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The Extraordinaries: MicroVolunteering At Your Fingertips

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, September 17 2009

Got some spare time? Don't want to waste it playing Solitaire and instead put it to better use? If you're reading this blog post on an iPhone, or have one, stop right now and go download the Extraordinaries new app, "Be Extra." Or, check out this new (and very beta) web interface, which offers the same user experience (and will eventually be available as a customizable widget that can highlight specific groups).

Either way, it's time to pay some fresh attention to this terrific project, which wowed me when I first heard about it (and led us to get Ben Rigby, one of the Extraordinaries three co-founders, to write a guest blog post for us back in February explaining the concept of micro-volunteering, and how the Extraordinaries was aimed at enabling people to, in effect, volunteer on-the-go).

While they're still mostly under the radar, there's enough going on now, in terms of running code, to start to appreciate the thinking and skillz behind the Extraordinaries project. For starters, their free iPhone app should knock your socks off. So far, with little promotion, about there have been about 4,000 downloads of it and about 1,500 regular users so far, says Jacob Colker, one of the Es' other co-founders. And even on this tiny base, results are being generated, he told me earlier today: Almost 13,000 5,000 tags have been added to photos for the Smithsonian's collection (plus about another 8,000 for six other museums using the platform for that purpose); a few dozen new playground spaces have been mapped for Kaboom!; and even a few big cats have been identified as being mishandled or living in abusive conditions, cases that the organization Big Cat Rescue can now start working to fix.

With this kind of early adoption, it's clear that the Extraordinaries is going to become quite a vibrant platform for all kinds of organizations to tap into various forms of micro-volunteering, so I asked Colker to explain how they were handling potential partners.

"We're signing up new organizations every week," he said, with about twenty on board now and another sixty to seventy in the pipeline. "It's just a matter of getting the technology to the point of supporting the tasks these organizations want to accomplish....There are tasks that are right-time-and-place tasks, like finding a tiger that is being mistreated, and there are right-now tasks, like image tagging or translation."

Right now the Extraordinaries platform is focused on eight core types of volunteering micro-tasks: translation, image tagging, evidence collection, citizen journalism, mapping, photography, copy editing, and collecting feedback. (You can find a fuller explanation of each of these types here.) They're trying to avoid other, more customized, kinds of tasks, to not waste time having to develop one-off applications for individual groups. So if your organization doesn't have a project with needs in these category areas, you may not be able to work with them right now.

But that shouldn't deter users, who are likely to find some of the volunteering options offered highly addictive and/or rewarding, and undoubtedly will be telling their friends about the tool. I asked Colker how they were planning to scale up, and how a user might navigate the app when it's got hundreds of partners. "Eventually, we’re going to have hundreds if not thousands of organizations in the system. Scrolling through that list will be a pain in the butt." The solution: users are invited to "follow" organizations they like, to make it easier to find the ones they support. In addition, in the next version of the app, people will be able to sort by geographic proximity, affinity of interest, or name. But the "follow" option isn't about creating a leaderboard of the most popular volunteer options, Colker says. "It's not our intent to allow the big dogs to dominate."

Interestingly, the Extraordinaries does host several projects that look like plain old advocacy organizing, where the goal is to help a group build its list and resources rather than do some kind of direct action. For example, the human rights group Breakthrough is on the platform, asking users to add their voices to help fix America's "broken immigration system." The app a user through several steps: record a 30-second audio clip "telling the government what immigration means to you," take a photo of yourself, add your name and location, and you're done. How exactly this actually helps fix the immigration system isn't really clear. So I asked Ben Rigby how the Extraordinaries would respond if an anti-immigration group asked them to host a project aimed, say, at collecting data on undocumented workers. He emailed back:

Your last question there is a good one. And a tough one. The model is to build a platform for nonprofits/causes for the purpose of micro-volunteerism. So, orgs can ask their members/supporters to take any action they like. In the future, we'll have a "mark as innapropriate" option - and we'll expect it to catch any egregious uses. On the whole, however, we're not planning to select or filter what does and does not go into the system.

As you know, becoming the arbiters of what is "good" is an extremely tenuous role to play. And, like other internet services before us from Twitter to Gmail, we've decided not to step into that role.

As to your question about impact / social change efficacy: Breakthrough wanted to ask their supporters to submit "what immigration means to you" recordings. That was their way of gaining value from their micro-volunteers. We leave it up to the organization to determine what kinds of tasks add value to their missions/objectives.

The orgs that you see now in the list are those that approached us first. We've got a waiting list of 100s of orgs right now - that we're hustling to make active as soon as possible. In the future, this process will be self serve.

Smart answers. No wonder the Es have been winning all sorts of awards (Knight Foundation, Echoing Green, and WeMedia) for their, as yet, early work. It's a very impressive start.