By Dr Geneive Brown Metzger
Co-Chair, University of Technology, Jamaica
NEW YORK, USA -- The Caribbean has been, for some time now, building its technology infrastructure to be able to exploit the information and technology sector for economic and social development. With almost 100 percent penetration in Jamaica, mobile phones have become more ubiquitous than outdoor plumbing, even in rural areas. Notwithstanding, in the Caribbean, government regulation that promotes access to and utilization of technology and investment in the industry could be much more robust.
On the horizon, is the promise of massive employment of micro-workers in the virtual economy.
“The advent of micro-work is a promising and innovative development that uses the democratizing quality of the internet to provide the disadvantaged with a much-needed ingress into the formal sector (of work),” writes tech blogger, Olivia Allen, in her blog entitled “Micro-Work: A Foray into the Formal Sector”.
Numbered in the millions available online daily, computer-based micro-tasks are doable by individuals who possess basic computer proficiency and a computer.
Micro-works is known as the breaking down of a project into a series of small digital, manageable tasks that can be carried out by a number of different individuals located in any part of the world. Virtual economy jobs range from small tasks that can be completed in less than two minutes to e-lance assignments that require a longer period of time to complete. They include anything from merely clicking on to a web link, registering on a retail site or commenting on a product. E-lance assignments, which are freelance online assignments, usually take more time and draw on specialized skills, such as editing, writing and even mathematical competencies.
World Bank pilots initiative
In June of last year, the World Bank launched a pilot project in Jamaica called Digital Jam 2.0, which ran for two days and was attended by over 3,500 young computer savvy Jamaicans. The project had two basic objectives: 1) to promote new opportunities to Jamaicans in the virtual economy of micro-works; and (2) to provide the stage for youth to come forward with their own products to demonstrate their capacity, talent and innovation to the island and to the rest of the world.
The event was spearheaded by Fabio Pittaluga, the World Bank's senior social development specialist, Latin America and the Caribbean. It featured a 24-hour hackathon, an apps contest, seminars and a marketplace/job fair. A handful of CEOs and high-level representatives from such companies, as oDesk and SamaSource, were on hand in Jamaica. They estimate that Jamaica could see 50,000 micro-workers over the next three to five years.
Jamaican youth are prepared
“Digital Jam turned out to be an eye-opener”, says Fabio Pittaluga. “It revealed that Jamaica is a rich reservoir of young persons who are well-trained and equipped to take advantage of working online”, he continued. Backing up Pittaluga's excitement about Jamaica's future in the virtual economy, Nahtvi Nguyen, president/founder of Microworks, was also very positive about Jamaica's potential. Nguyen, in his remarks at the Digital Jam conference, commented that the country's workforce is ideal for online work and cited having a command of the English language as a premium advantage.
Unemployment in Jamaica is over 31 percent among young persons aged 15-39. According to the World Bank, Jamaica's unemployment challenge is, in part, due to the fact that there is not enough opportunity in the traditional sector for young people. Since the Digital Jam event, over 500 Jamaicans have become employed online. It is estimated that with the right investment in Jamaica's virtual economy, the country could see as many as 50,000 employees in this sector in the next three to five years.
The Overseas Examination Commission in Jamaica that administers high school competency exams revealed that 2,500 individuals, aged 16-21, received grades 1 or 2 in the visual arts between 2008 and 2012. These individuals are prepared to go into new tech jobs, if they choose and if the opportunities are available. According to Pittaluga, this indicates “that the talent is there... it is just a question of reaping and showcasing it.”
Virtual economy offers prospects for entrepreneurs
“Many Jamaicans have left their traditional jobs for work in the virtual economy,” according to Marcel Morgan, a software developer. Morgan was working for a bank and left a comfortable position to work online. He claims that he earns fifty percent more money working online than he did at the bank. But he didn't make this change just for a job.
“This is an opportunity to work in the global marketplace of information technology and to achieve my dream of being an entrepreneur,” said Morgan. He graduated in 2004 from the University of the West Indies with a degree in computer sciences. As a father of a young son, being able to work at home is a bonus.
Morgan's first project was developing an online domino game (www.dominoj.com). He plans to turn it into an app for sale on the international market. At 29-years-old and running his own business on a fulltime basis for a year, he is doing well enough to hire one employee. Initially, he kept his banking job and worked part-time online for two years. He didn't anticipate the volume of work that would come his way and he's had to turn down assignments. He sees this as a stepping stone to establishing a full blown IT consulting practice. He strongly advocates the industry and promotes the opportunities available by mentoring new online workers. He got such an opportunity when he was invited to be a presenter at the Digital Jam -- a reward for being rated amongst the top oDesk contractors from Jamaica in 2012.
Entrepreneurship, particularly in the digital space, demands intellectual property protection. The products of digital entrepreneurs are salable in the global market, and thus IP protection becomes a legal necessity for new technology products, such as apps, animation, and video games. The Jamaican Investment and Promotion Agency (JAMPRO) is working with the Jamaican Intellectual Property Office to ensure these entrepreneurs are represented and their products adequately protected.
Investment opportunity for the Diaspora
It is estimated that there are between five hundred and one thousand Jamaicans employed through micro-works -- many of the jobs generated by Silicon Valley dot coms, such as oDesk and SamaSource.
A handful of these dot com CEOs and high-level representatives were at Digital Jam 2.0 in 2012 and they estimate that Jamaica could see 50,000 micro-workers over the next three to five years. When asked what virtual economy entrepreneurs need most, Morgan said venture capital. He remarks that he would like to see a venture capital fund -- and is quick to point out that the investment would be a good one because of the level of talent that is in Jamaica. The market is wide open and there are currently not many players or competition.
Although thousands of young techies have been developing their skill for years, it is only now that the Jamaican tech market is beginning to become known. Funding a venture capital firm for tech is not without its risks, but it also has the potential to create significant wealth for investors.
A major foreign tech company that has kept up with the sector in Jamaica is Toon Boon, an animation company whose technology is behind the production of the Oscar winner, “Toy Story”. Toon Boon has offices in Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad. Company executives mentor local talent.
“Cabbie Chronicles”, a Jamaican animated feature, recently won the DEW Best Caribbean Animation Award at the Animae Caribe Animation and New Media Festival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.