Widely covered in the news this week is concern that the new Conservative government are shelving plans for employee volunteering (as launched in April, and covered here on a BBC report at the time). Outlined here in the FT, the plan was to give employees in the public sector and large private firms three days paid volunteering leave but was not included in the recent Queen’s speech. Business leaders are said to have raised concerns about the costs involved although there is a further line of argument that volunteering will develop skills and connections that will bring benefits that far outweigh the costs.
As reported in the Third Sector blog concerns had also been expressed by some charity leaders as to the practicality of the scheme and of finding volunteer opportunities for this number and in small bite size chunks. Perhaps the initiative would have required some rethinking about traditional models of volunteering but it is possible to see the potential for a problematic divide emerging between different ‘classes’ of volunteer. As the blog highlights however many smaller organisations would no doubt have really benefited from a swelling of volunteer ranks. Whether the election pledge makes it into policy remains to be seen.
This Guardian piece by Bhakti Shringarpure asks and critically answers the question ‘Can facebook likes change the world?’ What is really useful here is the way in which different initiatives and campaigns are unpacked to see what they actually involved and their implications. While different digital technologies are critiqued they are not blamed for the resulting issues, rather different uses are explored in some detail (for a newspaper article). However in summary this concludes “this apparent ease of access – and pain-free form of aid work – is reflected in various apps helping us to do good without really putting ourselves out.”
With specific reference to the use of social media campaigns the author goes on to highlight how some forms of digital activism might be problematic since “Westerners trying to help poor, suffering countries have often been accused of having a “white saviour complex”: a term tied up in colonial history where Europeans descended to “civilise” the African continent.” While the focus here is on international development, similar issues can of course arise when issues are closer to home but separated by some other form of classification based on wealth or health for example.
I would strongly recommend reading the article for a really thought-provoking piece on digital activism
A new project which is part of the ‘zooinverse’ citizen science family has seen ‘28,000 volunteers set loose in a virtual serengeti’. As reported by Discover Magazine but also picked up in news stories across the world, scientists have set up 225 heat and movement sensitive cameras in the Serengeti and asked for volunteers to sort through the 1.2 million shots taken between 2010 and 2013. As Discover Magazine explains: “Volunteers could classify a picture as empty if the camera had misfired on some branches or grass blades waving in the sun. That was the case for about three quarters of the photos. When an animal was present, users went through a quick guide to determine the most likely species.” Amazingly (or not I guess depending on your perspective) when the team double checked a small sample of the images they found that the volunteers had been 97% accurate in their species identification.
As a result of this work, the latest post on the snapshot serengeti blog announces that their have had their first peer-reviewed publication accepted by Nature.
It seems likely that similar projects using volunteers to work on large data sets will undoubtedly become more popular, although interestingly in this case now so much manual classification has been done the team are working on ways to develop digital recognition. However as the Conversation report, ongoing development of digital technologies seems likely to open up more opportunities for such ‘citizen science’. Nevertheless, it raises questions of how much research should and could be managed in this way and where the line between volunteering and paid research staff is drawn.
June 1-7 is Volunteer’s Week in the UK. The press are celebrating the launch of this event with a range of articles discussing different aspects of volunteering and the challenges in a post-election climate. The Guardian offers a historical review from medieval volunteering to the dawn of the big society while the Independent highlights the option of ‘microvolunteering’ (in a minute without leaving your sofa, so it says), and focusing on international volunteering the Huffington Post goes for busting top ten myths.
As to be expected local press are full of stories related to specific examples of volunteer activity in local communities, such as the story about the Thames Valley Police and their plans to celebrate the contribution of the 1200 volunteers who work with the force.
But while Volunteer Week is celebrated by the media, Volunteers themselves and voluntary organizations are increasingly using social media during events such as this. #volunteersweek is the place to be on twitter, or even following @VolunteersWeek. On day one it is perhaps not surprising that the opening tweets mainly feature promotion of the event itself along with tweets of thanks (#thanktweets?) from many organizations to their volunteers. Balloons and cake feature quite heavily here, there is even a song or two!
It will be interesting to see how the social media coverage changes as the week progresses, can volunteers week promote a social media debate about the challenges and future of volunteering in the UK? We look forward to finding out.