ARMCHAIR ACTIVISM

Volunteering from home will soon be as common as working from home

We’re all familiar with the concept of working from home—and in 2017 volunteering from home will become just as ubiquitous.

A busy life, working two jobs, unsociable working hours, and living in a remote location can all make it difficult for people to give time or money to good causes in their community. But technology now makes it possible to give your time and energy from the comfort of your own sofa, whether it’s to answer advice lines or support peers one-on-one.

And if you’d like to do more but still have no time or money to give, never fear. I expect we’ll all be donating some of our everyday data to citizen science to improve society as well. Here’s why.

Volunteering time online

We’re already set up to give. For many years, the word volunteer has conjured up images of well-meaning ladies who lunch, stoically manning the soup kitchen for the homeless or serving tea to the elderly once a week. But that’s always been a stereotype that doesn’t quite fit the facts. Some 47% of people say they volunteer at least once a month, and 16 to 25 year olds give more time than anyone else.

But not everyone feels they are able or have much to give. Caring responsibilities, working unsociable hours, or living out of town have all made it harder for people to give their time or money to charity in the past. Those who do have time might not be able to give it consistently for an hour at the same time each week, as so many charities request.

1.5 million people currently work from home full time, while 4.2 million work from home sometimes. That’s a trend that’s showing no signs of stopping, and is already up 20% in last decade. Even those who don’t work from home are likely to have a personal laptop or tablet at home, a good internet connection, or even just a smartphone. Cheap technology means that 88% of UK adults have internet access, giving them the ability to chat online at home using Skype or Google Hangouts.

All of this kit means many nations are already set up to do more than just work from home—we could volunteer from home too.

A few pioneers have already begun asking for people to give their time remotely, like British Red Cross volunteers creating maps of the Ebola crisis in remote locations from home. In 2017, I expect we’ll see many more volunteers giving their time from home to charities who need people to man phone lines or answer enquiries on their websites, like NSPCC and The Silverline. It’s a model that The Mix has recently piloted through ‘Get Connected’, creating a secure system for busy mums and those who only have a spare hour to answer 5,000 young people’s helpline calls and web chats from home rather than at its central London HQ.

In the commercial sector, academic tutors from India have been undercutting the UK face-to-face tutoring market for years, offering tutors in math and science via Skype for £13 (USD$15.70) an hour instead of the market rate of around £40 ($USD48.20) an hour. And now online tutoring apps like Snapask, Tuteria, and Tyro are flooding the market. (The BBC recently called the rise in apps the ‘Uberisation of tutoring.’)

I expect in the coming year we’ll see many more charities making the most of this model and getting skilled volunteers to give their time altruistically to tutor students for free, from home or work. Here at Nesta, we’ll certainly be backing at least three charities to do just that through our new program, Click Connect Learn.

Even if you’re not set up for something high tech, you could be giving your time through the humble text message. Peer support—where volunteers give encouragement and advice to people like them—has been proven to be enormously effective, even when done remotely by SMS. I love the work Evie has done in getting volunteers who have previously battled alcohol abuse to spend ten minutes a day sending simple messages of encouragement to others wanting to be alcohol free; as a result, 99% of users in the trial stayed sober.

Become a data donor

We’re now producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Much of that is through personal devices, which are forever connected to satellites, wifi, or networks—even fridges and heating systems are getting in on the act. Two thirds and rising of the UK population own a smartphone, and as many as 15% of us are tracking our health data with our smartphone, Fitbit, or heart-rate monitor.

But this data isn’t only helpful for individuals looking to tone up and get fit: Health data is vital for medical research.

In 2017, I expect we’ll see many more charities and research institutes asking us to give over our data in the name of science to improve the lives of others. For example, 100 for Parkinson’s is an app collecting daily anonymous health data from people with and without the condition to help researchers find better ways to manage it. It’s already sourced 175 million separate data points, and the donated data will help support the 6.5 million people living with Parkinson’s worldwide. In the post-Snowden era, we may have all become more concerned about our personal data (72% of us are worried), but I think many of us would be willing to give anonymized data to a good cause. And given how little effort is required to be a “data donator,” I believe we’ll see much more of this in the coming year.

2010 brought us micro-task management with innovations like taskrabbit connecting us all with people to assemble our IKEA furniture an hour at a time. 2014 brought us micro-giving, with innovations like Pennies whisking the small change from your supermarket shop directly to charity, one or two pence at a time. My prediction is that 2017 might just be the year of micro-volunteering and data donation, with cheap technologies allowing everyone to volunteer from home for short and sweet periods of time, no matter how much time they have to give.

This post original appeared as part of Nesta’s 2017 Predictions series. You can follow Vicki on Twitter at @vsellick. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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