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Ask Slashdot: Geeky Volunteer Work? 229

An anonymous reader writes "I plan to be in-between jobs for 1-2 months later this year and use part of this time to do some volunteer work in Africa. My naive question: what to do and where to go? Is it possible to make good use of the skill-set of a typical geek? Any interesting projects worth supporting on-site?"
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Ask Slashdot: Geeky Volunteer Work?

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  • What can you do? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:24PM (#36871992)

    What is a "typical" geek? Are you a programmer? Do you work with hardware? Can you do science? Are you an environmental engineer? A teacher? I don't know much about Africa, but someone who does is going to need to know more about you.

  • by PC and Sony Fanboy (1248258) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:29PM (#36872074) Journal
    But don't take skills away from the community. If you're going to contribute, don't replace someone who is already doing the job, and don't remove the need for the community to engage someone locally to do the job.

    Going in to train others to do some sort of techincal work is good, but you have to remember that their values and yours won't really mesh, and you can't force people to learn C++ when they really want to use Basic.
  • Why Africa? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SiliconJesus (1407) <> on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:29PM (#36872076) Homepage Journal

    There are plenty of good projects wherever you happen to be right now. Schools (public and private), libraries, senior centers are all always looking for volunteers to help make their environments better places for those who use their services. Sure its not as impressive as going overseas to do some work, but it also has many headaches that the overseas visit will not.

  • Whatever they need (Score:4, Insightful)

    by chinton (151403) <chinton001-slashdot@gma i l . com> on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:32PM (#36872128) Journal
    Don't go into it so narrowly focused -- do whatever they need you to do. Who cares if they are running open source if they need fresh drinking water.
  • by sconeu (64226) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:34PM (#36872154) Homepage Journal

    Go ahead and volunteer outside of your comfort area. You might find that you like doing something "different". At a bare minimum you'll learn something new.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:35PM (#36872170)

    The best work I ever did in Africa (Kenya, Ghana, Zambia) and Haiti was to train local staff to do the job I was being asked to do. When it comes down to it, a system that can't be maintained shouldn't be set up in the first place. Whatever you do, train someone there to keep it up.

  • by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:36PM (#36872176) Journal

    Pretty much what I was thinking. I'm a computer/engineering guy but I've been doing philosophy lately and I'm writing a book on economics and finances. That book is turning into an essay because... it's information, not fiction; I keep making revisions and pairing it down into a more concise technical writing piece, though I realize I need an appeal to emotion to not completely bore the reader.

    Finances fall between engineering, philosophy, and economics. From an engineering standpoint, I have resources, vague goals, and various costs involved in using those resources: rent versus own, car versus bike versus motorcycle versus a diversified strategy involving all that (and maybe public transit), family versus single living, plans for emergencies and for the future, etc. From a philosophical standpoint, I also have various needs to balance: overconsumption and excess luxury are waste, yet elimination of all luxury is not necessarily spiritually healthy--life should be enrichment, not poverty or gluttony. Of course finances and economics go together implicitly: what costs money, what do you do to save money, what do you do with that money?

    You see, even philosophical venues--extolling the virtues of using a bicycle or not wasting labor by overusing their car is a philosophical venue--intertwine with "geek" venues like engineering and economics. Using a motorcycle incurs less fuel costs (half) and purchasing costs ($4000 vs $20000) than a car, but the same maintenance; using a bicycle incurs roughly 1/10 of what a motorcycle incurs, and contributes to physical fitness and health as well. Either of these helps the economic goal of reducing wasted labor and putting additional funds into the economy; and, in varying degrees, the environmental concerns of burning excess fossil fuel (motorcycle is both easier to manufacture and takes less energy to run than a car).

    The world is filled with interesting problems.

  • by fliptout (9217) on Monday July 25, 2011 @12:37PM (#36872212) Homepage []

    I have not had the time to join the local chapter, but I'd very much like to learn more.

  • Re:Why Africa? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by localman57 (1340533) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:09PM (#36872666)
    And money. If your true goal is to help people and not seek out a personal experience, frankly, the best thing a tech person like us can do is stay home, and work, and donate the money you make. A techie earns anywhere from $20 to $50 an hour in the US. Add to that the cost of an airline ticket and other expenses, then consider how much grain, how many solar-powered lightbulbs, vaccines, hand tools, pencils and paper, etc could be bought with your donation by a group that already has the network and infrastructure to provide those things. You donating 1 hour of income at tech rates can provide enough wages to hire an unskilled worker for a few days, which has not only the effect of the work he does, but the side effect of giving someone a job.

    Additionally, you need to consider how much support you will require when you get where you are going? Are you expecting some non-profit to feed and shelter you? You need to make a donation equal or greater to their expense to offset this. I remember a Red Cross worker specifically asking people not to show up unannounced in Haiti after the earthquake to "set up tents". You end up being just one more mouth to feed.

    This is a deeply unsatisfying answer, I know, but it's the truth.
  • Re:Here is an idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by localman57 (1340533) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:13PM (#36872732)
    There's nothing wrong with that. But you have to be realistic. Giving $2000 to a food shelter buys that shelter $2000 worth of food, or 1 to 1 return. Buying a $2000 plane ticket to somewhere in africa, to show up and do the equivalent of $100 worth of labor at local rates gives a 1 to 20 return. That's ok if you're considering $1900 of it to be a vacation, with a $100 donation. The $100 will still help...
  • by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday July 25, 2011 @01:38PM (#36873144) Homepage Journal

    Exactly. I did Habitat for Humanity build with my church. I was slinging sod with a lawyer, rocket scientist, and a microbiologist while several of our other members where doing the skilled job of putting in windows. It was a lot of fun and we since we did two weeks worth of work that day. Because of our efforts a single mom and her two kids got to move in on Mothers day weekend. Why just use the skills you have when you can gain more skills, Do you know how to hang dry wall, lay tile, install cabinets, or frame a wall? Now is the time to learn.
    The skill of being a geek is the ability to learn. So use that skill. Find out what needs to be done where you live and do it. I could be helping in a school, Big Brother/Big Sisters, or a local food bank.
    Not as glamourous as going to Africa but then you may be needed down the street now. Just find a cause your interested in and say, "How can I help?"

To iterate is human, to recurse, divine. -- Robert Heller