Smart-phone app lets you do good deeds in your spare time

The Extra­ordinaries' "microvolunteers" phone it in

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Jacob Colker is CEO of The Extraordinaries, which offers on-demand volunteerism to users via iPhone.
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For most people, volunteering means spending a few hours at a soup kitchen or tutoring a student over the weekend.

But modern smart phones such as the Apple iPhone now allow for meaningful volunteering during the in-between times.

Call it on-demand volunteerism.

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That’s the idea behind The Extra­ordinaries, a San Francisco-based group, whose mission is to get people to volunteer whenever it’s convenient. It could be standing in line at the post office, waiting for a lunch date to arrive, or half time at a child’s sports event. All the volunteer needs is The Extraordinaries’ free iPhone  app and decent cellphone reception.

Jacob Colker, cofounder and CEO of The Extraordinaries, calls it microvolunteering – devoting idle moments to good deeds.

Using an iPhone, on-demand volunteers can tap into ongoing nonprofit work that would otherwise take months or years for a small team to accomplish. But the iPhone application taps into millions of potential helpers, each with a few free minutes to spare. The fledgling program, which is in public beta testing, currently asks users to help “tag” historical photos or videos for museums to make them searchable by computer.

Though some 61.8 million Americans aged 16 and up volunteered at least once through or for an organization from September 2007 to September 2008, that means about 74 percent of that population did not. Mr. Colker says the new iPhone application is for them.

“I think there are huge swaths of the population that want to give back,” Colker says. “That is something that we as a society yearn for. We want to do a lot more than swipe a credit card or write a check.”

The idea of using a smart phone to volunteer emerged when Ben Rigby, cofounder and chief technology officer for The Extraordinaries, was writing a chapter on mobile phones and engagement for his book “Mobilizing Generation 2.0.” As he wrote, he began to think about developing an iPhone app that would match people with nearby nonprofits so they could volunteer on demand.

“What if you could be standing on a street corner and find a nonprofit near you to volunteer for?” Mr. Rigby says.

He is also founder of Mobile Voter, which sent text messages to youths to remind them to vote and to encourage them to register during the 2008 election.

Rigby developed a prototype for his idea, but says it failed to gain critical mass. A few months later, the idea resurfaced when he met Colker, a former advocacy campaign manager for The International Campaign for Tibet. Colker suggested that the duo build the iPhone app around “crowdsourcing,” where volunteers tackle a problem piecemeal. Examples of successful crowdsourcing efforts include Wikipedia and reCaptcha, which rely on the power of the crowd to contribute data to the online encyclopedia or transcribe series of numbers and letters to create a digital library.

The Extraordinaries’ app, which went online in March, invites volunteers to tag photos for nine museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Powerhouse Museum of Sydney, and the US Library of Congress. People can also help create a nationwide map of playgrounds by taking photos of neighborhood play areas for the nonprofit organization KaBOOM, which aims to build playgrounds within walking distance of every child in America.

As the program grows, The Extraor­din­aries envision smart-phone volunteers translating documents, tutoring students, collecting citizen-scientist data, and having people report potholes or other municipal complaints using the iPhone’s GPS capabilities. If the movement gains enough credibility, volunteers might read through congressional bills to uncover hidden “pork,” or fact-check for reporters.

Soon, Colker says, the group will launch a year-long pilot program in San Jose, Calif., to collaborate with 20 to 30 nonprofit organizations to add tasks for a new version of their iPhone app.

Just how much nonprofits may benefit from the iPhone app will take some time to determine. More than 1,700 people have downloaded the iPhone app since March. To date, the volunteers have written 9,219 tags for photos. But some partners have seen more success than others.

KaBOOM, for example, has seen fewer than 30 playgrounds mapped through the app – a tiny number compared with the 90,000 that KaBOOM mapped in a year through its website. Darell Ham­mond, Ka­BOOM’s cofounder, however, is optimistic that the iPhone app will help them long term as it is more widely marketed.

“The only way we’re going to be able to meet such an audacious goal [of mapping every playground in the nation] is to get as many people out there doing it as much as possible,” says Mr. Hammond.

At the Smithsonian Institution, Nancy Proctor, head of new media initiatives for the American Art Museum, hopes the tagging of museum photographs will make “content more findable.” She imagines the app eventually being used to translate websites and English tags into other languages.

With some 87 percent of Americans carrying mobile phones in their pockets, according to the wireless industry’s trade association, Colker says it was the first scheme they wanted to tinker with.

“The logical place to capture time is mobile phones,” says Colker. “Our goal is to harness as much of microamounts of spare time in many different places.” Eventually, the group plans to expand their on-demand volunteer opportunities to include all smart phones, desktop computers, and laptops.

The idea to use a smart phone to volunteer is a new concept, says Jeff Howe, who coined the term “crowdsourcing” in a June 2006 article for Wired magazine. Mr. Howe, who went on to write the book “Crowdsourcing,” says the Extraordinaries’ app “has a huge potential” to have an impact on nonprofits.

“What we see in crowdsourcing is, it generates a lot of passion on the part of its contributors,” Howe says. It’s an “online intersection between something that’s productive of financial value to a company or, say, a museum, and something that gives a large number of people pleasure.”

Howe’s book explores how amateur astronomers have helped scientists collect data. “We’ve vastly underestimated the amount of passion and interest we have,” he says.

The Extraordinaries have spoken with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., on leveraging their citizen-scientist program to help them catalogue birds.

Rigby predicts that crowdsourcing will enable more people to volunteer, mainly because it’s “the type of work you can do on your phone on the spot rather than going somewhere,” he says. “It gets rid of a whole lot of logistical headaches.... You can actually distribute work to your crowd, and people can do it whenever and wherever they are available.”

But Jayne Cravens, an independent consultant who has worked for nonprofits for more than 20 years and has studied virtual volunteering since 1994, says the smart-phone app is unrealistic.

“I don’t know of anyone who says, ‘I’m still here stuck in an airport’ and ... ‘I sure wish I could spend five minutes volunteering.’ What I do hear are people saying ‘I wanna make a difference; I wanna make a real connection with people; I am ready to commit the time to make that happen.’ ”

Ms. Cravens mentions another possible stumbling block: Before volunteering at most nonprofits, volunteers must go through an application process that includes background checks and screening. The iPhone app requires no vetting. “No checking of credentials,” she notes. “No supervision. You put your assignment out there and [keep] your fingers crossed.”

Colker says The Extraordinaries are actively working on four to five ways to screen and vet people for on-demand volunteering opportunities, though he couldn’t give any specific details.

Though volunteering via iPhone may be new, Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development for the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, says “there’s all different ways people are using technology to assist with a mission. It doesn’t require them to have to go to an organization they are trying to help.” And though he wasn’t familiar with the concept of volunteering using a smart phone, he thought it was “cool that people are taking new technology and thinking about how it can serve as an innovation in how people serve.”

While the organization is still in its early stages, the Extraordinaries’ mission has attracted some attention, including a $249,000 one-year community grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a $60,000 two-year fellowship from Echoing Green, and a United Nations World Summit Youth Award.

The frontier of microvolunteering is still new, and both Colker and Rigby are excited by the possibilities of volunteering via iPhone and beyond. “If you can imagine the possibilities of what 100,000 people with a few minutes can do,” Colker says, “it’s really incredible.”

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