It seems many EAs are technical. Also that many charities could benefit from more techies. Sounds like a market for volunteers, right? Cf. this post from Jeff Kaufman. Now Jeff was talking (primarily) about full time roles, in research orgs. I'm interested in something a little different: volunteering.

Lots of corporations have volunteering time opportunities. I know from personal observation and from conversations with others (Software and Tech Effective Altruism in London) that it is not easy to find volunteering opportunities that other EAs would agree were effective. In total, in the West I'd guess the pool of such under utilised days would be on the order of hundreds of thousands of professional techies times weeks.

This suggests a new organisation could be of use: a clearing house for effective tech volunteering opportunities. Match charities that have unfilled tech needs with corporates who might appreciate a steady stream of high quality volunteering opportunities.

Now, the question is, "What does a quality volunteering opportunity look like?" Let's make a list of characteristics that come to mind:

  • It doesn't have to be ground breaking. In particular: it doesn't have to be machine learning.
  • It does need to have impact.

The first point could be expressed as, "It could be mundane." For instance, I once saved someone a whole lot of time by writing a script to extract information from several hundred survey response spreadsheets. Sometimes the multiplier of tech comes from finding the most boring thing your people would rather not do, but cannot avoid because it is important and making a tool which automates it.

I comment on the ubiquity of ML from an explicitly personal point of view. I think a lot of the time people seem pretty eager to use the newest, biggest hammer on any particular problem. Only it's very easy for people outside the field to misunderstand both how much data is needed and what kind of results it can produce. It's awesome where it is well suited, but not every problem is an ML-nail.

The second point says that there is no point doing something cool which will not push forward the mission of the charity. Writing an AI to understand spoken commands of people in niche languages will likely be pointless if the intended users do not have smartphones or internet connections. It also needs to be used by the org: this is the curse of the hackathon project - cool things which stand alone and unused.

I suspect that, done well, such opportunities would incorporate engineering sprints into a relay of volunteers. If five people have five days, they may not be able to get much done individually, but collectively they could. Add in a project manager / scrum mistress who could actually keep track of a number of different projects, and modularise volunteer efforts on them. That would go a long way towards getting the proverbial done. And nothing said volunteers couldn't help write the project plan either.

These considerations would be important to overcome another barrier: persuading good people who maybe aren't EAs already to take up the opportunities. If talented people could contract at a rate of several hundred pounds a day, the problems need to be of commensurate scope to capture their attention. I'm going to predict that the more is asked the bigger the response will be. 'We need a mobile payment system that works in as many countries as possible!' is inherently a lot more interesting than, 'Please change the colour of the button on this page'. Similarly: 'Please advise us how to capture more operational data so that we can make better decisions in the future' is more interesting than, 'Could you make a graph of these survey responses.'

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I've worked around this space (cofounded .impact), and currently I do recommend Michal's work for this issue.

That said, I think it's less overlooked than it would appear. Volunteers, even tech volunteers are generally really difficult to work with. The really good ones tend get to get hired by groups rather quickly, and most of the rest are quite flaky. (Though this may be less true of Eng, which is a bit less in demand than other roles now.)

There's generally a lot of overhead for managing a tech project, and doing it with someone who has a good chance of flaking out quickly is not that great.

My impression is that while there are a bunch of EAs in tech, very few are willing to sustain a 10hr/week plus time commitment; especially ones who don't have a lot of other experience doing side projects of that type.

Thanks for raising this! At LEAN, we're making efforts to improve communication in this space. There's this spreadsheet that will soon be integrated into the brand new eahub.org (which is a volunteer-driven project itself): goo.gl/6vQZVZ

Technical people interested in doing good with their time should consider making open-source contributions to LessWrong!

Almost all of the EA Forum's code comes from the LessWrong database, and we regularly adopt their most recent changes, so we're really enthusiastic about people making those contributions (they'll usually reach us after a few weeks).

Here's their guide to helping out, and their Github tag for important issues that seem easy to fix.

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Also related: MIRI used to use a platform called Youtopia to organize volunteers, until they moved in a more technical/less outreach-focused direction. Not sure how well it would work for tech projects, but it was apparently pretty helpful in general.

From an email sent to the volunteer list after MIRI stopped using Youtopia:

Many of the projects you contributed to through Youtopia were very valuable. From internet research, to translation and transcription efforts, to helping promote MIRI online, and proofreading what became “Rationality: From AI to Zombies”, your help was invaluable.

I think much of the difficulty is that tech work is not usually able to be done with minimal context the way, say, being a volunteer where your main skill is being a human rather than being a professional. For example, it's pretty easy to piece together volunteers to do things like fill a receptionist roll, assist with construction, or perform some other labor that requires minimal training. There's not much easily identifiable tech work that could be knocked out in an hour or two such that the person assisting can then just forget about it and the org needing it will be able to easily take advantage of the work done. This means tech volunteering is going to require a sustained commitment from someone, and that's much harder to arrange.