Tag Archives: history

The legacy of early tech4good initiatives

UNLogoThe Internet changes so quickly. As does our offline world. It’s amazing not only how quickly web sites go away, but how often entire initiatives are scrubbed online as well – even major United Nations initiatives that were covered extensively once-upon-a-time in major media. That’s a big problem if much of your professional work has been for and with online initiatives.

I’ve been working with organizations online since the 1990s, and many of those organizations are long gone. The initiatives I worked with may have gotten coverage from major media outlets and had huge names behind them back in the day – David Bowie, Bill Clinton, Bono, Nelson Mandela and more – and done a lot of great work, but when those initiatives go away, so do their web sites, all their research and all the records of their work – sometimes from the Internet Wayback Machine as well.

You may think outdated information is no longer useful and should go away. The reality is that “old” information is often vitally important. If anything, it often offers baseline data you can use to compare with data now, and together, it shows you, for instance, if the situation has improved for women online, or if the challenges for women getting online are the same now as they were in the 1990s, or if the promises made now regarding technology are the same unrealized promises from 20 or 30 years ago, and on and on. Having access to old information can also help you avoid previous missteps – or rediscover something that never should have gone away that you can use now.

If you can remember a defunct initiative’s web site address, you can often find archived versions of the site at archive.org, a site I use at least a few times a month. But if you can’t remember a defunct initiative’s URL, you may never be able to find deleted information again. And, as has already been noted, archive.org may not have the web site; sometimes, new owners of an organization ask for old web sites to be taken down, and the site complies.

Early in 2016, I started spending a lot of time updating various pages on Wikipedia related to subjects of greatest interest to me, including several defunct tech4good initiatives. Many times, when I’m trying to find information about a now-defunct volunteering or tech initiative, a Google or Bing search leads me to a page on Wikipedia, but the information isn’t always up-to-date or complete. When I can improve an entry, I do. But a big problem with Wikipedia is that someone can come along at any time and rewrite and delete all of your hard work – or even delete an entire page you have relied on for reference for modern research projects and proposals. I’ll keep updating Wikipedia, but I’ve realized there’s a need to create a more permanent archive of some of the volunteering and tech initiatives with which I’ve been associated, as well as those that I know did great work in the past.

So I have created the following pages on my own web site, to more permanently capture this information. Some pages are just summaries, while other sections are comprehensive. Whenever possible, I’ve included the original URLs, so that you can use archive.org to see complete web sites of these initiatives yourself, if they are there at all. I hope this info is helpful to those who worked on such initiatives in the past and would like to reference this work, as well as helpful to those doing research on the impact of nonprofit/NGO tech use, tech4good, ICT4D, volunteering and other initiatives.

I also hope these pages will be a caution to those who launching so-called disruptive technologies, or a tech tool or management approach the designers believe is entirely new and innovative, or a tool or approach with some pie-in-the-sky promises: always look at what’s been done before. You might be surprised to find that what you were promising now, or think you invented, was talked about many years ago:

United Nations Tech4Good / ICT4D Initiatives, a list of the various UN initiatives that have been launched since 2000 to promote the use of computers, feature phones, smart phones and various networked devices in development and humanitarian activities, to promote digital literacy and equitable access to the “information society,” and to bridge the digital divide. My goal in creating this page is to help researchers, as well as to remind current UN initiatives that much work regarding ICT4D has been done by various UN employees, consultants and volunteers for more than 15 years (and perhaps longer?).

United Nations Technology Service (UNITeS), a global volunteer initiative created by Kofi Annan in 2000. UNITeS both supported volunteers applying information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) and promoted volunteerism as a fundamental element of successful ICT4D initiatives. It was administered by the UN Volunteers program, part of UNDP, and during the tenure of UNITeS, the UNV program helped place and/or support more than 300 volunteers applying ICT4D in more than 50 developing countries, including 28 Least Developed Countries (LDC), making it one of the largest volunteering in ICT4D initiatives. Part of the UNITeS mandate was to try to track all of the various tech volunteering initiatives and encourage them to share their best practices and challenges with each other. UNITeS was discontinued as an active program in 2005.

What Was NetAid?
A history of the NetAid initiative, part of which became the UN’s Online Volunteering service. This is what I was referring to specifically with all that name-dropping at the start of this blog.

Lessons from onlinevolunteering.org
Some key learnings from directing the UN’s Online Volunteering service from February 2001 to February 2005, when I directed the initiative, including support materials for those using the service to host online volunteers. This material, most of which I authored, was recently removed from the latest version of the OV service.

Tech Volunteer Groups / ICT4D Volunteers
A list of tech volunteering initiatives, some defunct, some still going strong, that recruit tech experts to volunteer their time support either local nonprofit organizations or NGOs in developing countries regarding computer hardware, software and Internet tech-related tasks.

The Virtual Volunteering Project
In 1995, a then-new nonprofit organization called Impact Online, based in Palo Alto, California, began promoting the idea of virtual volunteering, a phrase that was probably first used by one of Impact Online’s co-founders, Steve Glikbarg. In 1996, Impact Online received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to launch an initiative to research the practice of virtual volunteering and to promote the practice to nonprofit organizations in the United States. This new initiative was dubbed the Virtual Volunteering Project, and the Web site was launched in early 1997. After one year, the Virtual Volunteering Project moved to the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and Impact Online became VolunteerMatch. I directed the project from December 1996 through January 2001, when I left for the UN; the project was then discontinued. This is an archive of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site just before I left.

Early History of Nonprofits & the Internet
The Internet has always been about people and organizations networking with each other, sharing ideas and comments, and collaborating online. It has always been interactive and dynamic. And there were many nonprofit organizations who “got” it early — earlier than many for-profit companies. So I’ve attempted to set the record straight: I’ve prepared a web page that talks about the early history of nonprofits and the Internet. It focuses on 1995 and previous years. It talks a little about what nonprofits were using the cyberspace for as well at that time and lists the names of key people and organizations who helped get nonprofit organizations using the Internet in substantial numbers in 1995 and before. Edits and additions are welcomed.

Also see:

Incredibly Sad News re Gary Chapman Internet Pioneer

This article from the Nonprofit Quarterly about nonprofits losing critical archives as tech changes rapidly. In the article, the Atlantic is quoted:

Digital space is finite and expensive. Digitally stored data can become corrupted and decay as electrical charges used to encode information into binary bits leak out over time, altering the contents. And any enduring information could be lost if the software to access it becomes obsolete. Or a potent, well-timed coronal mass ejection could cause irreparable damage to electronic systems.

sabotage your organization’s productivity: tips from the CIA in 1944

In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), distributed a secret pamphlet, the “Simple Sabotage Field Manual“, providing instructions to citizens living in Axis nations who were sympathetic to the Allies on how to weaken their country by reducing production in factories, offices, and transportation lines. It was declassified in 2008 and is available on the CIA’s website.

Most of the tips are about easy-to-do, hard-to-trace physical vandalism: sabotaging electric motors, fuel, cooling systems, power grids, railways and more. But several are timeless instructions on how to be a terrible employee in meetings and in management. And these instructions would be really funny except that I have encountered people in many of my work places that employ these methods. The motivations of employees using these methods today aren’t to help foreign governments – at least I hope not. I’m not really sure what their motivations are. But here’s my favorite productivity-crushing activities recommended in the manual, because I’ve encountered them so often (quotes are used because the manual used them; italics show exact quotes):

When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.

Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

Frequently advocate “caution.”

Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.

Give people wrong numbers and cut them off “accidentally”

Delay the transmission and delivery of telegrams (now emails and other messages)

Ruin presentations by coughing loudly and by talking (or ignore them while you play on your phone)

When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.

Misfile essential documents.

Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.

Work slowly.

Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.

Act stupid.

The last one made me laugh out loud.

But what the manual recommends is not all bad: there’s also this recommendation, which I find particularly valuable it getting what I want when working with government clerks:

Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion especially when confronted by government clerks

Firsts… or almost

logoI didn’t invent virtual volunteering. I started involving online volunteers in 1995, and did a workshop that same year about it for what was then the Nonprofit Center of San Francisco (now Compasspoint), but I didn’t know it was called virtual volunteering, a term coined by Steve Glikbarg at what was then Impact Online (now VolunteerMatch), until more than a year later. I know, and frequently remind people, that online volunteers have been providing services to various causes since the Internet was invented, long before I got online in the 90s. But I was the first to try to identify elements of successful engagement of online volunteers, via the Virtual Volunteering Project, I think I was the first to do a workshop on the subject, even if I didn’t call it that, and I’m very proud of that.

I didn’t write the first paper on using handheld computer tech as a part of humanitarian, environmental or advocacy efforts – I wrote the second. At least I think it was second. It was published in October 2001 as a series of web pages when I worked at the UN, at a time when handheld tech was called personal digital assistants, or PDAs. People are shocked that the predecessor to the smartphone and cellphone was used to help address a variety of community, environmental and social issues before the turn of the century, that apps4good isn’t all that novel of an idea.

And I probably didn’t write the first papers on fan-based communities that come together because of a love of a particular movie, TV show, comic, actor, book or genre and, amid their socializing, also engage in volunteering. Those kinds of communities played a huge role in my learning how to communicate online with various age groups and people of very different backgrounds, which in turn greatly influenced how I worked with online volunteers. In fact, I can still see some influences of that experience in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. But I stopped researching them in 1999. So I was quite thrilled to recently to find this paper, “The media festival volunteer: Connecting online and on-ground fan labor,” in my research to update a page on the Virtual Volunteering wiki that tracks research that’s been done regarding virtual volunteering. It’s a 2014 paper by Robert Moses Peaslee, Jessica El-Khoury, and Ashley Liles, and uses data gathered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, in September 2012. It is published on Transformative Works and Cultures, an online journal launched in 2009 that looks at various aspects of fan fiction (fan-created fiction inspired by their favorite movies, TV shows and books), comic book fandom, movie fandom, video game fandom, comic and fan conventions, and more.

It’s nice being a pioneer… though I don’t think my early contributions are much to brag about. But I do enjoy seeing things I thought were interesting back in the 90s finally getting the attention they deserve.

Also see

Early History of Nonprofits & the Internet.

Apps4Good movement is more than 15 years old

vvbooklittleThe Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, a book decades in the making, by Susan J. Ellis and myself. Tools come and go, but certain community engagement principles never change, and our book can be used with the very latest digital engagement initiatives and “hot” new technologies meant to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference.

The Internet hasn’t changed. Not really.

The Internet hasn’t changed much since its invention more than 30 years ago. Not really.

Oh, fine, wave your arms and jump up and down and say, “No! No! It’s now interactive. It’s now social. Now people crowdsource problems.” It’s cute when you do that.

But the Internet has always been interactive. It’s always been social. And it’s always been about crowdsourcing. It’s why I fell in love with it, via USENET newsgroups, back in the 1990s.

What has changed about the Internet over the last 30 years? It has a lot more graphical interafaces, and there are many, many more people are using it. That’s it.

Consider the Cluetrain Manifesto, published in 1999 and which immediately became my guide for thinking about the Internet: the authors asserted back then that the Internet is unlike traditional media used in mass marketing / one-to-many marketing, and transforms business practices radically:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. 

Even the Atlantic Monthly believes the Internet hasn’t changed much in 15 years. It spotlighted a high-school handout from 1996 explaining the advantages and disadvantages of using the newfangled Internet everybody was talking about – and it sounds exactly like what people say today.

I started using the Internet in 1994, when a colleague printed out Munn Heydorn’s guide to nonprofit organizations on the Internet. Even in 1994, it was a document of many, many pages. She suggested I explore some of the resources recommended, as she was too busy to do such (and was only interested in emailing her college friends). Somehow, soc.org.nonprofit jumped out at me most in that long list of resources, and I joined as soon as I could figure out how to do so. The World Wide Web seemed so boring to me then — it was just online brochures — whereas USENET was interactive, and its newsgroups felt like communities. As email groups via ListServ and Majordomo proliferated, and then along with YahooGroups, nonprofits on the Internet flourished.

Sure, there were nonprofits then – and for-profit businesses, for that matter – who used their new web site as an online brochure, and email as one-way communication with customers and constituents. In fact, there are a lot of companies still doing this. But these have never been the norm when it comes to Internet use.

So let’s stop talking about the Internet as something new and, instead, start looking to what’s worked, and what hasn’t, over the many years. There are some fantastic case studies from the 1990s – even the 1980s – about virtual volunteering, online mentoring, crowd-sourcing and microvolunteering via newsgroups, and so much more – that are still relevant today. Mistakes that were made in those early days of networking tech are being made again as the Internet gets rebranded as the Cloud and online social networking, as episodic online volunteering gets rebranded as microvolunteering, and as people are starting nonprofits or social enterprises to do with Facebook or Twitter what many nonprofits were doing with USENET back in the 1980s. Let’s learn from those mistakes instead of repeating them!

Also see The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.