Water from heavy rain around a blocked drain formed a puddle, and nearby resident Michael Norelli could have called the city. But he just cleared it himself. He kept on clearing it in storm after storm — simple do-it-yourself action that eventually led him to a civic tech team and even some notoriety.
It led him to meet a neighbor, a developer who volunteered at the San Francisco “brigade” of the nationwide civic tech group Code for America. That volunteer told him about a project called Adopt A Drain. Eventually, after a move across the bay, Norelli joined OpenOakland, the Oakland brigade.
By day, Norelli is a GIS analyst and expert cartographer, a much valued skill in OpenOakland’s water quality project. When he joined the team, they put him right to work adding state legislative district boundaries to the water quality map. Project founder Aaron Hans calls Norelli’s skills “incredibly useful.”
Norelli says he found the volunteer culture a little disconcerting at first. There’s not even a soft fist that comes down if you miss a deadline. Compared with most commercial cultures, this team’s culture hangs looser, the pace is slower, the expectations are milder, and the politics are there but tamer.
When he expressed concern that he wasn’t meeting his objectives, one of the group leaders seemed to dismiss it. “Oh, it’s a volunteer project,” she said.
Other groups seem to push on expectations a little more insistently, Norelli has observed. There, project managers who do the same work in for-profit organizations “definitely have a focus on corralling all the cats.”
He fears that low expectations will result in low impact, which can dishearten volunteers. If they show up consistently and in the end not their team has nothing actionable to show, many will drop off. “The worst thing would be for interested volunteers showing up on Tuesdays (Open Oakland’s meeting night),” he says, “applying themselves, and then having nothing actionable come from it.” But, I think, he might just be getting used to it all. He joined only a few months ago, in July.
Norelli mentions one soft incentive: no less than every other month, teams on every official project must present the project’s accomplishments since the last report. To Norelli, that’s better but still soft — while project leader Aaron Hans seems to regard it as a strong incentive to perform.
Hans says that expectations have to be lower than in the for-profit world. Every volunteer either has a full time job or is seeking one. You really need to respect their limited time, he says.
Whatever Norelli’s fears are, an October event turned up some proof in the project’s pudding: the water-quality project won the California Water Data Challenge’s Enduring Civic Collaborator/Engagement Award. It was among 50 projects submitted from around California.
Even more significant, Norelli says he finds one big, important difference from commercial work: the personal rewards are much higher. He says, “The big thing that keeps me excited and energized and motivated is that [with my new skills in] data visualization and the specialty of mapping, [creating] real change in the world is very exciting.”