How anyone can volunteer in research and civic life

Our lives are increasing "datified" in the time we spend online. Much of the Internet is geared toward capturing attention and collecting clicks that can be monetized for marketing purposes, but one way to use the Internet counter-culturally is to use your time online to volunteer. For every time-sucking online quiz, there are other opportunities to make a real difference online, whether your interests lie in research, education, or social issues.

Citizen science for data aggregation

Online accessibility has given researchers a way to collectively harness online volunteers to answer critical scientific questions in a new field known as citizen science. Surprisingly, there are many important scientific questions that are impractical to answer. For instance, we know that bees are important for pollinating crops, but do we know how many bees there are? To answer that question, researchers rely on volunteers with access to the Internet to record and report how many bees they see in a given day. If you (or your kids!) would like to get involved, count the butterflies in your yard and report them to the Big Butterfly Count, or report the birds in your yard to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Crowdsourcing information

Volunteering opportunities online aren’t just limited to wildlife watching, though. There are many simple, repetitive—but vitally important—tasks that people do much better than machines, like identifying faces on photos. For example, I’ve spent a coffee break identifying types of deer in photos and classifying galaxies. These projects have very little learning curve, and regardless of whether you participate once or many times, your contribution is directly valuable to the researchers! Plus, helping out with a study makes for a very satisfying break from work if you’re using the Pomodoro technique. Zooniverse is a great platform that connects willing volunteers with existing research projects.

Designing and deploying civic data tools

Civic groups and nonprofits often underutilized available data, an issue several organizations hope to remedy. Datakind connects data from nonprofits with eager volunteers. If you have a background in statistics or computer science, you can use those skills to help build systems for recommendation or early warning. If you're an Excel whiz, consider joining a local chapter and asking if you can clean and organize incoming data for nonprofits. Code Across America is a national organization with over 74 local chapters that work to design platforms for civic engagement. Their tools have been used to enhance bike routes and clear city drains. Technical skills are not required to work with these groups. Volunteers can assist with administrative tasks, work with nonprofits to collect their data, and help connect available tools with community groups that need them.

Traditional volunteering online

If you are looking to invest more time in online volunteering, start by reaching out to local organizations and asking for volunteer tasks that can be completed remotely. 

On an international level, the United Nations coordinates a huge database of remote volunteering options including opportunities to use professional skills for content creation or graphic design know-how to create pamphlets. For those looking to mentor remotely, the School in the Cloud allows volunteers, “Online Grannies,” to read a story to children via a Skype call.

Responsible online citizenship uses time online to build bridges, whether furthering scientific inquiry or mentoring students. The Internet is full of things to count, but the main thing that matters is that all of us get 24 hours to spend each day. How we spend those hours is up to us.