Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

A Volunteer Project is Born

By elenchos in Technology
Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 10:30:44 AM EST
Tags: Help! (Ask Kuro5hin) (all tags)
Help! (Ask Kuro5hin)

Gathering up the unused clock cycles of the students at my university and delivering them to the elderly, handicapped and low income residents of several facilities in Spokane is the basic goal of a project that I have initiated, and that will be launched this week. The residents (those who already have computers) of the apartment buildings and homes run by Catholic Charities here will be able to call Gonzaga University's computer science lab with their questions, where their requests will await the attention of one of our volunteers. The students will stop in and call back the clients, and try to resolve the problems over the phone. If necessary, students will travel to the site to work on the problem. For later on, we have some corporate donations of computers and parts in the works, and when enough of those have come through, we will be setting up PC's for our clients. Computer literacy classes are also on the way.

This project is beginning right now, so it is a chance to watch it grow, or fail, and to observe why. Right now is also an opportunity for your experiences and advice to help it along, and as it continues, I will be able to submit articles narrating the progress of the project.

This project began in the Fall of this year as an attempt to counter another volunteer project that I wanted to see fail; some may find this evil, depending on your perspective. The Gonzaga ACM was thinking about participating in a program that takes donated computer parts and trains minimum-security prison inmates to set them up, and then gives the PC's to public schools. I am very much opposed to this kind of well-meaning but misguided attempt to "help" the schools; it is the one issue where I am in agreement with that crank, Clifford Stoll. That subject is another rant altogether, but at any rate, I decided that I would have a much better chance of killing that project if I was able to offer something positive as an alternative, hence redirecting the idea towards the other end of the spectrum: old people.

I pitched the idea to someone from Catholic Charities, and they liked it. They are about the largest charity in the region, and they run most of the facilities that I would be wanting to work with. While they are obviously a religious organization, the 60% of Gonzaga's student body that is non-Catholic already know that religion need not stand in the way of a common goal like this one. I got a handful of the right students in computer science to sign on as well, and started posting requests for comments and sending out emails to anyone I could think of who might be interested. After finalizing the details of the plan with Catholic Charities, I printed fliers and advertised for the big meeting to kick it all off, this Thursday, January 25.

The main reason I am optimistic about it is its basic simplicity. No one is being asked to commit in advance any of their time. No daily administration or maintenance of the program is required. It all hinges on the phone in the computer science lab being answered by the work-study student there, who only writes down a message in a book. The lab administrator readily agreed to add this small chore to the duties of the lab attendants; they spend most of their time gaming and surfing the web anyway, and those work-studies I've spoken with were actually enthusiastic about participating. Our clients will know not to expect an immediate response; the requests just wait for a student with a few minutes free. If we have the 30 to 50 volunteers that I expect, and the 25 to 50 clients that we will have in the beginning, I see a good chance that they will get a call back within a day. If on-site help is required, someone should be free by the weekend.

I have hardly begun to think about all the ways that this is a good thing. Computer support, even over the phone, can be expensive, and on-site service is generally unobtainable for the non-rich. Students interacting with senior citizens is beneficial to both parties in innumerable ways. These are people who have been successfully adapting to new technology their entire lives and they have a lot to teach. The handicapped too, have much to teach us about adaptation and problem solving. Meeting the poorest families in our society, learning about their lives, and hopefully giving them computer skills and Internet access that might change their situation for the better is another golden opportunity. I could go on but it is easy for you to think about all the possibilities. I don't need to tell you how good it looks on a graduate's resume, either.

The later stages are more complex and demand more time, but if they fail they will not diminish the usefulness of stage one. Getting corporate donations of computers and parts should be quite possible. Getting 10 to 20 hackers together for a Saturday afternoon to make the PC's useful to our clients is difficult, but not impossible. Many students with no desire to do phone support are excited about doing this purely technical job instead. Teaching the occasional computer literacy class only depends on one or two people deciding to go and do it. Already I know student who is chomping at the bit to teach email and web surfing to the WWII generation.

I have been told that the biggest thing that kills these projects is lack of administrative savvy. I am trying to minimize the amount of administriva that the project depends on, and shift as much as I can to Catholic Charities; running volunteer projects is after all what they are good at. They tell me what they lack is technical skill, so that is what I am trying to deliver to them. They provide the rest. I have also tried to advertise this project as much as possible to our business school and get those students to help provide leadership and organization, but have had little success. I am thinking of pitching it to the university's ROTC commander, so he will cajole and nag his cadets into showing up at the meeting. Looking at what I have now, there is a lot of geek-power available, but few skilled geek-herders. How all that will play out remains to be seen. Overall, I remain optimistic.

What about YOU? Have you ever done something like this before? Did it work? Why? What are your ideas? What would you do differently?

I realize I may have raised some hackles with the computers in public schools thing, but really it is moot as far as this subject goes. I would encourage you to submit an article on it, because I think such a discussion would be worth while. If you would rather post comments on that issue here, fine, it's not really up to me.

Requests For Comments on the project: #1, #2, #3. RFC #3 describes the current state of the project; the others just show some of its evolution.
Gonzaga University
Catholic Charities of Spokane
A lot of volunteer and computer re-use links
A similar project
Another one
And one more


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


A volunteer project...
o ...is something I have always thought about participating in. 3%
o I'm in one now! 16%
o I've always been involved in at least one. 20%
o I started one myself, and it sucked. 0%
o I started one myself, and it was a great success. 3%
o I want to start one, but not yet, because... 6%
o Volunteering is for WEAKLINGS! Let the inferior parasites wallow in the misery made by their own incompetence and stupidity. Fie on you! And your callow attemts to assuage your sissy liberal guilt by trying to help the unfit rejects of the human race. 50%

Votes: 30
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o #2
o #3
o Gonzaga University
o Catholic Charities of Spokane
o A lot of volunteer and computer re-use links
o A similar project
o And one more
o Also by elenchos

Display: Sort:
A Volunteer Project is Born | 9 comments (7 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Difficult project! (5.00 / 1) (#3)
by tftp on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 12:55:22 AM EST

elderly, handicapped and low income residents

Students would go postal (or BOFH) after few minutes of phone support. The audience is not computer-literate, and it on average even has no concept of computing. Your best bet would be to distribute appliances with all the firmware in EPROM and dial-up to your servers. Anything beyond that will be a disaster, IMHO. PC is not a suitable device for this category of users.

You do not mention Windows/Be/Linux/whatever, but this matters as well. You'd be better off running Linux from r/o partitions and launching Netscape (or Mozilla) automatically. Limit your choices, select a remotely manageable OS and then you have some chance. If you do not control all components of the system you can't support it.

On larger scale, it seems to me that you underestimate the complexity and amount of time needed. It is very far from nice office job. People will be rude, demanding, offensive - this will reduce any enthusiasm quickly. It is approximately as easy as assembling cars on conveyor; only cars never insult you. People do.

tftp--->I'll second that (5.00 / 1) (#7)
by yankeehack on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 09:21:38 AM EST

When I read the story, I had the same thoughts as tftp. I work mainly with underserved populations (senior citizens, blue collar workers, etc.) who want to work with PCs, but don't know how to. These folks go to my classes voluntarily and for some, it becomes a challenge for the both of us because YOU ARE TEACHING PEOPLE WITH NO PRIOR KNOWLEGE OF ANYTHING TECHNICAL.

If you are going to embark on this project, please do yourself a favor and change the focus from phone support to in person support or else you are going to frustrate your volunteers.

No one who was bad in bed has ever been good in life (i.e. liberals, I've never had sex with a liberal woman who knew how to use her body.) Keeteel :-P I'm *right*!
[ Parent ]

Looming questions. (4.00 / 1) (#9)
by elenchos on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 11:20:33 PM EST

These OS questions were mentioned back in RFC #1, and they have loomed larger as time passed. Now they loom and loom some more. I think Linux is definitely the way to go, set up as a net appliance, as they do with kiosk computers. Or at least something solid and clean with few bells and whistles; Debian with fwm or blackbox, maybe, I dunno. Maybe KDE with Konqurer(?); it would be nice to give them a web browser that doesn't crash just because they tried to use it to browse the web or to do something equally unreasonable, like push the "back" button. ;-)

After I make whatever case I can, it will really be the decision of the volunteers, whoever they turn out to be. If they want to stick with the popular mainstream OS that comes on the machines as they are donated, and that is what they want to maintain, so be it. If we have machines with no OS, they can ask M$ for licenses, but I expecet either a "no" or an unreasonable demand. That company rarely does anything that doesn't work directly to its benefit. I do think the fact that our users have no Windows (or anything else) experience is really an advantage. X Window won't seem alien and daunting to someone with no "investment" in learning which icons and buttons to click on in Windows. IMHO, they will actually learn GNOME or KDE faster than they would Windows, due to the lack of distractions, like the 1,000 buttons and widgets in Word that normal people have no use for. Once we get some hardware donated, I will probably be back here asking for advice on how to set them up in the quickest and most low-maintenance way. I can only speculate now, because I haven't seen what we will get. A pre-made Linux web-appliance package would be really cool; it would leave me more time to post screeds and rants on K5.

I've met a several of or potential clients. I don't know if the sample was large enough to say, but they seemed awfully nice and polite. It is hard to imagine them acting like ingrates when we offer them free computer support, especially the ones who have been suffering along all alone up to now. But if they do give us hell, maybe that baptism of fire will be enough to convince our first employers after graduation to excuse us from doing time at the phone bank. One may at least dream, I presume...

[ Parent ]

It's good to see private volunteerism (none / 0) (#4)
by skim123 on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 01:02:02 AM EST

I commend you for your efforts to help others. I commend that you chose to volunteer your time and ask others to voluntarily help. It always frustrates me why the government thinks they should stick their noses into people's business and tell people that they must volunteer or donate money to causes they find worthwhile (i.e., taxation / welfare). You are proof - among millions of other volunteers - that private citizens will help others on their own accord - we don't need bloated, beauracratic government programs to help the masses.

Phew, that was fun! In all seriousness, it sounds like a good program. I was involved for a while with a group that would take older, donated computers and set them up for homebound disabled folks. They'd give them free Internet access (via NetZero or one of the offshoots) and send a volunteer to install and give about an hour of training. Best of luck!

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

usefulness? (4.00 / 1) (#5)
by kei on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 02:57:37 AM EST

Volunteering time and energy to those typically neglected is a great thing, and I commend you for doing it, but, I have to wonder how much positive impact giving technical support is compared to what else you could do. It's not unlikely that many elderly, handicapped, and poor people have other more basic worries in life than whether they are having problems leasing an IP via DHCP... In your case I guess Catholic Charities takes care of those? But how many other well-meaning volunteer projects might be forgetting the basics of providing a decent quality of life?

Helping take out the trash, making sure their heat is working in the winter, maybe providing companionship. Then tech support.

The new economy (for lack of a better phrase on my part at the moment) certainly has opened up many new possibilities for everyone, but at the same time the have and the have-nots are separated by an increasingly large divide. Before we can try to bring those left behind up to speed to appreciate all that technology has given us, we need to acknowledge that there is a whole lot of equalizing to do before we can even share the wealth of centuries of progress, let alone the past fifteen years.
"[An] infinite number of monkeys typing into GNU emacs would never make a good program."
- /usr/src/linux/Documentation/CodingStyle

Right, but... (5.00 / 1) (#8)
by elenchos on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 03:54:19 PM EST

There are already several programs in existence that address many of these issues like companionship or help with chores and the basic quality of life issues, as well as all kinds of job training or rehabilitation. The facilities we are looking at are well-run and have staffs and volunteers who can handle the getting the heat working or cooking meals or whatever; what they lack is knowledge about computers. What I am doing is trying to fulfill a need that no one else is addressing. Easter Seals gives old computers to the handicapped, but not to seniors or anyone else, and those who do get computers get them without support, AFAIK.

The big thing is participation; almost every student I talked to said they don't have the time. That is precisely the reason this is designed flexibly, hence the metaphor of "gathering unused clock cycles." While most CS students have little left over between their studies and their dot com job, they can at least stop in once or twice a semester and spend fifteen minutes on the phone giving help to someone they would not otherwise get.

I won't know how everyone will react until I see it of course, but I can think of several elderly people I know who love email. They often say that while their grandkids won't ever call or write, they will reply to email. And as many of you cave-dwellers know, going online can dramatically enlarge a person's social sphere. So while a housebound person will hopefully have visitors a couple hours a day, I think it would be nice to have the option to spend the rest of the day doing something other than watching TV.

I don't want to get too optimistic about the later stages, because they depend on a lot of unknowns. If only the initial phone support part works, that will count for something.

[ Parent ]

An Australian project (none / 0) (#6)
by danny on Mon Jan 22, 2001 at 08:04:55 AM EST

Similar kinds of projects are being run in Australia by Project Computerbank.

[900 book reviews and other stuff]

A Volunteer Project is Born | 9 comments (7 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!