This is an update on i-canhelp, the informal volunteering and sharing idea that was developed by a great bunch of people at City Camp Brighton back in March 2011. The very basic, but working, site for a couple of West Sussex villages is here http://i-canhelp.posterous.com/.
I was quite shocked to see this tweet from York Council for Voluntary Service
Now before I go any further, there’s a lamentably un-sung hero I need to thank. His name’s George Bashi (http://georgebashi.com/). At CityCamp Brighton he quietly built an excellent prototype which I failed to demo in the pitch. Well here it is now .. http://icanhelp.heroku.com/.
Pretty cool for a few hours work, eh? Thank you, George.
Now you are no doubt thinking (as the City Camp feedback suggested) that there are loads of sites like this out there and the problem with these sites is low use. What’s the point of building a platform if it’s going to be empty? Noel Hatch touches on this here (comments section) and refers to a really interesting post by Tom Steinberg of MySociety. Their experience of Pledgebank was that people were confused because it wasn’t specific enough (in the way that FixmyTransport and FixmyStreet are).
i-canhelp is, I think, specific. It is based on the sense that there are a lot of people who would do bite-sized bits of helping near where they live and work, if only they could be easily connected to those opportunities.
The screenshots from Timebanking.org come quite close (page 42) to some of the ideas of i-canhelp. Streetbank has too much of an emphasis on “things” over other forms of help and it certainly has the problem of low adoption. N0tice.com is a very interesting site (invite only at the moment) being built by people at the Guardian, but it is arguably a bit too catch-all in its ambitions (community reporting, selling stuff, sharing stuff), introducing the Pledgebank problem.
Looking again at the ideas
i-canhelp is a way of helping out in your local area, informally and directly. Bite size opportunities to make a difference. It’s about specific, helpful exchanges, without an intermediary. Think about it as online dating for helpers and helpees. People, groups or organisations can register the help they need, with the emphasis on bitesize tasks, principally in-person stuff rather than online like sparked.com or helpfromhome.org.
1) Matching offers with needs
Over the last weeks and months, there have been various thoughts and comments about i-canhelp. Notably John Barradell, Chief Executive of Brighton & Hove City Council talked about i-canhelp at the recent CityForum event in the city (go to 1:39:30). John gives a great example: connecting someone who needs some shopping from the supermarket with someone who can go. The i-canhelp matching process would operate according to “closeness” in terms of the offer/request and geographical proximity. Online dating sites work like this, finding “compatible” people. i-canhelp would find “compatible” offers and requests and potentially push them out (as alerts) as matches are made. The “shouts” (the specific offers or calls for help) will be categorised (using some genius simple process yet to be thought of) and people will be prompted to think about what else they might offer or ask for. A person might first think about offering to lend a lawnmower, but be triggered to think they could also offer to get some shopping for someone. A mobile app would mean it would be possible to do these exchanges rapidly, on the hoof, including integration of the posted messages on twitter and facebook.
Earlier in the year i-crossing, a big digital marketing agency in Brighton helped out the brilliant Crew Club and this involved putting together a list of specific things the Crew Club needed help with (web design, marketing, admin support etc). i-canhelp will be a great place for small organisations and groups to get help from others in the local area with specific skills and time.
I think this kind of informal help is often asymmetrical. Some people will tend towards being helpers and others more often on the receiving end of the help. To be very honest, Timebanking looks a bit fiddly to me and is based on the supposition that people want equivalent time given back. As a helper, I don’t want to build up time credit, I want to know how I can help and then maybe get some thanks for it at some point (see below). Timebanking pre-supposes absolute reciprocity – that they will want their given time back. I don’t think helpers want that necessarily.
2) Developing trust
Another feature that’s really important is how to help people be reassured about each other. Registration needs to be easy and Facebook authentication is an obvious candidate feature, but also asking people to register using their work email account would provide an additional level of assurance. Then of course there is ebay style feedback and trust ratings with comments. Think Check-a-Trade here too. The presence of an avatar (photo) and perhaps the ability for those with high trust ratings to recommend a newbie would help. Lots of things can be done here, without having to create the need for intermediary / admin work.
3) Saying thank you
It’s really important to say thank you. And there are all sorts of ways to do this. A monthly prize “badge”, based on votes for an individual by site members and / or levels of activity. Encouraging businesses to attach something tangible to those badges (meal-for-two style). Letters from elected councillors, mayors and senior leaders (council, businesses etc) can often be well-received. Just automated email messages triggered at certain points will be encouraging to an extent.
This is obviously critical. A very cleverly designed platform to begin with will help, built using an agile approach (bit by bit), speaking to potential stakeholders along the way. Then I believe positioning the platform with councils, other public sector bodies and businesses large and small should generate sufficient funding. I’m currently thinking that through more fully. There are plenty of angles I reckon.
I think businesses and organisations may well be interested in i-canhelp for their workforces as it will help staff to effectively use the small amounts of time they have in their days; doing something on the way to or from work or during lunch. The i-canhelp platform could incorporate features to help promote their reputation as a volunteering organisation, including stats outputs, branding, sub-pages etc. There are some organisational risk issues hidden in here to pull out and look at, at some point soon.
A successful i-canhelp site would be an attractive proposition for small businesses as well as large. By donating the small monthly prizes businesses could get good positive publicity. Strategic hook-ups with restaurant and cinema chains etc seem quite possible! I believe there are opportunities in Brighton and Hove to explore all this and if it can be worked out here, then there’s a model to take elsewhere. Making it work in one place first seems to make sense to me, as there will undoubtedly be much leg work involved.
One last interesting thing. Justine in Poynings sent me this email which was really encouraging. Her offer to print out the i-canhelp list for the village noticeboard was just what I wanted to happen. I emailed her back, over-excitedly, and asked if she would consider being the i-canhelp champion for the village. I got an email back saying that she wasn’t sure about committing to a role like that. And that’s what’s so important about micro-volunteering. There is an absolutely huge well of untapped time and skill out there, but as soon as you try and formalise it and get commitment around it, many people will be put off.
i-canhelp will let people help when they can, without being part of any system that might make them feel tied-in.
I welcome any thoughts and expressions of interest to explore this further with me.