the obstacles to global prosperity. It’s a big vision, and Omdena’s made a good start of it.

Omdena isn’t alone among platforms in deploying tech expertise to do well by doing good. For example, Topcoder, one of the best known freelance talent platforms, actively supports social entrepreneurship through its “Crowd for Good” initiative, which invites platform members to contribute ideas, recommendations, and help build prototype solutions to key social projects commissioned on a quarterly basis. As Mike Morris, Topcoder CEO describes it, “People are glad to work on these projects, and we’re equally glad to support them, because it’s the right thing to do.” And social entrepreneurship continues to grow more generally. Consultok.com, an up and coming Chilean start-up, provides short, video based, pro bono coaching to Chilean professionals and students in a variety of areas, from marketing to HR (spoiler alert: I’m a new volunteer coach for Consultok.com).

What’s the future of AI? Thought leaders like Melanie Mitchell, in her new book Artificial Intelligence, and Neil Sahota in his new book Own the AI Revolution, help separate the hype of AI – our greatest hopes and fears for the technology – from what is doable today, and achievable in the near future. What we do know with certainty is the significant opportunity for freelancers to be part of the AI economy, both commercially and as responsible citizens of the world. As freelance platforms continue to play an increasing role in innovation and transformation, collaboration across platforms is vital and essential.  As both Erik Stettler of Toptal, and Morris of Topcoder put it, and I’m paraphrasing: ‘This is a time for freelance talent platforms to lead. There is so much more we can achieve if we’re willing to work together.’

Viva la revolution!



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AI Freelancers At Omdena.com Team Up To Solve Tough Social And Economic Challenges

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