A platform by volunteers, for volunteers

The creator of Volly shares how Calgary’s civic tech community helped turn her idea into a reality.

Jason Farra
Jun 25 · 3 min read

The first thing Alice Lam did after moving back to Calgary a few years ago was look for an opportunity to volunteer.

“I really wanted to connect with my local community. Calgary has this energy of community service and spirit and collaboration that I couldn’t see in other places,” she said. “It’s part of our city culture.”

However, after talking to friends about volunteering, Alice found that “people have the desire to volunteer, but they’re not — just because the information on volunteer opportunities is hard to obtain.”

This gave her an idea — to create an app that would match people looking to give back to their community with organizations looking for volunteers.

However, as she didn’t have the tech skills to be able to make it happen on her own, Alice reached out to non-profit organizations to see if they could help. While the non-profits were interested, they didn’t have the capacity to get involved.

Over the next few years, she continued to share the idea with friends — until one suggested taking the idea to CivicTechYYC, Calgary’s local civic tech group.

“I had no idea what civic tech was,” said Alice. She went to her first civic tech meetup to pitch her idea, where she found several people who were interested in discussing the idea further.

“It was really exciting,” she said. “I had no idea that people would care.”

Alice had finally found exactly what she was looking for — a group of volunteers who were both interested in helping and had the skills to actually build the Volly app.

They began meeting regularly at CivicTechYYC meetups to further develop the idea and even conducted a survey to determine the specific pain points that were preventing people from signing up for volunteer opportunities.

“I think that civic tech is a great way for you to shape the community that you want to live in.”

– Alice Lam

Volly was then chosen to be one of three projects at the 2018 Calgary CodeAcross hackathon.

“I’d never been to a hackathon before,” said Alice, but she pitched the idea to 100 people and attracted even more people who were interested in contributing their time and skills.

“I was lucky to have people who really believed in the idea,” she said. By the end of the hackathon, a website with basic functionality had been created.

The team continued working on the project after the hackathon and had a version ready to go live just a few months later. To spread the word about Volly, they reached out to non-profits to join the platform and shared it with companies looking for volunteer opportunities for their employees.

Just over a year later, there are now over 60 non-profits and 1,400 volunteers using Volly.

The Volly team is now working on building a chatbot feature on the website. However, they’re careful to focus on what Volly does best and not add too many additional features.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Alice said. “If we were to make no changes at all, it would still function.”

That simplicity and ease of use is really important to the Volly team, and Alice wants the app, and its code, to “to live on its own as much as possible and be easy enough that any city could pick it up.”

After her experience, Alice highly recommends getting involved with civic tech for anyone who has “an idea about how to make our lives better.”

“I just want to highlight how grateful I am to have this civic tech community in Calgary,” she said. “They’ve literally made my dream come true.”

Head over to vollyapp.com to check out Volly for yourself.

Code for Canada

Technology and design for the common good

Jason Farra

Written by

Program Coordinator at Code for Canada. MSc Planning Candidate at the University of Toronto.

Code for Canada

Technology and design for the common good