Panel : Micro-volunteering: Helping the Helpers in Development
25th Feburary, 2013, CSCW, TX


Panelists* :
Michael Bernstein, Stanford University, CA
Mike Bright, Help from Home, UK
Ed Cutrell, Microsoft Research, India
Steven Dow, Carnegie Mellon University, PA
Elizabeth Gerber, Northwestern University, PA
Anand Kulkarni, MobileWorks, CA

Anupam Jain, IBM Research, India (Moderator)

Acknowledgement: BIG thanks to Mike Bright for spending all the time in putting together the introductory video for the panel.

Abstract:
Finding and retaining volunteers is a challenge for most of the NGOs (non-government organizations) or nonprofit organizations worldwide. Quite often, volunteers have a desire to help but are hesitant in making time commitments due to busy lives or demanding schedules. Micro-volunteering or crowdsourced volunteering has taken off in the last few years where a task is divided into fragments and accomplished collectively by the crowd. Individuals are only required to work on small chunks of tasks during their bits of short free times during the day. This panel brings in an interesting mix of researchers from the crowdsourcing/development space and social entrepreneurs to discuss the pros and cons of micro-volunteering for non-profits and identify the missing blocks in enabling us to replicate this concept in developing regions worldwide.


Points of discussion:
The panel would mostly be focussed around the following questions (unless other points of interest come up during the pre-panel discussion):

• What are the pros and cons of microvolunteering?
• What worked/didn't work with non-profits etc. in the past. Also, are there any theoretical limitations? (Is there enough work that can be fragmented in a way to make sense of microvolunteering)
• What's different when using it for developing regions (where the volunteers are also from similar regions)?
• What is holding us back to replicate the concept worldwide (primarily the developing regions)?

Later, we discuss concrete next steps to be taken; specifically, the following question:
• As a next step, how can we use microvolunteering to its best potential to help the nonprofits worldwide - what kind of methods/support/eco-system do we need?


Legend/Key: Comments from panelists appear in different colors below. Summarized points appear in black.





What are the pros and cons of microvolunteering?

[Summary]

Pros

  • Projects can be efficiently divided among large numbers of volunteers, potentially achieving more.
  • Can circumvent on-the-ground costs of sending staff to remote locations
  • By tapping into a global population, can avoid local inefficiency and corruption.
  • More flexible for volunteers:
    • non-commital
    • can be conducted on the move (since the tasks are very small and simple)
    • less security checks (since the entire task is not exposed)
    • minimal training


Cons

  • Uphill struggle, to find enough volunteers to finish a task (concept not well-known)
  • Requires parallelizable projects
  • Verification of correct work being done
  • Not all projects can be divided
  • Requires assembly of a committed pool of volunteers
  • For volunteers:
    • usually a 'lonely' occupation
    • not seeing the 'big picture' may be frustrating for some. No clear view of 'results'.



Pros
Projects can be efficiently divided among large numbers of volunteers, potentially achieving more.
Can circumvent on-the-ground costs of sending staff to remote locations
By tapping into a global population, can avoid local inefficiency and corruption.

Cons
Requires parallelizable projects (What do you mean by this phrase? - Mike Bright)
Verification of correct work being done
Not all projects can be divided
Requires assembly of a committed pool of volunteers
<Kulkarni>

Help From Home promotes 3rd party run micro-actions and uses those actions to increase volunteer participation rates on a global scale. We describe microvolunteering as easy, no commitment actions that benefit worthy causes and which can be conducted in under 30 minutes. The various pros and cons listed below have been directly lifted from our website and relate to the type of actions we promote (apologies for it's length):

Pros

- most micro-actions are non-committal, which means you can dip in and dip out whenever you want to. This means that it will fit around your lifestyle rather than you having to fit around a pre-arranged organised activity.
- it can be conducted for example while watching TV, on the bus or in your pyjamas which means volunteering can go wherever you go.
- there are a huge diversity of actions that traditional volunteering tasks simply do not cover, which means that you have a greater choice to achieve more good.
- if you’re disabled, housebound or of a similar disposition with a philanthropic mindset, then microvolunteering will enable you to benefit worthy causes from your own home and even from your own armchair. No longer are you confined to more traditional physical activities like a river clean up, if you want to do some good.
- because many microvolunteer actions are internet based, this means that you are no longer confined to benefitting worthy causes just in your local area. You now have a choice of regional and country specific worthy causes to choose from.
- there are usually no requirements for security checks with micro-actions which means there is one less hurdle and one less layer of bureaucracy to overcome. This should allow you to participate in as many microvolunteer actions as you want, instantly, without having the delay that a security check inevitably entails.
- practically all microvolunteering tasks require the minimal of training, if at all. Just read the rules and go!
- it’s for people who are shy and uncomfortable with a group of strangers as micro philanthropy can be done alone
- you get more bang for your buck time wise. People who perform traditional philanthropy and who want to do more, now have the option to do more in between their traditional philanthropic commitments
- it empowers people to realise they can make a difference, as they can now do something that benefits a worthy cause on their own terms which gives them greater control over the difference they can make
- micro-actions can be done anywhere, anytime and so therefore people can control the environment in which they volunteer their time, thereby making it potentially safer than traditional volunteer opportunities
- most micro-actions are non-committal, which means that one of the barriers that inhibits people to perform traditional volunteering, has now been stripped away. You can dip in and dip out whenever you want – how much easier can it get.

Cons

- because most micro-actions are performed by an individual acting alone, it could be perceived as a lonely occupation and will not appeal to everyone
- micro-actions are small tasks which, when combined with other people’s actions, produce an end result. Each volunteer is therefore divorced from seeing the whole picture and the ultimate outcome, which could be a bit frustrating if you’re the type of person who wants to see instant results
- there is usually no contact with the recipients of your action. You don’t get to see their smiles when you have helped them out. You have to be self-motivated to know that you are doing some good, and not everyone is.
- even though your actions are combined with others and you are therefore engaged in teamwork, there is rarely any direct interaction with fellow microvolunteers. So, you may not feel part of a team and lose that satisfaction.
- with traditional volunteering opportunities, you can normally see proof for yourself that a result has been achieved with your actions. With microvolunteering there are limited ways to “see” success or prove results reported on a Web site.
- from the organisation’s point of view, there is less control over and interaction with the people they are reliant upon to help them out. It may take more effort to convince, motivate and encourage people to participate in their micro-action.
- microvolunteering is not exactly well known yet, so people aren’t aware that micro-actions can benefit worthy causes and don’t go looking for them. Organisations that want to benefit from people performing micro-actions have an uphill struggle to gather a pool of people to help them out. The time spent encouraging and finding microvolunteers may be better spent on other things with more effective results.
- it is quite possible that we could become frantically busy doing a lot of stuff that does make the doer feel great – which is important – but doesn’t add up to the systemic change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?
(Mike Bright)







What worked/didn't work with non-profits etc. Also, are there any theoretical limitations? (Is there enough work that can be fragmented in a way to make sense of microvolunteering)


[Summary]

1. Design of work, technology and people need to be aligned well.
2. Friendly interface designs are critical to enable people to help and keep them motivated.
3. Most organizations look for a specific skill for microvolunteering. Tapping into the untapped resources of the remainder of unskilled population is essential.
4. Since the concept is not very obvious, persuading the non-profits is hard
5. Question-asking exercises are quite easy to implement and use on microvolunteering platforms.

Theoretical Limitations
- Time = limit to the fewest number of seconds it can take to complete a task
- Participation numbers = mostly restricted to those who have internet access
- Task creation = grassroot charities with little income will not be able to create tasks like clicktocure.net becuase of the comparitively high costs involved to set something up like this
- Creativity of tasks = limited to the creativty of the human mind
- Execution of tasks = possibly limited to the equipment task is being executed on


If we think about crowdsourcing more generally as a way of people doing work We need to think about three things: the design of the work itself, the technology for processing the work, and the people involved in the system. It works when the design of the work, the technology and the people are aligned. It doesn't work when they are not aligned. Here's an example: it did work when we had professional mentors skyping for 20 minutes to mentor student projects. The "work" was mentoring. The technology was "skype". The people involved were students and professionals who were eager to interact with each other. Now let's look at an example that did not work. We asked experts to articulate their skills so that we could tap them later for help. The work and technology was poorly designed despite the desire of people to help. This happens a fair amount in crowdsourcing for profit or non-profit (Gerber)

The following pointers are based on the observations that I have seen over the past 4 years in which I have been promoting microvolunteering via HelpFromHome.org
What worked with non-profits
- Non-profits are quite happy to ask questions / advice which involve (mostly) little time from a volunteer eg. Sparked.com platform
Nonprofits time = little
Cost = little
- Providing an intuitive interface for both charities and volunteers to interact with actions eg Sparked.com platform. An example of an unfriendly-ish interface = Brightworks.me (now defunct), which Zivicloud.de has now adopted
- All microvolunteering platforms appear to be free to use for non-profits
What didn't work with non-profits
- Struggling to convince nonprofits to create repeatable actions to achieve an overall end result eg Help From Home's Consultancy Service
Nonprofits time = large
Cost = small / large
- Convincing the voluntary sector that the impact from such a small action is measurable and filters down to the beneficiaries of the nonprofit. Some haven't quite grasped the concept of crowdsourcing and that small actions when collated together can have a huge impact.
- Most microvolunteering platforms cater towards volunteers with specific skills or knowledge, eg Sparked.com + Troopp.com. Charities are generally not tapping into the untapped resources of the remainder of the unskilled population, although HelpFromHome.org + dosomegood.orange.co.uk seems to be the exception to the rule, amongst microvolunteering platforms
Theoretical Limitation
- Time = limit to the fewest number of seconds it can take to complete a task
- Participation numbers = mostly restricted to those who have internet access
- Task creation = grassroot charities with little income will not be able to create tasks like clicktocure.net becuase of the comparitively high costs involved to set something up like this
- Creativity of tasks = limited to the creativty of the human mind
- Execution of tasks = possibly limited to the equipment task is being executed on
(Mike Bright)



What's different when using it for developing regions (where the volunteers are also from similar regions)?

[Summary]

- Infrastructural availability (lack of internet enabled devices/power supply)
- Nature of tasks may be different (like focus may be more on developing countries rather than developed ones)
- Incentives/rewards may need to be catered to the dev audience
- Red tape issues may be more relaxed (or more stringent)
- May not make sense at all in dev regions since the number and type of tasks are very very limited


- (Lack of) access to internet enabled devices
- How regular is electricity supply to power up devices
- The emphasis of the nature of the tasks / questions may be slightly different
- The focus of participation might be in actions that benefit developing countries themselves. Here in the ‘West’, we tend to focus on both developed and developing countries
- Maybe the incentive for participation will be different, as in the rewards offered by current microvolunteering / volunteering platforms may not be the incentive to get people to microvolunteer, eg.
  • Sparked.com have virtual awards
  • Troopp.com have corporate gifts
  • Microvoluntarios.org (now defunct) had a league table
  • BlueDot have points for prizes
- Although not totally relevant, there may be a different take on red tape issues like health + safety, security checks. They may be more stingent or slack (probably slack)
(Mike Bright)

I'm going to play the dissident here, in that I don't actually think that microvolunteering is particularly useful or appropriate in developing regions.

Some thoughts here:
One of the chief problems for talking about this topic in developing regions is that I don’t know of any existence proofs of microvolunteering where the volunteers are from those areas. And I think there are some very good reasons for that.

First, the kinds of tasks that microvolunteering sites address are very limited. Marketing, research & other information work that can be done from a keyboard aren’t any different whether you’re in N. America or Kenya, but the costs of doing that work are much higher in the latter (due to infrastructural constraints). There just isn’t that much of this kind of work that can uniquely be done by people in these regions (e.g., local language, etc.). TxtEagle (now evolved to mCent) pays airtime for this kind of work, and they have trouble with capacity (not enough work). If you look at sites like troopp.com (for India), the tasks break down as: consulting, web development, writing/editing, research, creative skills, translations, vocation training modules, design, marketing/media. If you dig a little deeper, there a serious dearth of actual tasks: in several of these categories, there’s only one or two tasks and they date from 2011.

Bottom line, I'm pretty dubious about the whole notion of applying microvolunteering in dev regions.
That’s not to say that tech for crowdsourcing might not be useful in developing regions, but I don’t think that it is in the domain of microvolunteering as it’s traditionally known. For volunteering, it may be in coordinating actual physical tasks to be carried out in the world. E.g., gigwalk (http://gigwalk.com/), or things like the #7days4Stow site. But remember that the volunteers are in all likelihood going to be the wealthy, well-educated folks with lots of connectivity and technical sophistication: demographically, not all that different from the volunteers targeted in N. America or Europe, and the kinds of things they'll be interested in doing won't be that different either. However, other domains of crowdsourcing may be much more useful, as a means for supplementing the income of very poor people who are suddenly connected to the rest of the world by means of SMS and increasingly-smart phones.
(Ed Cutrell)

Microvolunteering can actually empower developing regions by coordinating people who would be otherwise unable to connect and offer help to each other. Whenever using microvolunteering for the benefit of developing regions, one has to remember the scarcity of internet access (also mentioned by Mike) . This limitation means that microvolunteering needs to be more flexible and use mobile phone or even radio-based means of communication. Of course, those few persons who do have internet access can assume the task of forwarding messages/ calls and thus strengthening the network. Whenever helping developing regions, it is important to remember that microvolunteering might use digital tools, but not involve digital only (computer-based) tasks , as in these cases action is needed in the real, physical world. It is also important to remember to include a few volunteer translation tasks whenever designing microvolunteering projects for the developing world, as the diversity of local and regional languages spoken in the developing world might create difficulties for those who volunteers who have limited knowledge of a specific cultural context . Microvolunteering for developing regions can be successfully used in the following scenarios : disaster relief, volunteering for the benefit of refugees and displaced persons , helping local nonprofits grow and connect to international partners.I strongly believe in using microvolunteering for the developing world and through Help From Home's Free Consultancy Service I hope to be able to inspire nonprofit groups from different parts of the world to start using microvolunteering for the benefit of a diversity of causes. Luciana Grosu ( Help From Home Microvolunteering Consultancy Service)


What is holding us back to replicate the concept worldwide (primarily the developing regions)?

[Summary]

- Language
- Promotional channels (blogs, twitter etc. ?)
- Funding

- language barrier might be a problem. The vast majority of actions I come across are written in English, thus limiting the potential number of participants to the English speaking world
- what's the infrastructure like for promoting the concept in developing regions, ie bloggers, voluntary orgs to discuss the concept, Twitterers
- what's the ethos like behind volunteering, ie is there a different cultural attitude towards volunteering which has to be crossed first
- funding: Sparked.com, Slivers.com and dosomegood.orange.co.uk/ are the only microvolunteering paltforms to my knowledge to receive a decent level of funding to enable them to develop a decent user interactive platform
- lack of interactive consultation with other dedicated microvolunteering platforms who may have different takes on things. Have microvolunteering platforms like the following been contacted?
Sparked.com
http://madin15.org/us/
http://www.slivers.com/
http://zivicloud.roteskreuz.at/#/
http://dosomegood.orange.co.uk/
http://www.sozialer-funke.de/requests/welcome
http://tagdel.dk/
The American Gov is developing a microvolunteering platform, but is not yet up and running. It's called TAPAS and can be found near the bottom of this webpage
http://gsablogs.gsa.gov/dsic/join-in/
(Mike Bright)


As a next step, how can we use microvolunteering to its best potential to help the nonprofits worldwide - what kind of methods/support/eco-system do we need?


Methods
- Volunteer Centres promoting the concept to their local charities to create micro-actions
- Volunteer Centres encouraging local firms to engage their employees in micro-actions
persuading nonprofits that the amount of input on their side does not have to be high to justify the end result
- persuading nonprofits that the 'micro' tag creates a buzz and a different set of expectations in the volunteer. The expectations are alot more intriguing to a volunteer and so nonprofits could ride this buzz. TechSoup's Donate Your Brain for instance, has found this by relabelling the purpose of their forums
- incentivising involvement
- explaining the impact of actions to individuals, eg the monetary value used by Sparked.com. It's a common denominator for business, but doesn't mean much on the ground to a lay person, particularly as spending power in different countries can be quite different. Better to display impact as to how it actually affects worthy causes 'on the ground'
- what benefits are there to individuals
  • gain skills to add to an ePortfolio
  • gain kudos amongst peers via league tables as an individual or part of a team
  • gain knowledge / pride that they've made a difference
- incentivise the spreading of awareness of the microvolunteering concept by individuals, eg HelpFromHome's 'Join Me' campaign
- devise a plattform that contains both skilled and non-skilled micro-actions
- promote it as an all inclusive platform for disabled, housebound and deaf etc
- create a platform that is global in operation, but can be used at the local community level, eg Crowdteer and Two Bob's Worth which are both inactive, but show the possibilities of what could be achieved

Support
- set up a Global Microvolunteering Awareness Day
- get local politcians to 'buy in' to the scheme, eg UK's Walthamstow's #7days4Stow campaign run by local MP (Member of Parliament) Stella Creasy
- get teachers to 'buy in' to the concept and create inter school competitions. Refer to Help From School project
- get firms to 'buy in' to concept via their CSR / CC employee volunteering schemes. Refer to Help From Work project
- funding!!
(Mike Bright)

Here's a recap of a panel we did at OK Festival on the topic of crowdsourcing science data that touches on some of these issues in 'developing' countries.
http://innovation.internews.org/blogs/ok-festival-challenges-working-crowd-sourced-data
(Linda Raftree)







/* - in the alphabetical order of last name