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On-Demand Transcribing: communication access, whenever you need it

There’s so much buzz about Uber — a new app that connects people who need a ride with local drivers — and how its on-demand business model could change the world. But one economist said in an interview with The New York Times, “This on-demand economy means a work life that is unpredictable, doesn’t pay very well and is terribly insecure.” 

The bigger question, of course, is: who pays for the service?

He added, “Can you imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turk economy, where everyone is doing piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?”

Sounds gloomy, doesn’t it?

For many transcribers, it actually sounds painfully familiar. Many TypeWell service providers — both individuals and companies — already live with a reliably unpredictable schedule from one school term to the next. This causes job and income insecurity, and often leads to burnout. Depending on where a provider works, there may never be any guarantee of “getting enough hours.” It is the #1 reason that ex-transcribers cite for leaving the profession

Could an on-demand business model help real-time transcribers supplement their income?

Even for those who do have relatively stable part-time or even full-time transcribing gigs, there are still gaps where the work (and the money) slows down. Transcribers aren’t earning income during holiday breaks, exam weeks, or when students cancel services due to illness. To fill in those gaps, one could simply hop onto a website like Shiftboard to pick-up available short-term jobs. 

Is there a market for on-demand transcribing?

Absolutely. Hundreds of students who use speech-to-text accommodations during college are graduating each year and entering the work force. They need communication access at work, during training, staff meetings, and client meetings. Are they receiving services? It often depends on their employer’s willingness to provide accommodations, and the employee’s willingness to self-identify and request accommodations. 

Working professionals with hearing loss don’t necessarily need a transcriber at their workplace, following them around from room to room to provide communication access. Instead, they could use an on-demand service to access a remote transcriber, using a tablet or smartphone with a decent microphone to initiate the phone call. Once the transcriber has access to the audio, the live transcript can be simultaneously streamed back to the viewer’s web browser, on the same device. 

Remote transcribers can also provide access to communication when people need it at church, the doctor’s office, etc. There are confidentiality issues in the health care setting, but those issues can be resolved, just as they have been with sign language interpreters. The bigger question, of course, is: who pays for the service? 

What would an on-demand transcribing business model look like?

Agencies are already providing services nearly on demand. When their clients call with last-minute requests, agency coordinators — many of whom are professionally trained transcribers themselves — will scramble to find an available provider from within their existing pools of transcribers. But this isn’t their business model, at least not intentionally. Most of their revenue comes from regular, steady semester- or year-long assignments. 

What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?

The key to providing a truly on-demand service is to be able to guarantee availability on short notice. The shorter the notice — or the stronger the guarantee — the steeper the price. 

This service would require all the same resources as a remote transcribing agency, with even more efficient scheduling and billing, immediate availability, rapid customer service, and a large pool of reliable and highly-skilled transcribers. I don’t know of any companies offering such a specialized service with TypeWell transcribers, but the need is still there (and growing).

Are there enough remote transcribers available to supply the demand for one-off services?

Consider Ken Deutsch, one of TypeWell’s own on-demand freelancers. Ken doesn’t provide transcribing services for us, but he’s essentially “on call” all week, every week, to walk on-site proctors through the process of administering final skill checks at the end of each new transcriber’s training course.

How does he do it? Ken is a remote transcriber, so he’s already working in his home office nearly full-time. Proctors email him to request an appointment, and he usually accommodates them to within half an hour of the requested appointment time — sometimes with only a couple of hours’ notice. His home life is flexible enough that he can take the occasional appointment very early in the morning or late at night. (Our trainees are spread across 5 different time zones.) 

If Ken can squeeze several random 15-minute meetings into his already-packed schedule each week, he just might do the same for an on-demand transcribing service. So might hundreds of other remote transcribers.

photo credit: Amarand Agasi via photopin cc

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Kate Ervin

Kate became a TypeWell transcriber in 2004 and began training new transcribers in 2009. She has served as TypeWell's Executive Director since 2011.

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