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#Ask4Change: Making better use of our ‘cognitive surplus’

Imagine if, as Clay Shirky has suggested, a fraction of the time we spent collectively pissing around on the web, could be channelled into constructive, positive and relatively easy actions for social change…

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Twitter Revolution

Image by Patrick McCurdy

Ed Whyman and I have been bumping into each other at events and on the street for at least six months. The first time we met – in the company of David Pinto – we mulled over the idea of a piece of social technology that could match-up small tasks related to good causes, with people a) interested in that particular good cause, and b) with the skill set required to easily do that small task.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a couple of hours at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, conversationally moving between abstract ideas and practical ways of applying them, Ed and I (with the valuable technical input of Andy Broomfield) revisited the idea we had tossed around several months before.

Cognitive Surplus

A few months ago I saw Clay Shirky speak at the RSA on his new book, Cognitive Surplus. His thesis is basically that more and more of us have loads more leisure time than we used to and that the internet is gradually enabling our collective free time to connect with others to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise, whether sharing YouTube videos of cats doing cute stuff, or giving away stuff we’d otherwise throw away.

I didn’t immediately put the pieces together, but yesterday, Ed and I’s conversation made me think about how this concept might apply to our idea of a still-to-be-built social wotsit…

The social wotsit we were thinking of

Imagine if you were a campaign group or a charity, working around:

  • Human rights
  • Youth violence
  • Drug addiction
  • Cancer treatment
  • International conflicts
  • Etcetera…

And you needed:

  • A database cleaned
  • A legal letter written
  • A venue for a meeting
  • A speaker for an event
  • A CSS edit to a website
  • Etcetera

Now imagine if you were a person (difficult, I know), who had a particular interest in [insert cause from above], and had [insert relevant skill or asset associated with listed need] and had a particular amount of time on your hands, whether five minutes, or five days… and said charity or campaigning organisations was able to easily get hold of you and let you know (with no obligation) that they could use your help… Is there a chance you might do it?

Crowd-sourcing a Twitter app?

So we (Andy Broomfield’s technical knowledge was of great help here) started thinking about this as a Twitter app… we’re continuing the conversation on a Google Doc… and are wondering if anyone with some of the relevant skills or further ideas would be interested in helping make this happen? Or if something just like this already exists and we don’t have to bother?

We are working on an ‘everyone does something that we can all feel good about’ kind of basis, so no money will change hands, but credit will be appropriately shared around… Check out the Google Doc if you’re interested in taking part!

Cheers!

Liam


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11 comments

11 Replies

  1. Sounds great:)

    Is anyone else doing something similar?
    If so do comment here so we can collaborate.

    Is there a way to do this so it is platform independent (so it does not rely on facebook/twitter to work?).

    Ed @whymandesign

  2. following your tweets with interest Ed!

    http://www.mysociety.org/ seem to be leading in this kind of arena at the moment

    Also of interest may be http://www.mobilevolunteering.co.uk

  3. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 10th 2010

    Thanks for the tips Majeed!

    I’ve generally found MySociety’s niche is much more around the civic engagement side of things – helping people connect with power, though I suppose PledgeBank is an example that cuts against that…

    Someone else pointed out http://cofacio.com/, which seem to do much of what is described, but without the social media interface…

    Feel free to pitch in on the Google Doc (which is now universally accessible), if you’d like to contribute!

  4. Mark Corbin Oct 10th 2010

    Hello, like the sound of it.

    Funny how many discussions I was in over citycamp seemed to end with a desire for a platform that made it easier to get involved with stuff/access and contribute skills/knowledge/etc.
    It might have been a nice project to get some advice on this morning…

    First thoughts:
    I’d second Ed on maybe thinking about the underlying structure and seeing whether it couldn’t be something that the twitter app was only one way of interacting with?

    Secondly, regarding mysociety, worth a quick look at the first description of project fosbury http://www.mysociety.org/2010/03/15/mysocietys-next-12-months-fixmytransport-and-project-fosbury/ – very much again initially civic, but they mention breaking down tasks into very user-friendly chunks which might be relevant.

    Mark

  5. Hi Liam,

    Sounds a really interesting idea. I’m Olly, Programme Manager at Do-it, so I spotted your tweet mentioning us and found your blog.

    I’d suggest, if you haven’t already, you chat to Jamie @ i-volunteer.org.uk and Mike from HelpFromHome. Both have lots of ideas/experience in this area, and i-volunteer is already built to do something similar.

    Also suggest you look at the Extrordinaries: http://app.beextra.org/ (a US site)

    The other thing you need to do is really chat with volunteer managers at charities, A lot of these projects fail because charities can’t engage with them, and whilst I’ve no doubt sometimes it is that the charity *can’t see the light*, often there are very real and practical reasons.

    For example, yes a charity would love you to re-factor their database but it’s of their donor list and if can’t release that list to you because of data protection requirements.

    Too many charities I speak to, both through paid work and my volunteering, have horror stories of people promising things delivered and then not delivering them.

    To access those charities thinking your thoughts, try networks like NFPTweetUp (http://www.nfptweetup.org/)

    Happy to chat further, and if you want to come in and chat with me and colleagues about your project we’d be happy to meet! We’re based just near Old Street tube.

    Best wishes,

    Olly
    http://www.do-it.org.uk

  6. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 11th 2010

    Hi Mark –

    Wishing I could have been @ City Camp, but was not to be…

    I really like the sound of Project Fosbury on the MySociety page! I wonder if they would be interested in co-developing something, as the breaking-down of big tasks into a number of smaller ones was an issue Damien fr/ TimeBank (@b33god) raised and I think could be a struggle for many organisations…

    Thanks for the lead!

  7. It sounds very much as though you’re advocating a ‘Knowledge Base’, as used by the best companies and usually enabled via their intranet. That should be an encouragement and also a concern – the success of it rests on the culture within which it’s initiated.

  8. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 11th 2010

    Hi Olly –

    Thanks for the thoughts! As Ed and I started talking about this, one of the things I realised was that the thing I felt would would make this different from a range of micro-volunteering sites, is that it would be built around individuals asking individuals, (even if one or both happened to work for charities)… Which is partly why I’m so keen on cofacio.com, even though it’s not charity-specific.

    While I agree that many volunteer managers could likely blast holes through this semi-thought-through model, I also think individual staff and volunteers who are looking to get things done, but don’t have the specific skills required, could find ways around many of those holes, on an ad hoc basis, as needed, if the benefits were sufficient. (Data protection may be a sticky one, but in some cases, may be easy enough to clean identifying info from a database in advance…)

    There’s a psychological difference in being asked a favour by another person, as opposed to being asked by an institution, which is a big part of why Twitter enables countless tiny acts of good will every day… My hope is to harness some of that sentiment, into something which is slightly more coordinated, but still loose enough to keep individual ties strong…

    Thanks again for the thoughts!

    Liam

  9. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 11th 2010

    Hi David –

    I suppose it’s like a knowledge base that will hopefully come to involve much of the Twitter-using (and then maybe Facebook-using) world…

    I agree that the culture is key, which, in some ways, is why I feel distinguishing it from volunteering might actually be a positive… The culture I would hope to help foster – ideally with many of you – would be one of mutual reciprocity, so that people involved (whether organisationally, or otherwise) would rarely be exclusively ‘asker’ or ‘giver’, but both at some stage or another, as time and skills permit…

    Thanks for chipping in! I think the ‘Knowledge Base’ is a good way of approaching it!

  10. sounds good guys 🙂

    i suspect a fractional contribution might work
    but
    i’d rather there is a kind of threshold where all the pieces are assembled
    before the task is actually done…
    like these sites what ask only for money like kickstarter
    and you only get charged/paid if you hit the required sum
    similarly
    only once the team has assembled
    does the actual task get done
    (btw this is part of the confluence model)

    but i think we are aways yet from having the social cohesiveness to do this
    regardless of how much cognitive surplus we may have…
    so
    crowd-sources fractionally might be the most practical next step 🙂

    :(can’t take part in the google doc
    since i got an ipad)

  11. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 22nd 2010

    Hi David –

    As you know, I’m a big fan of the Confluence model, but almost see this as something a step down from it (but w/ the potential to grow into it???); basically, making one-off bits of work/tasks open to some of the right people to be able to do them, rather than necessarily chunking bigger jobs… though this may be a stepping stone towards that…

    In talks with an website called Cofacio right now who are doing similar stuff… will update soon!


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