[This is a somewhat dry follow-up to Free Geek, a Computer Recycler: Testing the Limits of Reproducing Worker-Managed Enterprises by Jim Johnson, GEO Collective. Many thanks to Free Geek staff members Omar Vargas, Amelia Lamb, Darryl Kan, and Richard Seymour who graciously answered questions and reviewed this article.]

After running from the Allied Media Conference to Wikimania 2012 to OSCON 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Free Geek in Portland, OR. I entertained grand fantasies of long conversations with the movers and shakers there... Upon contacting them, it was suggested that I join one of the regular volunteer orientation tours offered twice a day and then sit down with one of the regulars if I had further questions. So, I hopped on my trusty two-wheeled rental steed, and after several jaunts around town, I pedaled my way to their building for their 4:00 PM orientation tour. I arrived early enough to scout about a little before the tour.

Physical Space

Free Geek is located 1.6 miles almost due south of the Portland Convention Center. (So sayeth Google.) The area appears to be a "warehouse district". It reminds me a bit of the 6th Street Market triangle close to Gallaudet University, bordered by New York Avenue and the railroad to the north, Florida Avenue to the south and 6th Street to the east. As is typical of much of Portland, plenty of bike racks were available in front of the building, and they were being well-used when I arrived.

The Free Geek facility is considerably larger than I had anticipated. According to Richard Seymour, the main floor is 15,000 square feet, with additional space on another floor that includes offices and additional storage. All together, he estimated between 17,000 and 18,000 square feet.

(Aerial view)

After getting the lay of the land and chatting with some volunteers for a few minutes, it was time for the tour to begin. Our tour guide was staff member Omar Vargas who coordinates the Spanish Programs at Free Geek.

Volunteer Program

The volunteer program is actually two programs:

  • the Adoption program

    This group takes in donated computers and other electronics, breaks them down into component parts (if necessary) and classifies them as reusable, recyclable or trash. The components are boxed then sent to the warehouse for the build program or for recycling / disposal. Quoting Amelia Lamb, Free Geek's Reuse Program Coordinator

    "In general, we reuse about 25% of the gizmos we receive and recycle about 75%. This is based on analyzing the computer systems alone. The actual percentage varies according to the type of gizmo. Also, in general, institutional donations have a higher reuse rate than individual donations."

    Within the adoption program there are several jobs to choose from, providing opportunities that accommodate a wide variety of physical abilities and limitations. For example, volunteers who are able to lift 40-50 pounds can work in Receiving, where entire computers and monitors are among the components being dropped off. Other tasks include component testing and workspace clean up. The work in the adoption program was described as "simple" and as providing lots of opportunity to meet new people who are dropping off equipment. There's a big emphasis on safety: Arrive in open-toed sandals and you'll be turned away. Gloves and goggles are provided for each shift by Free Geek. Insurance for workers on the premises is also provided. However, all injuries must be reported promptly. No calling in two days later saying "I think I hurt myself two days ago". There are always two "staff people" and one "intern" on site for volunteers in this program (if I understand my notes correctly).

    During my visit, a steady stream of donors brought their unwanted electronics into the building via a "drop off only" entrance, where intake volunteers immediately began sorting and classifying the donations. The donors were then funneled into the "Receipts and Contributions" room from which they could exit directly onto the street after going through the requisite paperwork. This allowed for a very smooth, constant flow of hardware donation traffic without jams or bottlenecks.

          Photo:Receipts and Contributions desk

    After 24 hours of volunteer time in the adoption program, volunteers receive a free computer with Ubuntu installed, and a 2.5- to 3-hour class covering setup and basic usage of their new computer, as well as instructions on installing additional software such as software for viewing and listening to media that is encoded using proprietary codecs. The class is designed to be friendly enough to include people who have never used a computer before. Also recipients receive one year of technical support — provided the system remains an Ubuntu system.

  • the Build program

    The Build program requires more skill: First, volunteers in the Build program begin with a 2.5- to 3-hour community-based IT class that introduces topics including:

    • how to identify the basic components of a computer (e.g. motherboards, hard disks and hard disk controllers, video controllers and power supplies)
    • the current specs for Free Geek machines (e.g. minimum acceptable memory and hard disk size)
    • the proper methods of handling and disposing of the previous owner's data (e.g. destruction of hard disks, not starting computers that have not yet been erased, etc.)

    Armed with that knowledge, volunteer builders then move on to Systems Evaluation where they examine hardware which has been dropped off, determining if there are any salvagable parts suitable for refurbished computers. Whenever possible, parts deemed non-refurbishable are further deconstructed for recycling. In order to "graduate" from Systems Evaluation to Quality Control (the next step), volunteers must pass their Systems Evaluation skills on to an incoming "freshman" in the Build program under the watchful eye of an instructor. In Quality Control, volunteers test computers built by other volunteers, making sure they're ready to go out into the world. After performing QC on five machines, they are ready to move into the actual "build" phase of the Build program.

    Once volunteers in the build program have successfully built five machines, they are eligible for the same benefits that are offered to the adoption program volunteers: a computer with a year of free maintenance and the setup & basic usage class. As I understood it, diligent volunteers can expect to take between 60 and 100 hours to finish the Build program.

    There is also a Mac Build option and an Advanced Parts Testing option in the Build program, once mastery of the skills listed above have been demonstrated.

Layout and Body Counts

Once built computers are ready, they are moved into the Donation storage area, where they fall into one of four categories:

  • FREEKBOXes — computers for volunteers
  • FG-PDX systems City contract computers — the city of Portland has a special contract with Free Geek
  • "Low End" systems sold in the Thrift Store
  • "High End" systems also sold in the Thrift Store

In addition, Free Geek offers Hardware Grants to qualified non-profit organizations. Computers provided via hardware grants are taken primarily from the supply of completed FREEKBOXes and FG-PDX systems.

The site also contains a library with computers available for an hour at a stretch, and technical books (mostly focused on Linux and other FOSS) which can be checked out of the library.

There is also a kitchen, and following OSHA standards, credit for volunteer hours includes a 15-minute break every two hours, and a lunch break for shifts longer than... six hours? I think that's right. To keep track of volunteer hours and resource scheduling, as well as having a good sense of how many people are in the space at any given time (satisfying security / safety concerns), registered volunteers are given an ID number and required to sign in and sign out at either the Volunteers desk or the Receipts & Contributions desk. The Volunteers desk has a place to keep bags. (Bags are not allowed in the workspace.)

Photo: Volunteer check-in desk

There are 32 paid staff members, some of whom are part-time employees. In a given day, there are between 70 and 75 volunteer slots to be filled, though they're not always filled. Between staff, volunteers and library drop-ins, there are typically 80 people in the space, maxing out at around 100 occasionally.

Finally, there is a thrift store, open to the general public. Three hours of volunteer time nets volunteers a 20% discount at the thrift store. The discount expires after 31 days of inactivity. In any given month, there are between 500 and 600 active volunteers (i.e. having logged three or more hours in the past 31 days).

Q & A

Although the "man behind the curtain" was out of town during my visit, staff member Darryl Kan, was available to answer a few questions. His official title is Recycling Co-Coordinator. Sadly my notes here are a bit sketchier than I would have liked.

  1. How does e-cycling fit into a sustainable business model as a revenue stream?

    Somewhat like the Oregon "Bottle Bill", the state of Oregon reimburses Free Geek for processing e-waste, including computers, keyboards, mice and monitors. Industry is held responsible for and pays the end-of-life costs. Volunteers help(?) In the long term, companies are becoming more responsible for the full life cycle of equipment.

    [Ameila added that this was done through the Oregon E-cycles Program, administered by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.]

  2. Do you have formal workforce training programs?

    Informally, yes. There has been discussion of a more formal model that Free Geek is working towards implementing. However, refurbishing smart phones and tablets isn't a realistic future, and that impacts decisions about workforce training.

  3. How do you feel about / address the current shift to a post-PC mainstream and how does it affect your future.

    Beyond being aware of the shift and the realization that Free Geek is not in a position to refurbish some of the newer technologies, I was told to pursue the question with Richard Seymour.

  4. How has your governance model changed over the last few years and why?

    Darryl has only been with Free Geek for five years. So he didn't have some of the early history. The workers have formed a union, and as a result, the former collective members have become "management" as a result of union laws. For a more detailed answer, it was again suggested that I needed to talk directly with Richard.

  5. Where do we (DC) start, if we want to start?

    Darryl deferred to Richard on that as well.

Although he didn't tackle the questions above, I did get an e-mail response from Richard, who answered my questions about area and occupancy. I also inquired about more "in-depth" analytics / demographic information (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity), as well as longitudinal data from the 12-year history. Richard responded:

We don't track standard age, race, sex, etc. Fairly diverse in these terms compared to the rest of Portland would be my guess.

Active volunteer count first broke 100 in 2001, 200 in 2004, 300 in 2005, 400 in 2008, 500 in 2009, 600 in 2010 — though it's been between 500 and 600 since 2009 — pretty steady.

For the last two years we have been receiving about 6,000 computers per quarter. We broke 1,000 in 2003, 2,000 in 2004, 3,000 in 2005, 4,000 in 2007, and 5,000 in 2008. The 6,000 number has been pretty steady since 2010.

Sales in dollars per quarter is around $175,000 for the last full quarter. This is down from our high in 2010 ($202,000). We started at $1,000 per quarter in 2001 and worked up to $100,000 by 2008.

In addition to the Spanish Program itself, I noted that there were brochures and class schedules available in both English and Spanish.

Closing Thoughts

I encouraged both Darryl, in person, and Richard via the back of a business card and via e-mail, to check out the Digital Justice Coalition, Allied Media Conference, and both the Detroit and DC Disco Techs, as I really believe Free Geek could inform them and vice versa quite a bit. Although Richard extended a "Keep in touch" in his response, the joint is jumpin' and I wouldn't want to badger too often. Also, I've got a hell of a lot of catching up to do with actual paid work, before pursuing this further. I leave it (for now) for others to follow-up on.

Given the complicated nature of the relationship between local and federal government, the model here is going to have quirks not faced by Portland. It would be nice to find out if the mayor or OCTO people have any trips to Portland coming up... In fact, I'm sorry I didn't think of it sooner, as it's quite possible that OCTO people did attend the O'Reilly OSCON conference, where Free Geek had a booth in the exhibit hall.

There's always NEXT year's OSCON, though.