Being someone's eyes

21.10.2013 Blog

A few weeks ago I attended TEDxCopenhagen, a one day conference emphasizing the spread of big visions and ideas. My favorite TED talk of the day was Hans Jørgen Wiberg’s talk on micro volunteering and how it empowers visually impaired. Hans Jørgen Wiberg is visually impaired himself and got the idea of a volunteer video service for the blind using smartphone cameras. Hans Jørgen Wiberg loves to cook, but after having disturbed his neighbors one too many times asking about the content of the canned food from his kitchen shelves, he got an idea.

From that idea he founded Be My Eyes with the vision of becoming a global micro volunteering platform providing help for the blind, making a video connection between visually impaired and a platform of normal sighted micro volunteers. It’s okay to ask your neighbor for help once in a while, but there is a limit. If you just had a pair of eyes once or twice a day, it could really do a tremendous difference. You need a pair of eyes, just for a short moment. And at the same time, it is a meaningful, easy and convenient way to be a volunteer. With Be My Eyes Hans Jørgen Wiberg hopes to rethink traditional volunteering, and provide meaningful and much needed help for the blind.

Micro volunteering can be defined as easy quick low-commitment actions that benefit a worthy cause (helpfromhome.org). It’s a task done by volunteers, without payment, typically online, and in small increments of time. Other examples besides Be My Eyes include Help From Home, Sparked, Microvoluntarios, DuoLingo, Click Workers, ReCAPTCHA and Kiva.

During the talk it struck me that Be My Eyes is a powerful example of how online networks enable social innovation and how network effects provide easy scaling and spread of social innovation. It may have solved a problem that potentially could make life a bit easier for blind people all over the World, and may have made a tiny revolution in the world of volunteering: Providing vision just for a short moment.

As part of the tepsie project (Workpackage 8), we have developed and identified six different platform types of online networks enabling social innovation. In this regard Be My Eyes is a great example of the platform type we refer to as matching assets to needs, i.e. online networks matching excess capacity with social needs. Below you can see an overview of the six platform types we identified. The six platform types are constructed as ideal types, and a given social innovation will normally use more than one of the six platform types in pursuing its objectives.

 

Platform Types

 

  1. Content creation: Online networks enabling communities to provide access or filter content and information as part of a service or initiative. This could be by peer production and filtering of information or by direct community contribution of content and information.
  2. Issue identification: Typically building on new or existing content or assets, these online networks collect and share peer produced and crowdsourced data from communities in order to uncover or identify issues and societal challenges. This could be by uncovering new and aggregated information about problems not undertaken by government or the market.
  3. Matching assets to needs: Within the context of specific issues or problems, these online networks and sharing platforms match assets or physical resources with needs. Assets not being used or being under-used also represent excess, idle or wasted capacity, so matching these with unmet social needs both increases asset efficiency and increases the likelihood of meeting such needs.
  4. Matching finance to needs: Online networks enabling the aggregation of individual or other forms of diverse funding, through for example micro financing or crowdfunding, to meet a given social need.
  5. Solving problems: Online networks matching problems with problem solvers and their skills, competencies and ideas. Usually these approaches and processes are undertaken by crowdsourcing or co-creation methods.
  6. Action on problems: Online networks enabling and organizing communities to undertake both online and offline action and support for a given cause or social need, by matching and aggregating individuals and communities holding specific concerns and goals in common.

As the micro volunteering examples listed above show, micro volunteering will mainly and typically happen within three of the six platform types, i.e. content creation, matching assets to needs and matching finance to needs (thereby not said that micro volunteering is impossible in the other platform types). According to The Guardian, the overriding factor driving micro-volunteering is a self-orientated motive to occupy a short period of time. This arguably results in spontaneous and transient involvement, as the micro-volunteer is more concerned about activity itself than the cause or the wider outcomes of their actions.

Convenience is key and Be My Eyes and other micro volunteering platforms could potentially become great social innovation tools in this matter. Thus, micro-volunteering is a great way to engage those who are less likely to volunteer in a more traditional manner, while at the same time avoiding slacktivism. The main challenge ahead however is to ensure continuous engagement and adaptation of specific motivations and needs of volunteers in order for them to become someone’s eyes.