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?
NOTES and LINKS:
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.
Catholic Charities of Spokane
A lot of volunteer and computer re-use links
A similar project
And one more