This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project is to investigate the feasibility of new game-based software in which youth play the roles of adult professionals. This approach has demonstrated the potential for raising knowledge of and interest in civics and the local community for young people, many of whom are not being reached by traditional curricula. Civic epistemic games are collaborative, interactive games in which young people use sophisticated technologies to learn to think in innovative and creative ways about complex problems. But to realize the potential of these games, the software requires extensive customization for local conditions and to meet district and state standards. The approach in this effort is to focus on an industry-standard social media platform to quickly develop a game that can be tested for traction among the youth market.

While platforms are currently being developed for the rapid prototyping of educational multiplayer games for augmented reality, these games involve limited-duration problem-solving exercises placed in narrative frameworks drawn from entertainment gaming, and often feature activities that mimic but do not reproduce professional practice. As well, they are not scaled for large groups of learners. Epistemic games, in contrast, are based on simulations of complex thinking practices--they are authentic recreations of the activities by which professionals learn to solve complex problems. But bringing epistemic games into classrooms requires development and distribution platforms that can host integrated curricula up to 15 weeks long and reach potentially millions of simultaneous users. Early indication from large education-systems providers indicates that there may be a significant market opportunity associated with this effort. If successfully deployed, this effort will address the youth market for educational games and provide a new platform for civic engagement.

Project Report

Simply Volunteer Public Report Simply Volunteer is a web-based social media based, volunteer recruitment and management system targeted primarily toward youth. If widely adopted, Simply Volunteer is likely to increase youth volunteering rates significantly. The National Science Foundation Phase I funded the development of a SaaS (Software as a Service) social media platform to attract, recruit and retain youth volunteers, specifically between ages 15-29 and to connect them with local nonprofit volunteer organizations. The Phase I web-based platform was completed during the first funding period and is currently being beta tested in Madison, WI before being rolled out in its first markets in Boston and Salt Lake City. The system was built to be as easy to use as Facebook, and user tests demonstrated that both the target youth demographic and nonprofit organizations embraced the alpha version. Simply Volunteer employed proven technologies to speed development and reduce cost, producing: 1. For youth end users: a. An online platform for consisting of a web splash page, allowing users to register, or login; a "call to action" to register; and explanation of key features; an API allowing users to login via Facebook. b. A profile page to encourage fast registration and entrance into the site. The page gathers basic data on user’s demographics, location, and interests that will filter and serve customized volunteer opportunities. c. A search page that allows user to find local volunteer events customized by interest, location, date, and time, drawn from our database of all local volunteering opportunities. d. A personal portfolio page that logs and displays volunteer events worked and hours. 2. For nonprofit organizations: a. Separate login to register as an organization with Simply Volunteer. b. Organizational profile page to create a public persona for the nonprofit organization. c. Events management that allows organizations to post volunteer opportunities and tag them by interest. This provides "crowdsourced" input to the supply of local volunteering opportunities. d. Communication module to efficiently manage and update volunteers with minimal transaction costs. 3. Core system database: a. Database structure that comprises all metropolitan volunteering opportunities to interface with both social media frontend and nonprofit middleware. In short, for both volunteer end-users and nonprofit organizations, Simply Volunteer’s SaaS provides a targeted means of recruiting youth volunteers, matching them to opportunities that fit their preferences, schedules, and locations; and lowering the transaction costs of volunteering for end users (through mobile and app convenience) and organizations (by targeted recruiting, opportunity matching, and communication). Young people are less likely to volunteer without clear web tools that allow them to sign up conveniently for relevant opportunities and receive timely notification and reminders. Therefore, Simply Volunteer’s front-end social media platform itself is likely to increase demand for opportunities among younger volunteers. User-testing and interviews with three key groups confirmed that the platform was workable and intuitive. Students, a core of our target user group, responded positively to both concept and execution in both individual interviews and one-on-one and user group testing. Simply Volunteer encompasses all three phases of a comprehensive volunteer management and recruitment system. A social media front-end will attract younger volunteers whose lives are oriented to social media; allow them to personalize and share opportunities with friends; geo-check to automatically log their volunteer activity; earn badges and rewards in a game-like atmosphere; and build a personal volunteering profile that is portable through a lifetime. Simply Volunteer middle-ware will link volunteers to local organizations, providing both web and social media tools for recruiting, managing, and communicating with volunteers; posting and managing opportunities; coordinating with other nonprofits. Simply Volunteer will potentially draw millions of young people into civic participation, allowing them to use their social media-based personal networks to mobilize for constructive local service. If successfully commercialized, Simply Volunteer will increase youth volunteering rates for young people throughout the United States; lower nonprofit volunteer management transaction costs, in the tens of billions of dollars; increase productivity in the $1.4 trillion nonprofit sector; and create an individual, portable, national standard for volunteer reporting, much like a transcript or medical record. Wide adoption of Simply Volunteer will increase social scientific knowledge of how social media can be mobilized to increase youth volunteering in the United States. The combination of community based semantic query with a social media and volunteering platform will lay foundation for expanding more general problem-solving capacities in local communities. The technical results will be the first social media platform for volunteer management built on a Software as a Service (SaaS) model driven by semantic query. The broader result we are working toward is that Simply Volunteer will be scalable for tens of thousands of concurrent users, linking volunteer to a mass-database of accessible volunteering opportunities and establishments.

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Community Knowledgebase, LLC
United States
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