August 15, 2011

Volunteer notes: Free Geek Toronto

August 15, 2011 - Categories: geek

From Saturday: We’ve just come back from volunteering at Free Geek Toronto, where we’ve been helping people refurbish donated PCs. It’s a good idea: help people develop computer skills while reducing waste. Unusable components are separated and bundled for recycling.

Working with computer components as old as the ones they get there can be challenging. People need to identify and isolate problems, replace parts that don’t work, and set up Ubuntu Linux.

W- and I started volunteering there after J- did a short stint with them during her school’s community volunteering week. Free Geek Toronto needed a lot of help, so we wanted to see what we could do to get them to the next level. They hadn’t had build classes in a while, so we volunteered to lead Saturday sessions. We’ve also been working with other volunteers to document the process and make it easier for other people to pick up. My goals for this part are to write things down, go through a couple of iterations of build classes, and encourage at least one other person to lead build classes, so that we can then free up the time to work on other things.

The build sessions have been going well. It helps that we have a mix of experience levels. Today, one of the volunteers worked on a computer with chassis intrusion detection. A small switch detected when the cover was off and set a flag in CMOS, which caused the computer to halt while booting. He and another volunteer figured out how to reset the alarm and how to disable it. I’m learning a lot by osmosis, too, and will probably be writing more about hardware on this blog.

Future build classes might have more people who have little experience with computers. We need to make it easier for them to get started. Here are some things we and other people can work on:

The organization also needs to sort out waitlists and communication, but that involves interpersonal stuff and we’re not deep enough in the organization yet to be able to understand or nudge the dynamics. Sometime!

What could wild success look like?

Build classes run regularly. They have clear goals: each student will successfully assemble a computer, practising troubleshooting skills along the way. They’ve got a checklist, a short summary guide, and detailed step-by-step instructions, as well as a troubleshooting guide. There are a lot of parts, but some have been pre-tested. The class also helps students get to know other experienced volunteers, so that people feel comfortable coming and volunteering on their own. After the classes, the students feel confident about building computers with the help of other experienced people, and they come regularly. The build class facilitators sign up in three-week chunks; they do it for fun and for good. Several people volunteer to run these ongoing build sessions, and other experienced volunteers hang out to work on their own interests.

Maybe we somehow track the progress of a box, so we can contact volunteers when a box they built has been sold or donated, and we tell them the story of the difference they helped make. Maybe this encourages them to come back and build another one. Maybe there’s some kind of build volunteer tracking, so we can tell when a build box hasn’t been worked on for a while, and invite people back or release it for the next build class.

Might be interesting. =)

You know what I’m curious about? Well, on one level, there’s getting better at working with computers. And then there’s the really fascinating level of tweaking an organization and its processes. We’ll see. =) I’m sure I’ll learn tons along the way!