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

The Extra­ordinaries' "microvolunteers" phone it in

By Amy FarnsworthStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2009

Jacob Colker is CEO of The Extraordinaries, which offers on-demand volunteerism to users via iPhone.

Stephanie Kuykendal/Chicago Tribune/MCT/NEWSCOM/File

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For most people, volunteering means spending a few hours at a soup kitchen or tutoring a student over the weekend.

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

Call it on-demand volunteerism.

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.