I had a recent shift in perspective in my research of HOT contributor engagement. I will try to articulate a growing intuition: a sense that current-generation HOT tools and processes would do well to also recognise the secondary benefits HOT volunteers get from their participation, for example their social experiences. I think we currently don't necessarily create social online spaces for new contributors, and that is an omission of some consequence. In contrast to Wikipedia and comparable platforms, HOT contributors are not also typically the primary beneficiaries of the collective output. Secondary benefits can make up for this lack in direct utility: they have important motivational power.
As usual, please let me know your thoughts on this. It's informed by my own experiences of the HOT and Missing Maps community, and I am very curious to learn what I might have overlooked, how else to express it, or find other ways to look at things.
What factors influence sustained engagement?
I'm researching contributor engagement in humanitarian mapping, trying to understand the factors that affect sustained engagement. Over the course of the past year I'd been looking at contribution mechanics and project designs (the microfoundations), mapathons as social contribution settings (group experiences), and am starting to look at the contributor flows between larger initiatives over time (collective experiences.)
I've looked at it from many different perspectives. Do certain task designs put people off? Does it make a difference when there's a food break where people can socialise, when the wifi dies as you try to save which might cause frustration, or when a charismatic field worker speaks who can instil the practice with meaning and purpose? Does it make a difference that you're sitting next to experts who can help you get started and build confidence quickly?
In every one of those instances I found (maybe unsurprisingly) that these factors may have some effects on short- and long-term engagement, however they are never consistently a trigger that converts people; alone or in combination. They likely contribute, but they don't create engaged mappers in themselves. And, crucially, many of these things aren't strong barriers to community growth: many people have already figured out how to map, with or without help.
In preparation for my annual research report I went back to some of the fundamental literature in my field, papers outlining the state of crowdsourcing knowledge. Contributor motivations in crowdsourcing are fairly well-understood, there are enough empirical studies which find recurring categories of motivation; in literature on volunteering and charitable giving, citizen science, Wikipedia, and even OpenStreetMap.
Secondary benefits of HOT participation
As you may suspect, people have a wealth of reasons to participate in volunteering projects like HOT. Some classic motivational categories relate to shared values, the social experience, gaining understanding, career development, self-improvement, and enjoyment of the process. One aspect in particular seemed appealing to me to ponder: the concept of social identity. The notion that when contributors weigh cost and benefits of their participation, an important consideration is what the practice means for them as an individual. Does it relate to their personal or professional interests? To an aspect of their biography, a past experience? To their relationships with the world? Their image of themselves? Does the practice allow them to form, articulate, and perform an identity? You might call this the secondary benefits of participation.
This may be an obvious realisation, but having it framed for me in this manner did rearrange my brain a little bit, and it changed my thinking. I remembered many conversations I'd had with mappers and organisers, and under this lense a theme emerged from all these chats; I can now see that many contributors have quite a clear understanding of the secondary benefits they derive from participation.
This is why there are so many geographers and GIS people among our volunteers. Why it's not surprising to meet mappers who have been to Nepal or the Congo. Why people love socialising at mapathons, hearing the stories, forming relationships with organisers; why it's so important to encourage beginners with constructive feedback, and to give experienced mappers opportunities to dive deeper, or to teach others, or to take on responsibilities.
What do people get out of the act of mapping itself, the individual clicks? Some people may be able to ascribe it with a concrete purpose: "a year ago I walked past this very house, hopefully my map can help make sure that people are cared for". Others might say they find the activity meditative, soothing. However I would now posit that for many, the act itself is only attached to fairly abstract motivations. In contrast to Wikipedia, HOT maps don't actually have utility to its contributors; they benefit aid workers, and people on the ground. The more concrete fulfilment for contributors comes out of all the things around the activity.
This is particularly clear at a mapathon, where there's always so much happening; in London we're now world experts at how to run a great HOT mapathon. Many blog posts and tweets can illustrate this, as do the photo albums of the Missing Maps Facebook account.
However after people go home, the community is on hold until next time. Many of our mapathon attendees don't tend to map at home.
The social identities of HOT online contributors
What is the equivalent of these social experiences and other secondary benefits when you're mapping at home? For example, how can the act help you form, articulate, experience, perform or promote social identities? I think for that we still have few answers; I think we still understand very little about what makes remote participation work. And crucially I think we don't quite offer the means for social identity experiences online: our platforms are focused on the work itself. I would argue that the contributor collective is not actually well-connected at all, except for a few highly-engaged people who are subscribed to the mailing lists or chatting on IRC. However many of the thousands who participated over the last year actually have no place to go to socialise, or to discuss their experiences.
From that perspective I'm now not surprised that contributors don't stick around after a high-profile disaster response (where there's urgency and a direct purpose), and that many repeat attendees of mapathons don't tend to map at home.
However I'm now also buzzing with ideas for things we can offer to fill these gaps; countless opportunities to improve our newcomer support, to introduce social online spaces, to form and perform social identities, to give people easy means to tell their own stories about what they just accomplished. New ways of telling people where help is needed, how they can improve their skills, and ways of making it a shared experience. Because at core this is what a community is: not a bunch of people who do a bunch of work, but a collective with shared as well as divergent identities, with values and reasons, with stories. And every new contributor who starts mapping because they saw us in the news should be able to participate in that.