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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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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.

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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.”