Research Proposal B

Ka-Ping Yee, 2003-12-03

1. Problem Statement

Design, implement, and evaluate a collaboration system for volunteer organizations that addresses the following three aims:

Aim 1. Facilitate the collection and selection of ideas for tasks that advance the common goal.

Aim 2. Assist in the identification of motivated volunteers best able to perform the necessary tasks.

Aim 3. Promote the making and fulfilling of commitments to perform tasks.

2. Rationale

The existence of numerous non-profit organizations, such as charities and grassroots political groups, demonstrates a widespread desire by individuals to effect positive change in the world. However, people that share a common belief are much more effective when they can coordinate their efforts. The Internet has tremendous potential for helping to coordinate volunteer efforts on a large scale. However, it has only recently become a truly major factor in American politics due to groundbreaking efforts such as MoveOn's anti-war campaign and Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

My own personal experience with volunteer activism has revealed several key problems that limit the effectiveness of such groups. I believe that many of these problems can be characterized as a temporal mismatch between mood and context, and that the asynchronous nature of online collaboration makes it a fundamentally different and more powerful way to address these problems. In short, online collaboration collapses time.

To advance the common goal of a group, the members of the group must come up with ideas for actions to take. The usual context for generating and proposing these ideas is the face-to-face meeting, but this context is not ideal for everyone. People are at their most creative in all kinds of different contexts. Some people think best alone, in small groups, late at night, or in the shower. Others may have trouble speaking up in groups that are dominated by strong personalities, even if they have better ideas to present. Unfortunately, unrecorded ideas are easily lost and quickly forgotten. Aim 1 is to take advantage of the asynchronous medium to bridge this temporal gap between an idea-generating mood and an idea-evaluating context.

Another major problem that I have observed is that often there are plenty of motivated volunteers, but they don't know what to do. The set of needed tasks that match their skills is not easily available to them at the moment they feel motivated. This is clearly an unfortunate waste of opportunities for productive work; but worse than that, if new volunteers are not quickly integrated into the group and made to feel effective and useful, they made lose interest and stop participating. Aim 2 is to utilize the asynchronous medium to bridge this temporal gap between a task-performing mood and a task-enumerating context.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by any volunteer group is the difficulty of getting people to follow through on their commitments. This problem is especially important because, once people see that some commitments are being broken, they become less inclined to keep up their own commitments. If left unchecked, such a trend can erode the group away. The very survival of a volunteer group depends on each member's confidence in the reliability of the commitments of other members. This can be seen as the converse of the preceding problem: volunteers have suitable tasks but aren't motivated to do them. When a group meets face to face, the focus on the shared goal and the excitement of social interaction generates a lot of motivation, so people will readily volunteer to do many things. Later, apart from the group, surrounded by other concerns and distractions, people may feel less in the mood, perceive less obligation, and may be more likely to forget or shirk their commitments. Aim 3 is to capitalize on the asynchronous medium to bridge this temporal gap between a commitment-making mood and the commitment-fulfilling context.

3. Mechanisms

3.1. Collecting Ideas

A structured forum can help members organize and evaluate their ideas. Complete proposals include certain specific parameters, such as:

Each idea proposal might begin as a rough concept, with an online conversation surrounding it; the parameters for the proposal would be filled in over the course of the discussion. In other cases, an idea might be initially presented as a fully formed proposal. The online conversation would then continue from this point to allow members to indicate their approval of the idea or to suggest refinements. When sufficient consensus has been reached, the proposal under discussion advances to become a group action item.

3.2. Assigning Tasks

When the group has a new action item, a set of target members is calculated depending on the parameters of the task. The initiator of the task can request a specific or general geographic location. The system then prepares a list of volunteers within the given geographic region (or in the specified target group) that have relevant skills and interests, according to their stored profiles. If the list is reasonably small, these volunteers are immediately sent an e-mail notification of the new task. If the list is large, the proposal is held for moderator review before it is broadcast, or no notification is sent.

When volunteers feel motivated to act but aren't aware of tasks to do, they can ask the collaboration system for a list of current tasks that suit their location, skills, and interests. This list is personalized to rank and highlight the tasks that are likely to be the most relevant for them.

3.3. Managing Commitments

We can fight the wearing off of the sense of commitment by encouraging people to make public commitments and reminding them to keep them. Members can claim a task by posting their name next to the task, or break up a task into smaller pieces for many people to do separately. When a member finishes a task, they return to the site to mark the commitment fulfilled.

Deadlines may be hard or soft. A hard deadline is one where there is no use in performing the task after the deadline is passed; only those who promise to meet the deadline can sign up. A soft deadline is a suggested completion date, to give volunteers an idea of the expected time frame. E-mail reminders are sent in advance of the deadlines that volunteers accept or choose to impose on themselves when they make commitments.

Because volunteer groups are a social phenomenon, commitments often contain the implied condition that volunteers are willing to participate as long as enough other people are participating. These kinds of commitments can cascade away suddenly if the trust within the group fades. It is therefore important to maintain the visibility of active and reliable group members.

Public posting of commitments may be sufficient. This work may also investigate the possibility of showing participation more explicitly with a point system that records how well people have been fulfilling their commitments, thus providing a status symbol as an additional motivator.

Another possibility worth exploring is conditional commitment. We could make the implied condition explicit by allowing volunteers to commit to do something only if a threshold number of other volunteers also commit. The system would gather the conditional commitments and send announcements when they turn into real commitments. With this facility, volunteers might be willing to make commitments that they could not have otherwise made.

4. Example Scenarios

Here are some examples of the kinds of tasks this system might handle.