Tech Volunteering: How Things Get Done During a Pandemic

When the COVID-19 health pandemic first began to spiral out of control, organizations that provide crucial social services such as food stamps and unemployment benefits were inundated. Their IT staffers were equally overwhelmed creating new applications and processes to help people access services online and process transactions faster,doing so in a secure manner.  Help for these overburdened IT workers came from technical volunteer organizations such as Code for America — which saw a surge of new members over the past few months — as well as groups not focused on public service, like the Data Visualization Society. In addition, new platforms and communities sprung up as concerned people around the world looked for ways to pitch in.

Unlike in the past, though, it was easier to onboard these volunteers. Since virtual work became the new normal, there are fewer restrictions around location. Public entities can integrate a volunteer hailing from across the country just as easily as someone from their own jurisdiction.

In one ideal scenario the New Jersey State Office of Innovation, for example, took advantage of volunteers raising their hands to help and was able to get COVID-19 information out to state residents more quickly, design a Small Business Emergency Assistance Accessibility Eligibility Wizard, and make changes to interfaces on public-facing applications, among other things. 

Raising a Hand

The fact that technologists have stepped up is not surprising. Tech has a long-standing tradition of community service in the form of open source software. Companies publish programming tools that are open for anyone to use or modify. Users of these tools submit proposed improvements that help them accomplish their own goals. This effectively means that many programmers, in the course of an average work week, spend time helping one another for free.

Indeed, being a good technologist for many means being a good community member. And now that COVID-19 is ravaging both public and private business, it’s the perfect time to tap that willingness and bring volunteers into projects that may have languished — or into new ones that are emerging based on current needs. However, the process must be managed thoughtfully since, as we have learned in the past, the success of a technical volunteer project depends on how it’s set up.

Like people who choose to dedicate their working hours to public service, volunteers find meaning and connection by doing small things to make their communities a little bit better. There are several archetypes of civic tech volunteers we have observed. Understanding each will make it easier to manage them and get the most out of their service. They include:

  • Students/learners: This cohort is looking to stretch their wings while giving back to their community. They are exploring career paths by engaging with organizations, and wanting to gain experience and/or hone their skills.
  • Traditional volunteers: These volunteers want to be given a task to complete. They could be in it for the short-term or long-term.
  • Advocates: This group is passionate about something specific and motivated by personal experience, or have domain/issue-specific expertise to offer.
  • People seeking community: As COVID-19 continues to isolate us as a society, this group of volunteers may simply be looking for a group of like-minded people, oriented around skills they are passionate about.
  • Civic geeks: Seeking to engage and possibly curious about civic processes, this group wants to know more about their government and take part on a new level.

It will be important to understand these different groups and match the tasks you need completed with the right type of volunteer. So if, for example, a public entity needs some basic data entry a traditional volunteer might work best. However, this type of task wouldn’t necessarily be the right fit for an advocate, who may want more creative work. As a rule, people who are new to volunteering or have never worked in government will probably do best working on something public-facing where it’s easy to make the connection between the public value and their own lives. And yet people who have worked in government, public service roles, or who have volunteered for a long time may be willing to do more menial tasks since they likely understand how the small things can make a huge difference.

“If you’re not grounded in the struggles of government, volunteers don’t often get the perspective that you spent a day sending emails,” agrees Ryan Kelly, a former Code for America Brigade organizer who is currently the Digital Services Manager at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “People who are most productive are either doing power Googling, or willing to sit with data and clean it– not even with the fancy tools, but just spreadsheet skills.”

No matter who your volunteers are, they won’t always have the context to connect the dots between an organization’s long-term mission and the often tedious work that it takes to move the needle.  That’s why it’s important to keep the channels of communication open and to stay receptive to feedback. And everyone should be mindful of the shared values that brings everyone to the work since, at the end of the day, that’s what keeps us all going.

Of course, organizations should keep in mind that there are several different kinds of work that are well-suited for volunteers. This will also increase the likelihood of success, These attributes include:

  • It’s something the volunteer is passionate or curious about
  • Projects are well-scoped with clear goals, objectives and a timeline
  • If a  project requires specialized skills, these are clearly articulated and documented
  • There is  in-house capacity for the management and support of volunteers
  • There is a goal or end result articulated and it is both necessary and important. The work can be influenced and shaped by input from volunteers.
  • Management and internal IT is willing to listen to suggestions and input since volunteers may have ideas that can improve the process or the end result.

What Volunteers Need

Finally, organizations must make sure that they are prepared to integrate volunteers immediately to make the most of their time when they show up. One common challenge is that organizations and agencies with the greatest needs often have the lowest management capacities. Unlike most engineering teams with multiple, varied roles that can operate effectively as one whole unit, there may only be one or two people on the government/organization side with multiple responsibilities that can lead volunteers and their work internally.

Onboarding technical volunteers can also be especially time-consuming if an organization isn’t accustomed to working with anyone outside of staff. The easiest fix is to afford volunteers the same respect, care, and attention you would give to a new employee.

Luckily, volunteers have many of the same needs that contractors or new employees do, so preparing your organization to work with volunteers is generally a matter of implementing modern technology practices that will help your organization whether or not volunteers come your way.

A few of those of practices include:

  • Practice the principle of least permission. No one in any organization should have more access to sensitive data or critical systems than what they need to accomplish their job or role.
  • Be a partner. Technical workers need access to, and buy-in from a stakeholder who has deep domain expertise, and ideally, a technical partner who can answer business requirement questions and get them access to other people/information/systems.
  • Don’t speak in acronyms, or at least be ready to explain acronyms you use.
  • Choose modern tools. It’s easier to onboard new people when you don’t need to give them a special laptop, or access to a VPN.  Use a cloud-hosted version control system such as GitHub and a system such as Docker to make sure anyone can start working on your applications in a few minutes. This can save hours during the initial access and set up period.
  • Give your in-house team the time and support to learn modern tools. They can’t build with technology they don’t know.
  • Make your code open source and freely accessible (when possible). This way volunteers can know what they’re getting into ahead of time, and anyone can suggest improvements.
  • Write documentation and keep it up to date!  Also ask any contributors, including volunteers, to document their work so that the next person may pick up where they leave off.
  • Keep track of what needs to be done.  An up-to-date Trello or a GitHub project management board with screenshots and details can keep everyone who is working together aware of milestones and deadlines.

The Journey Starts Now

Our final piece of advice to any organization looking to recruit technical volunteers mirrors the advice that we would give to a technical volunteer wanting to work on a community problem: Partner with existing organizations that have expertise and access to a network of people.

We have curated a growing list of groups and resources you can explore to begin recruiting volunteers to help you. We see this as a living resource that we will continue to revisit and will be made richer with everyone’s ideas and input. In the meantime, with a continuous stream of technical challenges to solve for, tech volunteering seems here to stay.  We might as well get comfortable and make it work in ways that get better services to people when they need them the most.

Emily Wright-Moore is a user experience designer and researcher. She’s worked in civic technology with Code for America, the United States Digital Service, and is currently a principal at Bloom Works.  

Melanie Mazanec is a software engineer at Bloom Works and serves as co-chair on the National Advisory Council for Code for America’s Brigade network.