This week’s local neighborhood newspaper reported on a mom type volunteer doing the homey thing and stitching up masks for anyone who needs a buffer from the virus. She puts a plastic bin of them on the sidewalk in front of her home, and only asks that you donate an extra cotton shirt if you have one to spare.
On Wednesdays, Moira Knutson sets out two big plastic storage totes on the concrete walkway of her home. One is empty, for donations of 100% cotton shirts, and the second is full of patterned masks. Anyone who happens to be walking by is welcome to take a mask from the bin, free of charge.
Like many people, Knutson was first motivated to sew masks for health care workers when the pandemic began but is perhaps unique in that she never stopped. By her “guesstimate,” she’s made about 2,000 masks since March.
Wikipedia was founded almost twenty years ago and has thrived on a volunteer-contributor model. A paper written by Benjamin Mako Hill while at MIT evaluates this form of collective action. His analysis studies why Wikipedia succeeded whereas seven previous attempts, which involved the general public giving of their time to build an online encyclopedia of knowledge, did not. The paper is called Almost Wikipedia: Eight Early Encyclopedia Projects and the Mechanisms of Collective Action.
Abstract: Before Wikipedia was created in January 2001, there were seven attempts to create
English-language online collaborative encyclopedia projects. Several of these attempts built sustainable communities of volunteer contributors but none achieved anything near Wikipedia’s
success. Why did Wikipedia, superficially similar and a relatively late entrant, attract a community of millions and build the largest and most comprehensive compendium of human knowledge in history? Using data from interviews of these Wikipedia-like projects’ initiators and
extensive archival data, I suggest three propositions for why Wikipedia succeeded in mobilizing
volunteers where these other projects failed. I also present disconfirming evidence for two important alternative explanations. Synthesizing these results, I suggest that Wikipedia succeeded
because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to
many potential contributors, while innovating around the process and the social organization
Note that last line: “…because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to many potential contributors.” The shared objective was clear.
The Covid Tracker
Bloomberg reports on the Covid tracking project which has been run mostly by volunteers -or- Data Heroes.
Since then, the Covid Tracking Project—run by a small army of data-gatherers, most of them volunteers—has become perhaps the most trusted source on how the pandemic is unfolding in the U.S. The website has been referenced by epidemiologists and other scientists, news organizations, state health officials, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and the Biden transition team. There are other reliable sources for pandemic statistics, but the project stands out for its blend of rich, almost real-time data presented in a comprehensible way. “I think they’ve done extraordinary work and have met an important need,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which publishes its own set of pandemic data (and draws some information from the Covid Tracking Project). “They’re tracking things that aren’t being tracked.”
The project is a demonstration of citizen know-how and civic dedication at a time when the country feels like it’s being pulled apart. Yet it’s confounding that, almost a year into the pandemic, the Covid Tracking Project is doing what might be expected of the U.S. government. “It’s kind of mind-boggling that it’s fallen to a group of volunteers to do this,” says Kara Schechtman, one of the project’s early volunteers, who’s since become the paid co-lead for data quality.
Work–Not for a salary, but for the public
The crafter, the contributor and the Covid tracker all have something in common. They engaged their services once they found a worthy goal. This, in combination with extra time on their hands, as well as a skill that could clearly be leveraged toward a windfall result, motivates the workers to step up. Notice that the goals fall into public benefits such as (pubic) health, (public) education and (pubic) governance. And this just-in-time response, especially when the need is great, out performs the established bureaucratic system.
These are all examples or work in the public sphere.