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

The Extra­ordinaries' "microvolunteers" phone it in

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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.

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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.”