Cybervolunteerism under discussion

Photo: ITU/ Claudio Montesano Casillas
Photo: ITU/ Claudio Montesano Casillas
By Camille Saadé and Lana Zekovic Mellé, traduction française Auxane Oget, traducción española Jennifer Casado Gómez Shallti
17 May 2013

Rapid development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has made the world a more inter-connected place. Technologies have transformed the way we interact with fellow citizens. They have changed business practices. A number of challenges come along with this technical and social revolution, one of which is to make cyber-technologies affordable and accessible to as many people as possible.

Since the beginning of the Web in the early 90s, cybervolunteers have played an important role in its development, and they continue to be a catalyst for innovation in cyberspace.

Building inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access and share information, is the main goal of the UN’s annual World Summit on Information Society Forum (WSIS Forum), which took place in Geneva last week. During this year's Forum ICVolunteers (ICV) co-hosted a thematic workshop on the topic of cybervolunteerism. The session showcased successful examples of volunteering in cyberspace, while considering definitions and boundaries of Internet technology-related volunteering.

In the words of ICV’s President, H.E. Mr. Adama Samassekou, the key to creating a human-oriented society is capacity building that would transform the digital divide into digital perspectives for all. He pointed out that it was necessary “to make all the efforts to reach social appropriation of the new technologies”. 

Ms. Estelle Maestro from the Spanish-based FundaciĂłn Cibervoluntarios stressed the importance which cybervolunteers have in promoting social innovation. She further underlined that the main focus of her organization is to help people develop the necessary skills to use cyber-technologies, regardless of their age, gender and financial resources. Specifically, Cibervoluntarios.org facilitates workshops on how to use a computer and how its use can improve peoples’ lives. Ms. Maestro went on to explain that her organization works with 1,500 cybervolunteers and has received several distinctions and awards, including a Spanish national award for social innovation in 2010. Selected by Google.org in 2011, the organization received recognition as one of 50 entities that make the world a better place.

Mr. Nazir Sunderji from ICVolunteers provided a brief presentation of ICV's CyberVolunters program. ICV works with a network of more than 14,000 volunteers. The organization provides technical assistance and training, develops Web applications, provides support in the area of networks management, and helps empower local populations through the use of ICTs.

Ms. Viola Krebs, Director of ICVolunteers, continued by providing specific examples of hands-on initiatives lead by her organization. E-TIC.net facilitates technology access to farmers, herders and fishermen in West Africa (Mali, Senegal). Working with a multimedia toolbox, the E-TIC program allows volunteers to use various technology means for the purposes of working with populations in the rural zones of Western Africa, where connectivity tends to be scarce. Combining modern technology with more traditional local means, volunteers help local populations get access to valuable information related to their daily lives, be it on what the effects of pesticides are, or on how to reduce their use and at the same time maintain good farming productivity. Ms. Krebs further mentioned other ways in which cybervolunteers can be involved and briefly talked about volunteer computing, an activity during which volunteers share the CPU power of their computers while they are idle. This type of technology allowed  Africa@home and Malariacontrol.net to develop and test a new malaria transmission and prevention model which could benefit from the energy of thousands of computers around the world. This kind of technology is also a form of digital solidarity.

Mr. Santiago, from Vive Digital, gave the final presentation of the day, on the Redvolucion project. Located in Columbia, the project is focused on younger generations and aims to inspire people to use ICTs in their every day lives. The goal is to gather 6,000 schools around this project. “Internet is for everybody, for old people, for people with few resources,” underlined Mr. Santiago.

Discussion

How to get support and be heard? How to find recognition for actions and achievements? Speaking from her experience as the last year’s WSIS prize winner, Ms. Krebs indicated that participation in the Stocktaking Initiative of the WSIS Forum does indeed give incentive and brings visibility to the awarded, as was the case of ICV’s E-TIC.net and GreenVoice.info programs.

In the series of questions and answers that followed the presentations, two recurring issues were being brought up: the potential risks of using technology, and the relation of volunteer organizations to national governments in the context of recent Arab revolutions. Should organizations be more active in contesting, or should they rather stay neutral? Ms. Krebs pointed out that constructive citizen participation can strengthen governments only if societies are given the possibility to channel their voices in an organized way, so that social change may happen in a peaceful manner. However, Mr. Nazir Sunderji underlined the need for volunteer organizations to stay apolitical, asserting that, while volunteerism has an ethical underpinning, it does not give license to judge, especially not in the areas in which volunteer organizations have little or no expertise.

Next steps

During discussion, it was stressed that there should be some kind of official recognition of cybervolunteerism. Further, it was suggested that organizations involving cybervolunteers ought to co-develop a 'cybervolunteers ethics charter'. In line with this proposal, online discussion about main issues related to cybervolunteerism would be useful.

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