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Micro-volunteering via mobile phones: Hype or hope? Dowser investigates.

   /   Apr 27th, 2010News, Tech

Micro-volunteering has gotten a lot of buzz lately. And with good reason–new applications enable mobile phone users to pitch in for causes without putting a dent in their schedules. You can fact check to help a reporter while waiting for your dinner date or raise money to protect the rainforest during coffee breaks. With over 4.5 billion cell phones in the world today, those small tasks could add up to bigger changes. But will they?

In honor of National Telephone Day (this past Sunday — who knew?), we tested out two of the bigger micro-volunteering apps, with mixed results. Our conclusion? Micro-volunteering is a promising idea, but the execution needs to be improved before it’s ready for prime time.

Samasource: creating jobs for refugees
Samasource’s Give Work iPhone app asks users to complete ‘microwork’ for companies – tasks like data sorting or image tagging that can be handled by anyone virtually anywhere. Samasource trains refugees in Africa, Haiti and South Asia to do the same work. Each task you complete is also assigned to a refugee; when the results match, the refugee is paid. This redundancy allows Samasource to test the accuracy of the refugees’ work.

When I tried Samasource, however, only seven microwork tasks were available, with descriptions that sounded vaguely like the spam-survey advertisements on sites like Facebook. “Help us evaluate the quality of our website,” one task implored. Two of the descriptions weren’t in English.

From there, it got more confusing. The “Check that a URL appears correctly” task entailed loading four links on the Kiva website and verifying that they worked correctly, which seems like something a computer should do. Then there was a survey asking questions about Apple’s iPad. Are they really going to ask Somali refugees their opinion on the iPad? They wouldn’t, right? Right?

The app calculates points you've earned and tells you approximately what they're worth.

At least the scoring mechanism was useful — it indicated the wages earned by the refugee matching my work. After ten minutes doing tasks, I amassed enough points for someone to buy a couple of vegetables.

Even with that satisfaction, though, I just couldn’t understand how this app was working. The work I was assigned seemed to require too much web-literacy to be assigned to a developing-world refugee, even if Samasource used my work to verify for accuracy. With more tasks and more clarity about the impact of my work, this app could be a really fun tool. For now, it left me confused.

The Extraordinaries: crowdsourced volunteering on demand
With that experience behind me, I downloaded the The ExtraordinariesBe Extra! app, which enables users to complete social-change microwork. Whereas Give Work helps refugees abroad, Be Extra! focuses on domestic cultural and social justice organizations.

I was immediately pleased to discover a greater selection of tasks (or “missions”) broken down into categories like “environment,” “social justice,” and “Haiti”.

A few of the popular organizations asking for help on Be Extra!

I began with a mission for the Brooklyn Museum, one of my favorite New York haunts. The app showed me an image from the Museum’s archives — in one case, a group of turn-of-the-century women in hoop skirts standing on what appeared to be the Coney Island boardwalk — and gave me thirty seconds to tag it with a descriptive phrase. The images, timer and scoring made it seem like a game.

I played around with these missions for a half hour, and most of them kept my attention. Many of the image-tagging games became repetitive, but by picking museums that interested me, I found loads of fascinating historical images. My only complaint is that many of the other missions asked me to take a photo of something (for example, a playground), which I can’t do on my iPod touch. A separate category for activities that require a camera would be appreciated.

The personal profile lists your recent activity and ranks you among users.

The scoring system was more competitive than that of Give Work, but it didn’t attach to concrete results like helping a refugee buy vegetables. As such, I felt at times like I was shouting into an echo chamber. Would my work add up to anything useful or be noticed by anyone?

That said, even though I didn’t feel like I was doing especially noble work, I’d come back to Be Extra! It’s a fun way to spend a few minutes in a waiting room.

The bottom line
Be Extra! reports that users complete 31,000 tasks per month, while Give Work told us that users have completed 100,000 tasks since the site’s inception last October. These sound like substantial numbers, but when we compared them to the number of people who’ve downloaded apps, it seems as though many don’t stay on board for long. Be Extra! claims that most users are highly active in their first four days, but participation drops to a few actions per week after that.

So how do we keep users involved? Micro-volunteering still needs to find ways to blend enjoyable, functional tasks with transparent results. The developer that perfects that formula may indeed revolutionize the idea of volunteering.

Have you used micro-volunteering applications? Let us know what your experience was like.

Photo: MatthewJamesTaylor

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for looking fairly at some of the microvolunteering apps out there. As you note, this is very much an emerging space. CrowdFlower, our valuable and amazing partner in Give Work cannot (and should not) force client’s to work with either the refugees or the iPhone/iPod/iPad users. So the venndiagram of overlap that includes tasks in both groups is small and sometimes, as you discovered, a bit odd. But these are paying clients getting solid work. Check back on Give Work again – the tasks are always changing.

    Things I have done on the ride home from work include comparing pictures of shoes, verifying a business listing, rating how alike two words are, sentiment analysis of Tweets/Posts and a bunch of other things where the human mind excels. As the burgeoning field of microwork expands there will be lots more. And Samasource aims to make sure we include people around the world in that revolution.

  2. Manuel Rosaldo says:

    We (the Dowser team) thought Jess made some excellent points here, so we invited him to expand his ideas in a guest blog post. Check it out: http://dowser.org/making-cents-of-work-for-refugees-samasource-responds-to-dowser-review/#more-1972

  3. [...] Note: Earlier this week, Dowser reviewed leading microvolunteering applications, including “Give Work” by Samasource. In the review, we [...]

  4. Mike Bright says:

    Here in the UK, micro volunteering is described as ‘small, quick, low commitment actions that benefit a worthy cause’, of which phone apps are just a part of the overall picture.

    You might be interested in Help From Home, which features over 700 micro volunteering actions where the main element of the task, if not all of it can be completed in under 30 minutes from a person’s own home. Only 8 of these actions are based on mobile apps.

    Hope that’s helpful.

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