If you are a microvolunteer who regularly helps nonprofts with tasks and brainstorming on Sparked or contributes to the many micro-projects on HelpFromHome, you may think you are being futuristic enough. In this article, through observations of current technology trends and a whole lot of imagination, this is going to make you feel like your crowdsourced, network managed, and bite sized internet tasks are nothing more than the grunts and club swings of a cave man.
Robots and an Internet Connection!
Volunteers clicking buttons within their browser can help accomplish meaningful results, as evidenced by the iPet Companion used by the Idaho Humane Society, that allows people from anywhere in the world to interact with animals live through the internet… in real-time. However, what if you could go beyond this example of manipulating cat toys to entertain shelter cats, and do some real heavy lifting?
What if robots could help a construction crew take down a dangerous crumbling building to make a neighborhood a safer place? What if a robot could sort donations at a food bank with a robotic arm on wheels? What if it could teach a child to juggle? While you may think that robots are too far off from reaching this level of ability, you might be right; one of the main problems with using robots to get work done is that they are not intelligent. One incredibly advanced robot takes over two hours to identify and fold a towel. However, ask yourself this: how long would you take to fold a towel using video game controls hooked up to robotic arms? Well, recently observing people operate an old mechanical arm in a museum (designed to handle radioactive materials), most were able to stack blocks in a pyramid within 5 minutes of playing with the controls. This means that you might just be the missing link between a robot that can help and one that just sits there.
Other than simple buttons in a browser, in the near future, you might also be able to use kinnect-like powered controls to manipulate robots in an even more natural way. If you are interested in these types of ideas, check out AprioriControl, a company looking to make internet controlled interactive experiences more common.
Eyez and Crowdsourcing Through Video Streams
Besides robotic charity, there is a lot that you can do to help nonprofits and individuals without ever giving them a cold metal handshake. Take the idea of video calls: What if nonprofits took advantage of the lifecasting and self monitoring trends that are starting to take off? What would that look like?
Consider Eyez, a high tech pair of normal looking glasses that send HD video to your smartphone, which you can set to stream out to the world as a live webcast. Now, add to that the ability for viewers to chat and comment on what they see in the video stream. Using these existing technologies, a nonprofit employee could go about their daily business armed with dozens (or hundreds) of volunteers who see what they see and hear what they hear.
What could this mean? Imagine searching for a grant. You can search for hours and strain your eyes to find the perfect one, or you can search with an online crowd for fifteen minutes, discuss what you’re looking for with your group of virtual volunteers, and have dozens of relevant links delivered to you with comments, notes, and new ideas all attached. Other scenarios could include input on how your nonprofit carries out service projects, or maybe even tips on improving the work environment. Of course, this would offer a level of transparency not yet reached by a nonprofit, but the benefits might prove to be worth the initial discomfort.
You may say that this is achievable with traditional volunteers in real life, but microvolunteering has advantages that make this scenario not only more possible, but also less awkward. Microvolunteers are from anywhere, they want to help nonprofits, and they are more likely to find out about your work. The networked structure of microvolunteers also creates a greater degree of convenience for all parties involved.
3D Printing, an innovative technology that has been maturing quite rapidly recently, will become more commonplace in the next decade. Bakeries have already expressed interest in offering customized designed chocolates made possible by the technology. In the future, it is possible that microvolunteers would be able to donate 3D designs to create the things that nonprofits need. For example, what if a kindergarten class wanted every student to have a personalized plastic toy of every letter so that the students could associate the letter with a character they made up? Microvolunteers could help turn the students’ drawings and descriptions into 3d models of characterized letters that the school system could then print. Other, more advanced, applications could be helping create medical devices and other inventions for those in need. As the price of these printers and materials continues to come down, you will see more and more opportunities for them to do good. Still thinking this sort of stuff is too out of reach? Right now, you can actually submit 3D designs and have them shipped to you with Shapeways.
Back to the Present!
Now that we return to the present and have sobbered up to our current volunteer selves with our crude tools, we should keep in mind that these new opportunites are just around the corner. With some ambition and hard work they could become a reality sooner than later. Also, don’t forget these are only ways to augment convenient microvolunteering efforts; the real need for in-person volunteers who help their libraries, mentor others, and help the environment is here now. So, you may want to forget about robots for the time being and make a point to contact your local nonprofits to see how you can help.
This article was originally published as a trilogy of articles over a period of 6 weeks for The Daily Crowdsource and authoured by Casey Armstong (scroll down till you get to his bio). It has been ever so slightly adapted to fit within the above format. The first of these three articles appeared in mid July, 2011 at fortnightly intervals. Permission was kindly granted from both The Daily Crowdsource and Casey Armstong to reprint it in full and I pass on my grateful thanks to them both