As I’m sat at my desk on a weekday afternoon, my phone rings and I see it’s an incoming call from Be My Eyes. I connect via videochat to a young woman from the US who has low vision, and asks if I can help navigate logging into her computer. It’s unexpectedly restarted and she doesn’t recognise the interface. Within about a minute, we figure out the welcome screen and she’s back online.
Be My Eyes is free for users and volunteers, and gives blind and low-vision people a new dimension of independence in their everyday lives. While those with limited vision may already have occasional or full-time assistance, having round-the-clock help through the app can be a time-saving and liberating experience. This is especially true at night, while taking public transport alone, or any other situation where support isn’t quickly available.
As the welcome video on the Be My Eyes website explains, there are many everyday activities fully-sighted people take for granted: Reading food expiration dates, identifying a photo, or discerning between two shirts in a wardrobe can be stumbling blocks for those with impaired vision. Be My Eyes helps bridge these gaps by linking volunteers and users via live video feeds day or night.
UK user Chris Fisher says, “The little bit of help they might give us over the course of a few minutes, it’s a big thing for someone that’s blind and visually impaired. And to have access to that personal contact… I couldn’t imagine life without it.”
Availability of volunteers is rarely a problem, as to date Be My Eyes counts almost 130,000 blind or partially-sighted users and over 2,000,000 volunteers. That’s around 15 volunteers for every user. Also, there’s no obligation to answer the call. If you’re busy or it’s just not convenient, you can cancel the request and Be My Eyes will quickly look for the next available volunteer.
Beyond personal use, Be My Eyes is also increasing its reach into the world of business. Companies can sign up to provide specialised support agents, who are ready to give dedicated help. Corporations including Microsoft offer free specialised support through the app to troubleshoot issues like loss of internet connection or setting up a new computer.
Jennie, a volunteer from New Zealand, explains how the app fits into the concept of volunteering: “I think it’s a really easy and straightforward way for everybody to just be looking out for each other, quite literally I suppose. Everyone likes to help, and everybody needs a bit of help sometimes, so why not?” Indeed, signing up a Be My Eyes volunteer is an excellent way for almost anyone with a smartphone to get involved with volunteering. Without any set time commitments or geographical boundaries, you could soon be providing meaningful help for someone across the world in between Netflix binges.
By far, the biggest barrier to most people volunteering is lack of time. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK cites work commitments as the main hurdle, with the second most popular reason being “I do other things with my spare time”. Hands-on volunteering remains a crucial part of providing social good around the world, but for those who would never otherwise consider it, apps like this can be a great way to give back.
And as with other types of volunteering, there are benefits for volunteers. As Faye from Saudi Arabia puts it, “Helping through Be My Eyes never fails to make my day a little better. Knowing that I contributed to someone else’s daily life in a positive way brings me great joy.”
Other forms of virtual or online volunteering have existed for a while. Specialised pro bono work, such as offering free translation, programming and legal services, are ways professionals use their skills to help charities and individuals. Less obvious forms of online volunteering include Wikipedia editing and forum moderation, which help spread knowledge and keep digital communication flowing.
Be My Eyes remains one of the most innovative examples of virtual volunteering, and has received accolades including Google Play Awards’ 2018 Winner in Best Accessibility Experience. The app has an enormous reach, with users and volunteers speaking over 180 languages in more than 150 countries.
The couple of calls I’ve helped on the past few months have been memorable and worthwhile experiences. It feels great to be part of a crowdsourced, virtual social good platform and to help blind and low-vision people with tasks most people take for granted.
As Shaun, a US user explains, Be My Eyes can be the difference between finding moments where he has no help and using technology to be more self-reliant: “After using this app, I just sat down, and I realized that I felt a true sense of independence. It was a truly groundbreaking moment for me.”