Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Calling all Digital Do-Gooders! Online Volunteer Opportunities + A Challenge

Since I am freshly graduated and currently unemployed, I spend my days doing freelance work and brushing up on my professional certifications and second language skills. But then, there are always a few hours I have here and there that I want to do more with.

Enter digital volunteering.


Digital volunteering - also called micro volunteering or crowdsourced volunteering - is a pretty self explanatory term. You volunteer small allotments of time to projects online, most of which have real world, offline impacts. (If you're interested in learning more about crowdsourcing I highly recommend the Groundswell book!)

Digital volunteering allows organizations and researchers to achieve robust research and project goals, and to quickly and efficiently complete mundane or difficult, but important, tasks.


A researcher needs help processing loads of photos and looking for particular markers in those photos, say, a certain shape that may indicate a cancerous tumour. It turns out the human brain is better at doing this than a computer: We pick up visual nuances with a higher success rate than artificial intelligence can. So, the researcher divides these image analysis tasks into tiny chunks and asks the Internet for help.

What was previously a daunting task that would be expensive and take years for the researcher to complete is now feasible and successful. And you get warm fuzzes for helping, to boot. 


Micro volunteering always fits in your schedule. In the time it takes you to watch a funny YouTube video about cats you can make a little difference in the world.

It's the definition of low-commitment altruism.

It also breaks down geographical divides. From my laptop on a tiny island in the Mediterranean I can help organizations and researchers around the world. And that's a nice feeling.

I've found it difficult to find all-in-one guides to digital volunteering, so I've collected and published my research results here. And I've issued a digital volunteer challenge.


I challenge you to volunteer online through one of the programs I've mentioned below, or any other digital volunteer initiative you find on your own. Then Tweet me or comment below and tell me what you did, how you liked it, if it was easy, and how much time it took. Join the conversation by using the hashtag #digitalvolunteer.

Sorry, there are no prizes if you complete this challenge, no giveaways to encourage your participation. I hope the simplicity of digital volunteering, and knowing that you've put a little happy out in the world, is motivation enough for you to join me in making the most of your digital life. 

If you find other great digital volunteer opportunities I would love to know (especially those outside of the USA, where there seem to be tons!). Click to tweet digital volunteer opportunities using the #digitalvolunteer hashtag, post them on The Stroke Blog Facebook page, or email me with them and I'll add them to this page to help other would-be digital do-gooders.


CAREER VILLAGE: Become a digital mentor and answer students' career-related questions by signing up at Career Village with your LinkedIn account. When students ask a career question related to your field you are notified by email. You control what types of questions you want to answer, and how often you receive notifications of student questions. You can answer as in-depth or as simply, as short or as long, as you'd like. Your answers can be made public so other students can benefit from your expertise. High schools and colleges across North America, as well as students around the world, benefit from the volunteer-driven insights published to this site. 

CLUMPY: Play a plant disease research game and contribute to microbial research at The University of Exeter. A great example of 'citizen science'. 

GALAXY ZOO: It turns out that your brain is better at classifying the shapes of galaxies better than a computer. Help NASA categorize images of far-away galaxies and satisfy your inner astronaut/Star Trek dreams.

AMERICAN RED CROSS DISASTER DIGITAL VOLUNTEERS: Avid Twitter user? Disaster Digital Volunteers work as part of the American Red Cross' social engagement team during times of disaster to monitor, engage, and report on activity surrounding specific disasters. Volunteers sign up for four hour online shifts: work that can be done remotely. Training is provided and you can apply here. I'm not sure whether or not they take volunteers who do not live stateside. I applied last week, I'll let you know their response.

CITIZEN ARCHIVIST: Become a citizen archivist for the National Archives of the United States by transcribing historical documents, tagging documents, contributing and editing articles, uploading and sharing your images of National Archives records, and transcribing historical weather data. I love this one, but I wish the Library and Archives Canada did something similar, since this project doesn't have as much meaning for non-Americans. 

FOLD IT: Solve puzzle games for science and help researchers at the University of Washington learn about and research protein structures. Supported by the Center for Game Science.

SMITHSONIAN DIGITAL VOLUNTEERS TRANSCRIPTION CENTER: Join over 1,000 volunteers transcribing almost 6,000 documents. The Smithsonian's super easy digital volunteer interface makes it easy to join in on transcription projects - whether they are in their early phases or nearly complete - get intimate with history, and help the Smithsonian build its digital archive. 

NANODOCAn online game that allows the general public to design new nano particle strategies towards the treatment of cancer. So you can add cancer researcher to your resume, right? I kid. But seriously, this is very cool. Nanodoc is an initiative by the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT

DONATE YOUR COMPUTER'S POWER: Projects like Folding@Home and GridRepublic allow you to donate a bit of your computer's power to assist in scientific research calculations: Essentially, big math problems that require the power of many, many computers to solve. How's that for the easiest volunteer job ever? 

DUOLINGO: Duolingo is seriously addicting. A free language learning platform and app, it makes learning languages fun (even for people who are horrid at it, like me). And, to practice your new language skills, you can donate your time to translate Wikipedia and other articles online from your native to your newly-learned language. Translation projects are sorted by skill level, and are checked by native or advanced speakers before publishing online, so you don't have to worry about botching Wikipedia articles with your irregular irregular verbs. 

DISTRIBUTED PROOFREADERS: Distributed Proofreaders is an organization that has developed a web-based proofreading method that allows you to convert physical, Public Domain books into e-books. It takes about an hour to get trained up on the software, and then 3-10 minutes to translate each page of a Public Domain book. Finished books are published on Project Gutenburg. During the proofreading process, volunteers are presented with a scanned page image and the corresponding OCR (Optical Character Recognition - what the computer thinks the page says) text on a single web page. All you have to do is compare the OCR text to the image, proofread, and send it back to the site. Once all the pages of a book have been completed, a post-processor assembles them into an e-book and submits it to the Project Gutenberg archive so that anybody with an Internet connection can read the book online. How cool is that!

HAVE GIS/MAPPING SKILLS? There are too many mapping volunteer opportunities to list here, most of which help map information related to natural disasters or pandemics. A quick Google search for "crisis mapping" will point you to organizations that need your help, like Crisis Mappers.

listed in order of usefulness and ease of use

A United Nations directory that matches you with online volunteer opportunities based on your skills, the development opportunities that interest you, the number of hours you are able to donate per week (1-20+), and the geographic regions that interest you.

A directory for research and science-y micro volunteer opportunities. Helping with the prediction of the structure of proteins through online games, environmental data gathering with iPhone apps, nano technology/tumour killing research. Think of them as mini opportunities to let your inner geek out (and make a positive impact in the world).

A directory of online and offline volunteer opportunities. 

A directory of digital micro volunteering opportunities.

Using the Sparked Platform (also used by IBM, Kraft, Target etc. to help their employees micro volunteer), Global Giving Time connects you to micro volunteering opportunities based on your interests and skills. You can help third-graders improve their writing by commenting on their blog posts, design logos and brochures for a not-for-profit, help NGO's in developing countries fill out project proposals, etc. There are, literally, thousands of opportunities to help.


Remember to click to tweet digital volunteer opportunities using the #digitalvolunteer hashtag, post them on The Stroke Blog Facebook page, or email me with them and I'll add them to this page to help other would-be digital do-gooders.


  1. This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing! I'll spread the word, too.

  2. Jess, I love love love this. I'm not so digitally inclined (as you well know ... note my anonymous comments ... I don't know how to set up a profile), but I am so glad that you are spreading the word about "new" ways folks can make a difference in their communities and their world. Warm and fuzzies rock!

  3. This is sooo awesome!!! I'm definitely going to check some of these links out. Perfect timing for the holidays too. :)

  4. Love this Jess! Awhile back I was looking for online volunteering platforms and signed up for the UN online volunteering program but was sidetracked and haven't kept up with perusing for opportunities of interest/my skill set. I had no idea that there were so many other platforms!

  5. Like you I have some spare time at the moment. Worth revisiting this. Thank you.


Let's talk.