Category Archives: volunteering

Other thin-slicing volunteering examples: Phylo, FoldIt, EterRNA and Galaxy Zoo

We wrote earlier about efforts to capture short amounts of volunteering help from individuals (thin-slice volunteering). The latest entry is Phylo, which turns comparative genomics and pattern recognition into a game.

Enjoy and make the world a better place.

See also examples like FoldIt, EteRNA and Galaxy Zoo.

Social capital games

The New York Times Science Times section on Tuesday had an article discussing why real life couldn’t be as engaging as games.  One section referred to games designed by researchers to spark cooperative behavior or  get people to compete on being most helpful.


…Dr. [Jane] McGonigal…has designed Cruel 2 B Kind, a game in which players advance by being nice to strangers in public places, and which has been played in more than 50 cities on four continents.

She and her husband are among the avid players of Chorewars, an online game in which they earn real rewards (like the privilege of choosing the music for their next car ride) by doing chores at their apartment in San Francisco. Cleaning the bathroom is worth so many points that she has sometimes hid the toilet brush to prevent him from getting too far ahead.

Other people, working through a “microvolunteering” Web site called Sparked, are using a smartphone app undertake quests for nonprofit groups like First Aid Corps, which is compiling a worldwide map of the locations of defibrillators available for cardiac emergencies. Instead of looking for magical healing potions in virtual worlds, these players scour buildings for defibrillators that haven’t been cataloged yet. If that defibrillator later helps save someone’s life, the player’s online glory increases (along with the sense of fiero).

[Fiero comes from Italian “pride” and refers to when the gamer lifts both arms above his/her head in triumph.]

Cruel 2 B Kind is interesting.  It takes place in a defined real world environment: e.g., it could be Central Park from 5-6 on 12/10/2010.  No one knows who is playing and who isn’t but all players have to remain in the open in that location for the entire duration.  Each player is randomly assigned a fatal weakness from a list of possibilities (e.g., being serenaded, being complimented, being cheered on). In order to slay your opponent, you have to engage in these acts of kindness frequently, willing to have complete strangers (not playing the game) be “collateral damage” in your effort to slay your fellow gamers. The result is a war of kindness within the “arena”.

Read John Tierney, “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming” (New York Times, Dec. 7, 2010)

See earlier blog post on The Extraordinaries (now renamed as Sparked)  and Thin-Slice Volunteering.

New: quality social capital data available online

Rating of large cities in Group Participation 2008-2009, CNCS data

The Corporation for National Service (CNCS) several years ago started making volunteering data available online through Volunteering in America , with a research brief, rankings and profiles for all states and big cities, and even downloadable summary data.

The Corporation has now released comparable social capital data.  See: Civic Life in America website.

They have an Issue Brief describing their overall results across 5 dimensions (service which includes volunteering, group participation,  connecting to civic information, social connectedness,  and political action).

One can see the ranking of states or large cities across these dimensions (volunteering, voting, working with neighbors or group participation).

And one can see geographic profiles of states (here’s NY) or communities (here’s the Twin Cities for example).  And summary data can be exported (to a PDF, Excel table, etc.).

These data, in addition to being a great boon to scholars, are highly useful for local leaders.  For example, Governor Schwarzenegger used the California volunteer data to develop new public polices around volunteering, state legislative support for those efforts, and ultimately created the first cabinet-level position on service and volunteering in the state.  Driven by public discussions about the low level of volunteering in New York City, highlighted through CNCS research releases, Mayor Bloomberg launched a new civic initiative for the city including launching a Civic Corps, further buttressed with borough-level data from CNCS.  Many press outlets help spread the word about how cities and states are doing against one another and encourage friendly competition for citizens to become more actively engaged.

Well done and keep up the good work.  With thanks to CNCS for their leadership on this issue.

See earlier post on advances in social capital measurement.

See later post on “US expands social capital measures

Health benefits of volunteering

The NY Times had an interesting piece yesterday on the health benefits of volunteering.

They cite Stephen Post’s work, which I have discussed earlier, but also notes a 2002 Boston College study (Paul Arnstein et al.) and a California Buck Institute for Age Research study (Doug Oman et al.).

The article discusses several studies that suggest that the causal pathway may run through lower stress and a “helper’s high”.

See the underlying article:  “In Month of Giving, a Healthy Reward” (NYT, Science Times, Tara Parker-Pope, 12/1/09)

Number of volunteers on Wikipedia dropping

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of volunteer editors on Wikipedia is dropping.

Entities such as Wikipedia or Linux have always been a bit of a mystery to economists as to why people with great knowledge donate their time to write articles or software.  Some are motivated by pure altruism, others by professional credentialing that accompanies being a leader on software like Linux.  [See Jochai Benkler on Wikipedia, Linux and the gift economy in “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm.” or crowdsourcing]

In any event, the number of volunteer editors on Wikipedia fell last year by 49,000 (a jump of 10-fold over the prior year’s loss of 4,900 editors).  There is active disagreement whether this has resulted from their being less new ground on Wikipedia as more and more things have been covered or whether editors are put off by increased bureaucracy Wikipedia imposed in an effort to increase the accuracy of Wikipedia articles and decrease the mischief.  Moreover, Wikipedia has become less friendly to new contributions: “In 2008, Wikipedia’s editors deleted one in four contributions from infrequent contributors, up sharply from one in 10 in 2005, according to data compiled by social-computing researcher Ed Chi of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center.”

Despite this, Wikipedia’s popularity continues to grow: “Indeed, Wikipedia remains enormously popular among users, with the number of Web visitors growing 20% in the 12 months ending in September, according to comScore Media Metrix.”

One interesting snippet from the article is that 87% of the volunteer writers on Wikipedia are men.

The article does point out that Wikipedia founder Jimmie Wales is more interested in web traffic to Wikipedia and accuracy of the articles than in the volume of volunteerism on the site.

See: Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Volunteers Log Off As Wikipedia Ages“, Wall Street Journal, 11/23/09.

Thin-slice volunteering

extraordinaries-lgDriven by concern that 73% of Americans do not volunteer, the developers of Extraordinaries have decided to try to enable smart-phones to be used with thin-slice volunteering.

It’s part of the ever-shrinking notion of volunteering.  Volunteering used to mean some regular commitment to a cause (mentoring a kid, working every Saturday in a soup kitchen, visiting an elderly shut-in weekly, etc.).  In the 1990s, the Cares organizations (NY Cares, Hands on Atlanta, etc.) realized that yuppie go-go Americans either wouldn’t make a long-term commitment like this or didn’t have control over their schedule.  This gave rise to monthly schedules of interesting one-off volunteer opportunities that members could sign up for.  The 1980s and 1990s also gave rise to corporate volunteering days and “Days of Service” like the one on MLK’s birthday before Obama’s inauguration organized by

Now the Extraordinaries ‘ founders focus on the fact that there may be millions of smartphone American users who can’t (or won’t) even make a day-long commitment to volunteering, but they collectively have billions of free hours in micro-slices (while waiting for or riding the bus, while waiting for a meeting to begin, sitting in an airport, etc.).

They are trying to invent lots of collectively useful tasks that Americans could be doing during those times (other than playing video games), and make the interaction fun and exciting, and change the culture of waiting into producing a collective good.

Applications use smartphone features  like  Internet, graphics, camera, GPS, video, audio and break tasks up into ones that can be done in a few minutes.  Possible tasks include:

If this cannibalizes existing volunteering, I’m not sure that this will be a win-win for society, but if it augments the amount of volunteer labor in the US, it could have clearly beneficial results.

Note: some of the health benefits of volunteering undoubtedly stem from a sense of engagement in society that volunteers have and some from the inter-personal ties (social capital) developed through volunteering.  Virtually all of the existing applications that Extraordinaries plan to tap into are devoid of social capital (see above list).  We encourage Extraordinaries to be creative about thin-slice volunteering opportunities that could augment social ties and social trust.  For example, they mention the idea of using smart phones in thin slices to help immigrants improve their English (Phone ESL).  Depending on how this was set up, it could have interesting bridging social capital implications.  We hope that more such social capital-friendly thin-slice volunteer opportunities will emerge.

For an interesting post by Extraordinaries co-founder Ben Rigby on TechPresident, read here.

More to Give: the unfilled potential of senior service

We worked with Civic Enterprises on a report, sponsored by AARP on the fact that leaders and government are not doing enough to fully engage seniors in service.  The report More to Give: Tapping the Potential of the Baby Boomer, Silent and Greatest Generation, with an introduction by our own Robert Putnam, ex-Senator Harris Wofford (a long-time champion for service), and John Bridgeland (head of Civic Enterprises), outlines seniors’ fears that they will leave the country in worse shape, but notes how many of this cohort expect to increase their service in their retirement years, and notes how various government or private-sector programs could play a big role in increasing this service (e.g., a better information pipeline of how to get involved, enabling those who serve to get educational awards that can be shared with seniors’ grandchildren or other young needy Americans, or expanding some of the cost-effective governmental programs).  The program reports on findings from focus groups and a new large-scale survey of Boomers, the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation.