Tag Archives: virtual

volunteers scramble to preserve online data before government deletes it

Online volunteers aren’t always remote; hackathons and Wikipedia edit-a-thons bring together people in the same physical space, at the same time, to volunteer online, to code for good, to create content for the arts or under-represented groups or science topics on Wikipedia, and now, to preserve critical scientific data that is under threat by the new Presidential administration in the USA.

ProPublica found that the new administration edited an educational website for kids to significantly downplay the negative impacts of coal. The White House also removed all of the data from its portal of searchable federal data. The site previously included data on everything from budgets to climate change to LGBT issues. It now displays a message telling people to: “Check back soon for new data.” Staff under the new Secretary of Education have deactivated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) web site. You can still see it at http://www.archive.org. That archived version is packed with information for parents of children with disabilities. If you go to the new web site, however, you’ll see a greatly-scaled back web site, with a lot of information no longer available.

Groups are organizing through traditional social tools like Twitter and Facebook to help preserve information before it disappears and to retrieve information removed from official government web sites.

This 25 February 2017 story on the CNN web site, Why Trump’s election scares data scientists, talks about Data Refuge, which was founded after the election with a goal of tracking and safeguarding government data. The volunteer group of hackers, writers, scientists and students collects federal data about climate change in order to preserve the information and keep it publicly accessible. In the past three months, Data Refuge has hosted 17 events where hundreds of volunteers learn how to copy and publish research-quality data. The group, which grew out of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, also monitors scientific research that depends on government funding because there’s concern this could dry up.

One platform, data.world, is a social network exclusively for people who want to find and collaborate on building data sets, much like how programming site GitHub lets coders collaborate on building apps. It already has tens of thousands of open government data sets available.

This 13 February 2017 Wired.com story, Diehard Coders Just Rescued NASA’s Earth Science Data, talks about volunteers coming together across the USA to preserve online scientific information and other info they fear will be permanently removed from government web sites under the Trump administration, and building systems to monitor ongoing changes to government websites. By the end of one day, one group had collectively loaded 8,404 NASA and DOE webpages onto the Internet Archive, effectively covering the entirety of NASA’s earth science efforts. They’d also built backdoors in to download 25 gigabytes from 101 public datasets, and were expecting even more to come in as scripts on some of the larger dataset finished running.

But there is still much work to do. “Climate change data is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Eric Kansa, an anthropologist who manages archaeological data archiving for the non-profit group Open Context. “There are a huge number of other datasets being threatened with cultural, historical, sociological information.” A panicked friend at the National Parks Service had tipped him off to a huge data portal that contains everything from park visitation stats to GIS boundaries to inventories of species.

Some of these efforts on Twitter:

@DataRescueBOS

@SeattleDataResQ (the photo above is from Seattle’s hackathon – used with permission)

Also see:

Advice for and examples of One(-ish) Day “Tech” Activities for Volunteers

Hackathons for good? That’s volunteering!

Where are the evaluations of hacksforgood/appsforgood?

Open Air Hackathon – Nonprofits Get Web Sites, Designers Get Accessibility Training

Wikipedia needs improvement re: volunteerism-related topics

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document all the best practices of working with online volunteers, from the more than three decades that virtual volunteering has been happening. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Thanks to everyone who has purchased it so far! Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Mike Bright, Microvolunteering’s #1 Fan, Has Passed Away

I am heart-broken to announce that Mike Bright passed away on Tuesday after battling cancer since October of last year. I have heard from his wife, Deb <debmike@talktalk.net>, and have received permission to share the news.

Mike BrightMike Bright was the biggest, most passionate promoter of microvolunteering EVER. He launched the Help From Home initiative (http://helpfromhome.org/) entirely on his own and leveraged the Internet brilliantly to promote this form of episodic virtual volunteering, giving it more attention than it has ever had before. Because of his extensive work, I link to him on both my own web site and on the Virtual Volunteering wiki. Susan Ellis and I have a photo of Mike, in his PJs at a computer (at left), on page 31 of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, in the section about microvolunteering (of course). And I featured Mike prominently in a report for the European Commission, the government of the EU, regarding the prevalence and potential of virtual volunteering in Europe. I would say that it’s because of Mike’s efforts to track microvolunteering in the UK that I am able to say the UK is #2, behind Spain and, perhaps, tied with Poland, for having the greatest amount of virtual volunteering in Europe. Mike’s contributions and promotions regarding microvolunteering have been invaluable to nonprofits, NGOs, charities, and other organizations all over the world – and his legacy will be all that he wrote and researched on the subject.

I am so sorry I never got to meet Mike in-person, but I have lost a respected, admired colleague nonetheless.

Deb said in an email to me, “just to let you know Mike’s Special Day will be held on 14th February 2017, Valentines Day. No flowers but donations to Oxfam and FoodBank if you so wish. Black isn’t the name of the game and we have asked people to wear what they feel comfortable in.” Feel free to contact her if you want to offer condolences.

We’ve lost such an important contributor to the field.

April 17 2017 u update: I’ve created this listing of 300 tweets celebrating & promoting microvolunteering, from April 10 to April 17, 2017, via Storify. These tweets used the tag #microday. Microvolunteering Day is April 15 and was founded by Mike.

Also, Mike’s family is open to turning over his Help From Home and Microvolunteering Day initiatives to an organization that will make a commitment to maintain the two web sites, at their current web addresses, for at least two years, will keep the social media accounts active in that time, and will maintain Mike’s vision, focus exclusively on promoting microvolunteering, both to online volunteers and to organizations, in that time. Here’s more information.

Wikipedia needs improvement re: volunteerism-related topics

wikipediaI’ve been updating Wikipedia again. I do that from time-to-time. This time, specifically, I’ve been updating information regarding days, weeks and months that have been designated for volunteers or about volunteerism by a major organization, a country or the United Nations, as well as updating information about organizations and associations for those that manage volunteers. You can see all my updates on Wikipedia, ever, here.

It’s unfortunate that there is no program or organization – not one – that sees what I’m doing on my own, when I have time, as an independent, lonely volunteer, as part of its own mission. The result of this lack of an official champion to mobilize contributors is that Wikipedia is severely lacking in accurate information related to volunteerism, and the volunteerism field is losing a lot of its history. For instance, many major events related to volunteerism aren’t mentioned on Wikipedia or are barely mentioned, like the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, a major event in 1997 in Philadelphia headed by then President Bill Clinton and former President George H. Bush.

But I’m getting tired. Cleaning up Wikipedia and making it an accurate, content-rich resource regarding volunteerism should be a group effort – it shouldn’t just be me. Because I don’t have time and I don’t have all the knowledge! And it shouldn’t be ad hoc, because what’s happening is that people are going on to Wikipedia and changing content on pages related on volunteerism based on how they feel, not based on facts and cited sources, and they know that no one is going to find their edits, because no one is really watching.

There should be an official edit-a-thon to make Wikipedia an accurate, content-rich resource regarding volunteerism. And I just do not have the resources, on my own, to organize an edit-a-thon. I would love to be a part of such an effort – and with funding, I would be happy to organize it, to ensure a range of people and organizations are involved. An edit-a-thon would get a lot of pages created, updated, and linked together, as appropriate, in a two days. It would be a concentration of forces to get the bulk of the work done quickly. It would help people after the hack-a-thon keep contributing accurate, appropriate information. It would create benefits long after the edit-a-thon ended.

Oh, well… in the meantime, hbelow is what I’ve outlined as needing to be done on Wikipedia regarding volunteerism, in case anyone out there wants to help.

Pages that need to be created on Wikipedia:

Pages related to volunteering that need updating, preferable from people intensely familiar with the organizations that are in charge of them (I created some of these pages, FYI, hence why they lack full info – much of what I wrote I had to track down on old web sites on archive.org because the associated web sites aren’t up-to-date for 2016):

Aug. 3, 2016 update: There is now an International Year of Volunteers – there is a Wikipedia page for IVY+10, and I’ve put on its “talk” page that it should be deleted, and remain a subsection of this main IYV page. I also note this on the IYV talk page. The IYV page needs much more information about national conferences that were held, publications that were made, and big events and activities that were organized in conjunction with IYV all over the world. It’s going to be a challenge, because all IYV web sites are long gone; if you remember the URL for an IYV-related initiative, you can type it into archive.org and review the old information. But do NOT cut and paste information from those sources onto the IYV page! You have to rewrite things and cite every source for every sentence or paragraph! Otherwise, the page will get deleted. end of update

The entry for EU Aid Volunteers is a subsection on the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations page. It should have its own page!

Pages that I consider a hot mess and in dire need of content improvement:

Three pages that I’m not allowed to update anymore because other Wikipedia volunteers feel that my expertise gives me too much of a bias (oh, yeah, you read that right), but really need a cleanup:

There are Wikipedia pages regarding human resources management, but nothing on that page regarding how the management of volunteers is different, and there’s no page on the management of volunteers. There’s a page on virtual management but, again, no page on the management of volunteers. What I’m trying to say is that there needs to be a page about the management of volunteers!

One page that is decent, but needs to be reviewed to make sure it’s up-to-date: list of volunteer awards. Maybe there needs to be one page of days, weeks and years regarding volunteerism, like there is for this page for volunteer awards.

And then all of these pages need to be linked together appropriately, and then be linked to and from other pages I haven’t mentioned here.

And all of that is just a START. My outline above isn’t comprehensive, and it is quite USA-centric. Volunteerism is a global phenomenon, yet you might not suspect such reading the aforementioned pages. And what are the Wikipedia pages like on these subjects in Spanish, German, French, Polish, Russian, and on and on?

Will anyone out there take up the call to host an edit-a-thon? Or will others with expertise in volunteerism join me in trying to improve these pages, without waiting for an edit-a-thon?

(Update July 21, 2016): If you decide to start helping with this effort, some advice:

  • Make sure the page you want to create doesn’t already exist under a different name.
  • Read carefully this official Wikipedia page: Wikipedia is not here to tell the world about your noble cause.
  • Make sure you keep information neutral. Write for an encyclopedia, not a brochure.
  • Use LOTS of citations for what you write, and don’t just use the official web site as your source material.
  • Look at similar pages as a template for the page you want to create or improve. For instance, I used existing pages regarding designated volunteering pages as a template to create new ones. A page on volunteer management should follow the style of the existing pages for human resources management and virtual management.
  • Once you create a page, make sure every Wikipedia page that mentions that organization or phrase links to it. For instance, whoever creates the United We Serve page needs to do a search on United We Serve on Wikipedia and make those phrases on other pages link back to the new page. Also, create links to the page under “See Also” on other pages, as appropriate. If you create a new page and don’t immediately create lots of links to it, it will be deleted.

If you decide to have an edit-a-thon to address these many problems on Wikipedia regarding its lack of accurate, complete information related to volunteering and national service, please carefully read these official Wikipedia guidelines on how to hold such.

Wikipedia has a guideline on conflict of interest that states, “You are discouraged from writing articles about yourself or organizations (including their campaigns, clients, products and services) in which you hold a vested interest.” If you represent the organization being talked about on a Wikipedia page, you are supposed to make any editing suggestions on the article’s talk page, using the template {{Request edit}}; supposedly, this will help draw attention to your request and some Wikipedian somewhere will make the edit. The reality is that this rarely happens, and your edit request may languish forever (mine do on the pages Wikipedia has decided I can’t edit anymore). By all means, use the Talk pages as recommended by Wikipedia, but once you do that, it’s best to mobilize your own volunteers that are familiar with Wikipedia and your organization to actually get these edits done.  Make sure those volunteers have user talk pages that provides full details on who they are, and their entirely volunteer, unpaid status with your organization.

Safety in virtual volunteering

Between my Google Alerts and those whom I follow on Twitter, I see a story at least once a day about the engagement of online volunteers. I put the most interesting or unique ones on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki. It’s so wonderful to see virtual volunteering oh-so-mainstream. I’m not at all surprised: by the 1990s, it was already impossible to track every organization involving online volunteers – there were so many! If there is anyone out there still talking about any form of virtual volunteering – digital volunteers, micro volunteering, crowd sourcing, ework, etc. – as “new”, you have to wonder: have they been under a rock?

But I do have a concern: many of these virtual volunteering initiatives don’t seem to have thought about online safety. Too many, in my opinion, are focused on creating a really complex, feature-rich web site for volunteers to use to sign up and contribute their time and skills, but not thinking about risk management – protecting clients and volunteers.

As Susan Ellis and I say in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and I say in any workshop related to virtual volunteering:

Relatively speaking, the Internet is no more or less safe than any other public space, such as a school, faith community, or sports stadium. Fears of exploitation, abuse, or exposure to sexually-explicit or violent material should not prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, any more than such fears should prevent the involve­ment of volunteers onsite. There is risk in any vol­unteering, online or face-to-face. The challenge is to minimize and manage such risk. (page 112)

Do you have to interview every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to check professional references on every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to conduct a criminal background check on every online volunteer? No, you don’t have to do any of these things IF the tasks they will do as volunteers don’t warrant such – they aren’t going to work with clients, they aren’t going to work with other online volunteers and know their names, they aren’t going to have access to confidential information, they won’t have access to any online systems in such a way that they could even accidentially harm such, etc. Again, back to a quote from The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.:

Every organization will have different interview­ ing and screening methods based on what services volunteers provide and its workplace culture. Even for volunteers working onsite, the issues involved in volunteering for a beach cleanup or simple clerical work are not the same as issues involved in volun­teering to tutor young children or manage an orga­nization’s computer systems.

The same is true for online volunteers. Your screening approach will be different for a volun­teer designing a Web page than for one creating a private online area where your staff and clients will interact and the online volunteer will have far more access to client contact and other confidential information. (page 41)

If an online volunteering role does warrant some degree of screening – and not all do, but most do – then you have to decide how much there will be, and how it will be conducted. First and foremost is that you must follow the law. For instance, many states require a criminal background check on any volunteers that will work with children one-on-one. A volunteer who will come to a classroom one time to speak about his or her job may not be required by law to undergo a criminal background check, but someone who will talk with a child, one-on-one, even if they will always be in a room with other adults and children, probably is required by law to undergo such – apply the same principles to online volunteers in determining what screening is required. Should the online volunteering candidate be interviewed? If the person is new and is doing any task that requires at least some expertise – web page development, translating text from one language to another, moderating an online discussion group, designing a newsletter, editing a brochure, etc. – yes, absolutely! Many more tips for screening online volunteers to ensure they really can do the task that they have signed up for, and have the time to do so, can be found in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

My favorite resource on screening volunteers, online or offline, that will work with clients in any capacity, is free to download: Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. Point one under the section on what to do before the organization starts screening volunteers is this: “Develop criteria that define how screening information will be used to determine an applicant’s suitability.” That will be different for every organization, depending on their mission and the work volunteers will do. You have to think about not only worst-case scenarios – screening out people that might sexually and/or financially-exploit clients, other volunteers, etc. – but also about people who don’t have the skills necessary for the work, people who don’t have the temperament for the challenges, and people who really don’t have time to volunteer, as all of those scenarios, while not criminal, can be harmful to your organization and those it serves.

You also have to clearly define what behavior is inappropriate on the part of online volunteers, how you will communicate that to volunteers, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and how you are going to be aware of such behavior. As we note in the guidebook, a way to absolutely ensure safety in online interactions between volunteers and clients is to set up a private sys­tem through which all messages are sent, reviewed by staff before they can be read by the intended recipient, stripped of all personal identifying information by the moderator, archived for the record, etc., but that such a system can ruin an attempt to create trusting, caring relationships between volunteers and clients (and we provide a powerful example of how such a super-safe system ended up almost derailing an online mentoring program). Your efforts to ensure safety must balance with your program goals.

Among the many suggestions we make in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, regarding online safety is this:

The best way to ensure that clients and vol­unteers are having positive online experiences is for program staff to stay in frequent touch with both, to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Also, it is fundamental that you establish and clearly (and frequently) communicate policies regarding online exchanges between volunteers and clients. (page 114)

Clearly, explicitly inform applicants for volunteering about your organization’s policies and procedures regarding safety, abuse prevention, and all aspects of risk management, as well as circumstances that would lead to a volunteer being dismissed. Be explicit. Also share your code of conduct or statement of ethics in writing. Ask applicants if they have a problem with any of the policies and procedures, code of ethics, etc.; such a discussion will help you find out if applicants are uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. Even though it is not legally binding, require applicants to sign a document that states they understand and agree to adhere to your policies and procedures and code of conduct; again, this can help you find out if an applicant is uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. It also affirms to volunteers that you make the safety of your volunteers, staff and clients a priority, which can encourage new volunteers to take such precautions with the utmost seriousness.

vvbooklittleThere are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, online safety, ensuring client confidentiality and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Suggestions for risk management are found throughout the book, in the chapters regarding developing and revising policies, designing assignments for online volunteers, interviewing and screening online volunteers, orienting and training online volunteers, basic techniques for working with online volunteers, and online volunteers working directly with clients, as well as the chapter written for online volunteers themselves. Our advice is based on both virtual volunteering practices, including micro volunteering and crowdsourcing, and the proven fundamentals of onsite, face-to-face, traditional volunteer management.

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

Request to all those training re: volunteer management

Are you teaching a volunteer management 101 class, where you talk about the basics of successfully managing volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to identify tasks for volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recruit volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to keep volunteers engaged/volunteer retainment?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recognize/honor volunteers?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then here’s a thought. Actually, it’s a very strong suggestion: you absolutely should include virtual volunteering, whether or not you ever say the phrase virtual volunteering. You absolutely should talk about how to use the Internet – email, a web site, social media, third-party web sites – in each and every aspect of those basics of volunteer management. No exceptions. No excuses.

Consider this: no high-quality marketing workshop about event promotion would not talk about the Internet. No high-quality HR seminar or webinar would talk about worker recruitment and not talk about the Internet. No high-quality management class about better-supporting large numbers of employees in their work would not talk about digital networking tools. So why do those that work with volunteers settle for volunteer management workshops, even on the most basic subject, that don’t integrate into the class the Internet use regarding supporting and involving volunteers?

I hear a lot of excuses for consultants and other workshop leaders who don’t talk about Internet tools in a course regarding the management of volunteers:

  • The volunteer managers I’m working with don’t work with volunteers that use the Internet or text messing
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with are at organizations focused on the arts or the environment or animals or homelessness and therefore don’t need to talk about the Internet or text messaging
  • There’s a separate workshop for talking about digital tools
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with have volunteers that are over 55

ARGH! Not one of those excuses is valid for not integrating talk of the Internet throughout any volunteer workshop addressing basic topics like recruitment, retainment, task identification, etc. NOT ONE. In fact, I think anyone who attends a workshop on working with volunteers, especially a volunteer management 101 course, whether hosted by a volunteer center, a nonprofit support center, or a college or university, whether online or onsite, should ask for at least a partial refund if virtual volunteering is not fully integrated into the course (it’s either not mentioned at all or is briefly mentioned at the end of the class). There is NO excuse for this, it shows a lack of competency on the part of the workshop leader and it’s time to demand better!

As Susan Ellis and I note in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, virtual volunteering should not be a separate topic amid discussions about volunteer engagement and management. Instead, virtual volunteering needs to be fully integrated into all such discussions and trainings. No more segregation at the end of the book or workshop! The consequences of not integrating Internet use into volunteer management 101 workshops? It ill-prepares people for working with volunteers. It also immediately contributes to the stereotype that nonprofits are out-of-touch and old-fashioned.

vvbooklittleWe called it The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook not because we don’t think there will be more to say about virtual volunteering in the future, not because we don’t think there will be new developments on the subject, but because we really hope it’s the last book focused only on virtual volunteering, because we hope all books written about working with volunteers, whether in general or regarding a very specific part of the management of volunteers, like mentoring or risk management or recruitment or board member support or whatever, will now fully integrate the use of the Internet/digital tools in their suggestions. We hope that every workshop on any aspect of volunteer management, and every certificate regarding the management of volunteers, will fully integrate the various uses of the Internet in their suggestions. There’s no excuse not to!

In the EU? Want to become an EU Aid Volunteers sending organization?

eu aid volunteersIf your organization or initiative is based in Europe, in a country that is a part of the European Union, and is also working in humanitarian action or civil protection or volunteer engagement, you can take a free online course to explore becoming an EU Aid Volunteers sending organization. The course will run from 2-29 May 2016, with participants logging on for approximately 3 hours per week for lessons, webinars and discussions. There is a limit of one participant per organization. Space is limited and will be allocated on a first come, first served basis!

This E-Learning course was created by the consortium formed by Volonteurope,
Alianzapor la Solidaridad, GVC Onlus and Hungarian Baptist Aid in partnership with Instituto de Estudios Sobre Conflictos y Acción Humanitaria (IECAH). At the end of the course participants will acquire:

  1. The ability to describe how the EU Aid Volunteers programme provides a central framework for strengthening local capacity and resilience in disaster-affected communities; and
  2. The ability to explain the principles and values of Humanitarian Action along with other key aspects of humanitarian work.

The course ultimately “seeks to provide flexible, practical and up-to-date training on the value of volunteers in humanitarian action.”

Every participant will have the chance to communicate with facilitators and other participants to discuss questions, problems, and opinions. The main forum will be used for introductions, general discussion, and debates, and to “really take advantage” of the course, regular participation in the forums is considered fundamental.

If you participate in this online course, I would LOVE to hear from you – about what you learned, how you liked it, what you hope to do with your knowledge, etc.

The EU Aid Volunteers initiative is managed by the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). I was involved in creating the virtual volunteering strategy for the EU Aid Volunteers initiative as a consultant. Here is more information about my consulting experience.

Virtue & reputation in the developing world

womantargetMy Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts from my male Afghan colleagues, talking about their travels, their work, their children, sharing photos, etc. But rare is the post from Afghan women I’ve worked with. And recently, I was reminded yet again of why that is.

In some countries, a woman’s reputation regarding her virtue is every bit as important as food and health care, in terms of prosperity, let alone survival. When you are a girl or a woman in Afghanistan, or many other countries, you can’t just shrug at insults regarding your morals or honor. You do not have that privilege. You have to care deeply about what neighbors and co-workers and, really, what anyone might say about your virtue. Damage to your reputation regarding your virginity, your marriage, your care for your children, your sexuality, how you dress, how you behave in social settings, and everything else that makes up one’s moral character can cost a woman a job, her family, her marriage – even her life.

I was gobsmacked to find out just how true this was when I lived in Afghanistan for six months back in 2007 – my Afghan female co-workers were immobilized at times by fear of gossip about their honor. But it’s not just in that country: I heard a few comments when I lived in Ukraine that made me realize that, to a degree, it can be true there as well.

I was reminded of all this per an article in the Washington Post regarding women in Afghanistan who are being virtually assaulted, their Facebook profiles duped to create a second, fake profile, their friends invited to “friend” that profile, and then come the fake posts boasting of drug use and illicit behavior, attributed to the person being targeted. The identity thieves steal the women’s photos and steal and repost personal information publicly. Or, the woman’s actual account is hacked, the password changed so that she can no longer control the account – and the same tactic used: fake posts boasting of illicit behavior, altered photos of the woman drinking alcohol, etc. “Respectable reputations are demolished with a few keystrokes.” In addition, a woman on Facebook in Afghanistan may end up with an inbox deluged with pornography and violent threats from aggressive suitors and alleged militants. It leaves the women terrified of even their own family members, as the article details.

In the article, an Internet cafe owner talks about his attempts to help the many young women who are devastated to find out their profile has been duped or hacked with such reputation-destroying information and frantic to get the information removed. Sadly, his reports to Facebook aren’t taken seriously. The article says, “He suspects that the threats are so culturally specific — a profile photo showing a woman’s face or a beer Photoshopped into a photo of a female gathering, for example — that they often go unnoticed by Facebook administrators reviewing flagged accounts. What may look like an innocent account in the United States can be full of menacing innuendo to Afghan eyes.”

But there’s another reason that keeps so many women in Afghanistan and other countries off of social media as well: the Tall Poppy Syndrome. People talking about an accomplishment can be seen as bragging, and many feel that tall flower has to be cut down to the same size as all the others. The phrase is particularly popular in Australia, though some people say it isn’t success that offends Australians but, rather, someone that acts superior. But in many places, a woman saying anything on social media, except for praising the deity of her religion, is seen as bragging – and she becomes a target for her “tall” reputation being cut down. If you don’t believe that, search for malala yousafzai criticized on Google.

For all these reasons, many women in Afghanistan and other countries have given up on having a virtual identity at all – I personally know of two such women. This greatly hinders their ability to connect with potential colleagues abroad that could help them in their work, to build up a professional reputation beyond the walls of their office or beyond the staff of the organization, and build a career.

Of course, it hasn’t always been so easy in the Western world for a woman to shrug off gossip. In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, warns her father that the consequences of her sister Lydia’s reputation as a flirt affects “our importance, our respectability in the world”, noting that when a girl is perceived as being a flirt, it is the girl’s family members that pay the price: “Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?” 200 years later, no girl in the USA has to have that scene explained to her, even in our world of celebrity sex tapes and leaked nude photos and wardrobe malfunctions. Many women worldwide, even in “the West,” still fear loss of reputation through gossip, even if the consequences aren’t nearly as dire as in other countries.

By contrast, I now live in a privileged world where I can choose to shrug at personal insults thrown my way regarding my virtue, my moral behavior, etc. I know who I am, that I strive for integrity in my professional world and in personal matters, I know that the people I love and respect in my life know my true character and morals, and for me, that’s all that matters. If someone calls me a whore, I can simply roll my eyes and say, “Please call me Her Royal Highness and Whore, as it is my correct title,” and then I can go on about my day.

I’m from the Bible belt, and I’ve lived all over the USA, and I find that “but what will people think?!” is a mentality that still very much exists back home. I’m not sure when exactly I shed that mentality, but I do remember the first time I heard a story that says there was a man who constantly harassed and insulted the Buddha, but the Buddha never seemed fazed by it. When someone asked why he didn’t take offense to the insults, he replied, “If someone gives you a gift and you refuse to accept it, the gift stays with the giver.” I remember thinking: that’s what I want to strive for. Though, full disclosure: insults about my looks, my age, my weight, etc., still feel like punches in my gut, anc criticism of my work, and my approach to work, can sting. But insults about my virtue? Have at it – I don’t care.

So we, in the West, do understand, to a degree, the perils of gossip regarding moral behavior for our sisters in other countries. But what’s to be done? We certainly need to pressure social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to better respond to complaints of duping and hacking. But should we also encourage a new way of thinking: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”? I’m not sure it’s possible to become unoffendable – but could an entire culture be taught, deliberately, to become less so? Would that be a part of women’s empowerment, of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly #5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls?

Regardless, it should serve as a caution to humanitarian and development workers wanting NGOs and government agencies to engage more on social media; you need to provide guidance for the women who would be expected to manage online activities on how to stay safe and protect their personal reputations.

January 4, 2016 update: See this post on TechSoup that summarizes an article about the risks taken by women in Pakistan, particularly female students, who use social media, and highlights the work of Nighat Dad, a lawyer in Pakistan who works to help women stay safe online.

Also see:

Wiki re: virtual volunteering in Europe

In the course of researching and writing about Internet-mediated volunteering (virtual volunteering, online volunteering, microvolunteering, online mentoring, etc.) in European Union (EU) countries, I created a wiki to serve as a publicly-shared knowledge base for resources used to inform this project, resources that could inform future research projects related to the subject matter, and to invite further submissions of relevant information from any wiki visitor. The ICT4EMPLOY wiki includes:

  • More about the overall project & researchers
  • The information we are seeking / How to submit information
  • Online Volunteering-related recruitment or matching web sites
  • Organisations that involve online volunteers in the EU
  • Resources related to volunteering as a contributor to employability
  • Resources related to arguments against and concerns about volunteering by unions/professionals in Europe
  • Resources and research related to Internet-mediated volunteering (focused on, but not limited to, Europe)
  • Resources related to telecommuting, virtual teams and remote management
  • Legal status and regulations regarding volunteers
  • Resources related to volunteer engagement and volunteerism in EU countries statistics, studies, volunteer centres, volunteer matching sites, sites for volunteers, sites for those that want to involve volunteers, etc.
  • RSS feeds for keywords associated with Internet-mediated volunteering
  • Información en español
  • Informations en français
  • Informationen in Deutsch

I’ll update it as long as I’m working on the research.

Online community service company tries to seem legit

Back in January 2011, I discovered a for-profit company called Community Service Help, Inc. that claimed it could match people that have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. But the “community service” is watching videos. Yes, you read that right: people assigned community service pay to get access to videos, which they may or may not watch, and this company then gives each a letter for their probation officers or court representatives saying that the person did community service – which, of course, the person didn’t. – he or she just watched videos.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people for freely-available information.

I also have a big problem with judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos. Watching a video is NOT community service. Listening to a lecture is NOT community service. Watching an autopsy is NOT community service. Courts can – and do – sentence offenders to watch videos or listen to a lecture or watch an autopsy, and that’s fine, but these activities are NOT COMMUNITY SERVICE.

My many blogs about this company, such as the first one, What online community service is and is not in (January 2011), as well Online volunteer scam goes global (July 2011), Courts being fooled by online community service scams (from November 2011), and Update on a Virtual Volunteering scam (November 2012), have lead to investigative TV reports on Atlanta Fox 5 and an NBC affiliate in Columbus, Atlanta. Just to show how unscrupulous this company is, after the NBC story, the scam company put a tag on its web site noting “as featured on NBC news!” Ugh.

The pressure hasn’t lead to the company folding, unfortunately. Instead, the company is now trying to go legit, paying for this press release on PR Web to encourage nonprofits to use its service to list virtual volunteering opportunities with the company, which it will then have its paying clients do. The company claims that it will provide “electronic supervision, volunteer hour tracking, time sheets and logging, court reporting, and any necessary phone calls and customer support” for the volunteers it provides to any nonprofit that signs up. Those services are free for the nonprofit, but the volunteers pay the for-profit company for the volunteering. So, now the company can claim that volunteers do real volunteering, provided by legitimate nonprofits.

My thoughts? I think any nonprofit staff that list opportunities with Community Service Help, Inc. should have their heads examined:

  • There is still no list on the company’s web site about what people do as online volunteers through the company, and no list of “charity partners” that use this service.
  • There is a list of testimonials from people who have supposedly used the service — testimonials which all sound amazingly the same, as though they were all written by the same person.
  • There is also still no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • Its statement on its home page, The only place to complete your court ordered community service online!, is a blatant lie. There are many places to complete online volunteering for court ordered community service – where the volunteer pays NOTHING, or pays a tiny fee, much smaller than what Community Service Help, Inc. charges.
  • The company has no profile on Yelp.com.
  • So far, no online volunteering service has been performed at all through this company. None. The people who use this service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, the company arranges for paperwork to be sent to the court or probation officer that says the paying customer has completed the “community service” and how many hours they spent doing such.

I really hope nonprofits continue to steer clear of this company. List your online volunteering opportunities with your local volunteer center, through VolunteerMatch, or through any other legitimate nonprofit service (all are free).

And for those of you that need to perform court-ordered community service, check out this  list of LEGITIMATE nonprofits that would be happy to involve you.

Still waiting for officials in Miami-Dade County, where this organization is based, any parole and probation associations, the Corporation for National Service and AL!VE to PLEASE investigate or, at least, take a stand regarding this and other companies.

July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

Everything old is new again, & again

People watching TV and writing about it online with their friends at the same time?!. Breathless buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz!!!

Am I talking about the Super Bowl last weekend, and so many people live tweeting it? Or the last episode of 30 Rock last week? Or the Olympics last year?

No – I’m talking about something that’s been happening for at least 30 years.

I’m talking about Usenet, a worldwide Internet discussion system that started in the early 1980s. Usenet was not only the initial Internet community – in the 1980s and 1990s, it was THE place for many of the most important public developments in the commercial/public Internet: it’s where Tim Berners-Lee announced the launch of the World Wide Web, where Linus Torvalds announced the Linux project, and where the creation of the Mosaic web browser was announced (and which revolutionized the Web by turning it into a graphical medium, rather than just text-based).

It was also the place where there were discussion groups – called newsgroups – for everything imaginable: volunteer firefighting, accounting, classic cars, computer repair, tent camping, hiking with your dog, nonprofit management, college football teams – and, indeed, television shows.

Yes, as early as the 1980s, many thousands of people all over the USA were gathering online with friends to talk in realtime about what they were watching on TV. While I didn’t write online during the X-Files in the 1990s, I fully admit to running to my computer as soon as an episode was over, to read what everyone thought and to share my own reactions. Usenet TV and entertainment-related communities fascinated me so much at the time that I ended up writing about them at my day job: about how members of the online communities for the X-Files, Xena, and other entertainment-focused newsgroups engaged in online volunteering & various charitable activities. That was in 1999.

There’s nothing really new about people live tweeting what they are seeing on TV, except that more people are doing it than were on newsgroups and that it’s being done on Twitter now.

And I bring this up because I keep finding articles and research that claims online volunteering or microvolunteering is new. It’s not. Helping people via the Internet, in ways large and small, is a practice that’s more than 30 years old, and just-show-up volunteering without a long-term commitment, which until recently was called episodic volunteering (and I called online versions of it byte-sized volunteering back in the 1990s) has also been around for decades.

We’re not in uncharted territory regarding volunteering or any human interaction online – so let’s embrace our past, learn from it, and give the true innovators, the real pioneers, their due! Rebranding practices and approaches is fine, but let’s not deny our past in the process – there are some great learnings from back in the day that could really help us not so make many missteps online now!

Also see: