VolunTree - Ideas for an app matching volunteers with causes
This is my report back to Local by Social, following an event in Bristol on 29 and 30 January 2011 that I took part in. The event was about using Open Data to improve services to the public. The first day consisted of a series of talks, followed by a brainstorming session about what comunity apps we would find useful. The second day was a 'hack day'. The ideas by then had been distilled down to five projects, which about 30 people worked on. (The audience at the first day had been at least a hundred.) Ours had a varying number of participants, but I think the final number was three: Mark Braggins, Tim Winship and me. It fell to me to present our ideas at the end, and write it up.
In our group we outlined what our app should do and how it could work, but did not get to the point that we discussed the practicalities of building it. Part of our time was devoted to hearing Tim Davies explain about Open Data, including his Open Data cookbook, and the differentiation to Linked Data. This was very worthwhile, and I will attach some notes at the end of this post. But first:
VolunTree - a future volunteering app
We started by discussing our ideas of what a "volunteering app" should do. The consensus was that it should be a matching service for both people wanting to volunteer, and organisations (or even individuals) in need of helpers.
We also agreed that it should, at first, be restricted to a local level, that is, Bristol, and that it should be integrated with already existing services.
What is already out there?
We had a look at some sites that were providing services in the volunteering sector:
Volunteermatch, iLocate, vinspired
What service does the app provide that's not already there?
Many of the existing sites let organisations looking for volunteers post their profiles and their needs. People willing to offer their time can then scan these posts and contact the organisation in question. Our idea was to let potential volunteers enter profiles including their skills, interests and availability, and give organisations the opportunity to contact the volunteers, based on these profiles. I subsequently found that there are some websites that use volunteer profiles (VolunteerMatch, Reach), so part of this has actually been done.
What does the app do?
- provide contact details
- select categories they are interested in (children, arts, IT etc.)
- indicate whether they want to donate time as a one-off, on a regular basis, or occasionally
- indicate when they are available
There could be some additional 'rating mechanism' where volunteers collect rewards for volunteering. We had slightly differing opinions here. I thought there should just be a reward for having turned up and done the job, while my 'colleagues' thought a star-rating by the organisation that had requested help would be good.
Charities, or even individuals
- provide contact details
- select the categories that apply to the work they've got
- have option to post when they need help for a specific event, project
The app can be used by volunteers to match the posted work against their profiles. Also, there could be the option that when an organisation posts about a one-off event or project they need help with, a text/email/other kind of notification goes out to those volunteers that have a matching profile.
As mentioned before, there could be some rating mechanism, and we were also thinking that sponsors could donate 'rewards' that could then be given to the 'best volunteers'.
We did not get to the question "How do we realise this technically". As these days were about Open Data, how could these be used? There is certainly the element of locality. Which places where volunteers are needed, are near me? But could there be more to it? Charities are pushed to publish more data, especially on how they use their money, how much organisational overhead is there, what part of the money does actually go to the causes themselves? Could these data become part of the app? And how about the volunteering being done for the charity? Perhaps the data on how many volunteers worked for a charity could also become part of the Open Data. Eventually, could data about where, when and how many volunteers are needed, be fed directly into the app from the charities' sites? We are certainly a long way from that, and it would be more a case for Linked Data, and Linked Data that can be published easily and routinely.
Apart from the technical aspects, there is a lot to consider here. If you include skilled workers, and people working with children, there is the problem of having qualifications verified and CRB checks carried out. Could a service be integrated that checks the volunteer, and, once this is done, allow their profile to be marked as "checked"? All of us agreed that the current situation where a CRB check for one school cannot be used for another is creating a lot of unnecessary work and is just annoying for both the applicant and the employer. But as long as the situation is like that, should one perhaps restrict the app just to unskilled work without special requirements? And, what's more, how could such a service be funded?
Our group had quite a few ideas about this app, although we didn't build anything. It would have been great if we could have started on that, perhaps by pulling existing data from the web, but there was little time, and admittedly we also did not have the expertise in this topic to achieve something like that in one day! To have such a service would certainly be desirable, and considering that people aged 16-24 are the main age group offering to volunteer, an app seems the right format.
Funnily enough, while I was looking for the Guardian article, I learned about the website for vinspired (see above). And it seems to do exactly what we had in mind, including the rewards scheme (and there is an iPhone app!) - but only for 16 - 25 year olds. Vinspired seems to be quite successful and working well, which is good to see. It could perhaps be an inspiration to build a similar service for people of all ages, and an app that works on all mobiles..
Tim Davies talking about Open Data and Linked Data
I have to admit that my notes on this are a bit sketchy, so if I get anything of this wrong, it is definitely my fault, not Tim's! Also, our little group joined in only half-way through, so I did not catch all of what he was explaining.
When you look at Open Data, the first thing to consider is the different formats that data can be in. One of the main objectives of making data available to applications is to turn data present in a human-readable format, into data understandable by machines.
The simplest way to present data in a human-readable format is in a spreadsheet. However, if you use Excel, you might use different colours that communicate additional meaning, and sometimes you have more than one piece of information in once cell. To make these data machine-readable, the first step is to convert the extra meaning into completely "flat data", as you would have it in the non-proprietary format CSV.
A good tool that can be used to 'clean up' data in that way is Google refine.
I think at that point we started talking about Linked Data, and how those were related to Open Data.
Open Data can come in all kinds of formats, while Linked Data is always in the form of RDF.* But that is just the technical aspect. The idea of linked data was to get context back into the data, to create self-describing data. You get the context by data linking to other data (as the name says).
If you want to create Linked Data, you describe it using RDF. As for the terms that you use for describing your data, you first look at what other people have used before. The namespaces definining the properties you can use are those belonging to so-called ontologies. There are well-known ontologies like FOAF (to describe people) or Dublin Core (to describe resources, among others web pages). If the terms you need for describing your data are not in an existing ontology, you can just create your own. There is a guideline describing how to author new ontologies, called OWL.
An important aspect of Linked data is that each item has its own URL. Each ontology has a URL, too. There is a service called prefix.cc that lets you look up existing ontologies.
Going back to Google Refine, this lets you import all the properties from a namespace by providing the URL for that namespace. Another helpful tool Tim mentioned is Geonames, which gives you coordinates and other data for place names.
One of the listeners remarked that in the local councils there was a lot of scepticism about the use of Linked Data. Mostly because of the resources you would need to create this form of data. And what benefit did you get from it? Tim replied that indeed at the moment there were few simple use cases for Linked Data. But that in areas where there were standards emerging (as is the case with spending data), it would get easier to publish data, and that the benefits would become more apparent.
One aspect that can make a difference is certainly to make data viewable. One example is the Comparator tool that is part of the Young Lives Data project that Tim did. The site also includes a good description of the process of making data available in that way.
As Tim concluded, in the future the best way to publish your data might be to provide it as linked data, but then also transformed back into CSV and made viewable.
So basically, the data goes on a loop, but afterwards it is linked, and that could make quite a difference.
*Actually the term format is not totally correct when you talk about RDF. As Tim pointed out, RDF is more a model than a format. The standard format is RDF/XML, but the data can be presented in other formats like N3 or also inside an XHTML document as RDFa. The data can also be hosted in a so-called Triplestore.