Last year I sprang a breadmaker from the loft of a friend. I also let a neighbour have an old computer desk that I’d condemned to bulk refuse collection. This all happened spontaneously without the aid of technology or even any organisation which suggests there’s clearly a lot of this stuff lying around ready for a new home. Imperfect, disused or incomplete it represents vast latent potential. Aside from the ecological or increasing economic imperatives, it’s just a damn waste.
The established way of doing this online would be freecycling, i.e. via the Freecycle network facilitated by Yahoo! Groups. The Birmingham Freecycling group works off a mailing list which comfortably tops 4000 posts a month. Even with a daily digest mode that’s a hefty load to your inbox when most mails will be of not interest to the recipient. Going to the group page and searching is clunky and doesn’t really cut it. Also missing is any way to dodge collectors to regularly fail to show.
A better solution is a dedicated web service, as any good blogger will be able to tell you. There are already some excellent examples out there such as: Reyooz, Freebootr, SnaffleUp , Free2Collect, Gigoit and Freemesa. However, starting from scratch is a long, rocky road. People often gravitate towards the crowd irrespective of technically superior alternatives. I think Reyooz rocks but I’m the only one who’s posted anything in Brum so far. It’s a shame since all these implementations have the same general goal as Freecycle: to get stuff re-used. They shouldn’t be competing.
Some lateral thinking produces the obvious transition for improving Freecycle: scrape the Freecycle data (e.g. by parsing the constant flow of emails) to maintain a database which can then be exported, filtered and viewed in all sorts of ways. I spent a few spare hours over the odd Sunday afternoon hacking up a proof-of-concept. Before putting it out there I need to check I’m not indulging in some kind of Edison voting machine.
So, I did some belated research and turned up possible non-technical issues.
The Freecycle trademark is fairly vigorously protected with a established association with Yahoo Groups. There’s some controversy in the history of The Freecycle Network which you can read and assess for yourself. Although there are general goals to wean Freecycle off Yahoo Groups, the beta my.freecycle.org serves only as a simple control panel for this. They may not be completely laid back about their name and data being used outside their control.
Whilst the actual work is carried out at a grassroots level, the self-named Modsquad don’t do the hugely tedious work for money. I guess the reward is similar to that of wikipedians in making a small but discernible positive difference with recognition in the form of responsibility. They are naturally going to be cautious about endorsing any change to the current model.
Despite these caveats, there’s some fascinating insights to be mined from the growing database about large-scale freecycling. There’s a whole blog post there but here’s a taster:
- The most common postcodes map to Northfield, Woodgate, Erdington, Tamworth and Kings Heath (thanks, wikipedia!).
- Of 481 freecyclers, 10 have posted 10 times or more. Over 40% have posted only once with a fairly even split between ‘wanted’ and ‘offered’ posts.
- 10 pianos have been offered (1 taken).