Monthly Archives: April 2007

Social Source Commotion

I was happy to be invited to participate on the advisory board for Social Source Commons, a project of Aspiration Tech‘s that collects, catalogs and distributes feeds of software tools useful in the non-profit community. The social designation is no accident – anyone can sign up and contribute. The newly formed advisory committee met today, with five of us on the call – two from Aspiration (Tim, who runs SSC, and Gunner) and three community advisors – one working with an org that does poverty outreach and two community consultants: Dan, Zac and I. Our sixth member, Sharon, who works with a non-profit that provides tech solutions for the disabled, couldn’t make it.

The conversation really focused on two very different questions, and what was interesting was seeing where they might connect.

As it stands, SSC is a user-developed online database of software applications. A new feature allows users to make “community toolboxes”, so that you can design a list of, say, your favorite fund-raising apps; all the text editors for the Mac; or hosted software with the best Ajaxy interfaces. But the feature isn’t fully implemented. It’s easy to make the lists, but a bit of a challenge to find the lists that others have made. So my critique is that what is missing was context. I don’t want to just list my favorite Mac text editors – I want to discuss the pros and cons. If you program in Ruby, you might prefer Textmate to BBEdit – there’s no place in the database for that kind of nuanced information. SSC provides the tools, but not the context, except in a limited fashion with the partially-deployed Community Toolboxes.

Dan had a completely different question. Given that the tiny non-profits and the communities they work with tend to be lacking in technical expertise, how can they use a very Web 2.0 interface to help themselves out? Is SSC designed to help those in the most need of software and advice, or those who are already well-resourced and conversant? (And I’m paraphrasing intensely here – Dan should comment if I’ve really missed his point!)

I think the answer to that either/or question is mostly yes. SSC is an interface for the geeks. Even if the user interface were customized for non-technical users, they would likely still be overwhelmed by the software data itself. This is a tool for the people who are tech-savvy and work in those communities to use in their research. So, getting back to the context question — which is huge, because it’s just not enough to have the data without the wisdom of the community — who can provide that?

And here’s what excites me about where Social Source Commons might be going. We can. NPTech bloggers. Non-Profits doing digital divide work. Community activists. If SSC develops middleware – widgets and APIs that allow us to interact more meaningfully with those feeds and toolboxes – the blogging community can provide the context. SSC moves into a more del.icio.us role, as a data intermediary.

Say you’re doing a project that involves using media players in low income communities to support education and communication, and you’ve built a good list of podcasting tools and mobile rss readers art SSC. You’ll be able to link to it from your website or blog, and write the how-to’s with detailed application data provided by SSC. This is useful.

These tools are under development – I’ll be beta-testing them at techcafeteria. Stay tuned.

Free as in "Hurricanes"

As NPTech community members have heard, a brilliant metaphor was coined the other day by Karen Schneider in her excellent article titled IT and Sympathy:

“Free as in kittens” (as opposed to the popular “free as in beer”).

It’s not a hard sell to tell the average executive that open source, or donated Salesforce.com licenses, or volunteer labor isn’t exactly free of cost. But “as in kittens” really says it well, implying the commitment and caring that need to be applied to critical IT investments, regardless of the license terms.

I think Salesforce.com‘s offer of 10 free licenses to any 501(c)3 is a great example of this. Salesforce rises to meme status in the NPTech world these days, with their corporate philosophy that 1% of their people. product and profit should be donated to non-profits. I could write another blog entry on all of that – but I’ll boil it down to this: one part “Great ethic to model” and nine parts: “Only 1%?!?“. But anyone who thinks for a second that taking Salesforce up on their offer has no budget impact, well, right away you’ve cost your organization every minute that you’ve invested in a project that’s doomed from the start. CRM doesn’t deploy itself – a successful CRM strategy generally involves dramatically altering your corporate culture. Is it worthwhile? For people-based organizations, like non-profits, that’s a general yes. But is it free? No way.

Any major technology project has potential for gigantic leaps in productivity and success or flat out disaster. A key skill for any of us who manage tech is fiasco avoidance. Fiasco avoidance has far more to do with company culture, planning and politics than it does with the actual technology. Salesforce offers a powerful, flexible system that can do incredible things for you. But Convio/Kintera, Raiser’s Edge, or ETapestry might do exactly what you need and are ready to take advantage of out of the box. Software evaluation for strategic projects requires an organizational readiness assessment right along with the product evaluations. Lots of things in life are free, but the “as in” modifiers tell the story.

What does OpenID mean to Non-Profits?

Earlier this month, in the Q&A following my Managing Technology 2.0 presentation at the NTC, I was asked how OpenID would impact organizational data management issues. I was somewhat familiar with OpenID, in it that I knew that it was a proposed standard for single sign-on and identity management on the net, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention and I think my answer, that it would make verifying user data easier for non-profits, might have been way off target. So, to clear it up, I did some research.

The “I’m feeling lucky” response from a Google search for “Open ID” is the very informative home of the project, OpenID.net. This site does a great job – it is largely an extremely geek-speak affair, but it starts off in very plain english. The proposed standard is that every person, just like every web site, can have a URL of their own that is their open ID. Along with the ID, they will have an identity provider that serves as the home for that ID, and provides the authentication service. With the standard in place, it would work like this:

  1. You connect to a service (“consumer“) that supports Open ID.
  2. You input your URL in the Open ID login field.
  3. The consumer redirects you to your identity provider (the target of your url),a nd they prompt you for your password.
  4. The identify provider then sends back a “yea” or “nay” based on whether you successfully authenticated (this works very much like a credit card authorization).

A few nice details about the specification:

  • You can be your own identity provider if you have the resources.
  • The specification calls for a strictly browser-based interaction, no javascript or additional software required.
  • Open ID login fields will have a graphical identifier: OpenID Logo

The two clear advantages of OpenID, from a net user perspective, are:

  1. Single sign-on. No more long lists of passwords for myriad web sites or, worse, as we know many of our loved ones do, single passwords being used at dozens of sites.
  2. Privacy – no need to provide passwords or email addresses to services in order to authenticate.

Microsoft’s Passport service was the biggest stab at identity management on the net to date, but it suffered from the initial premise that you should trust a convicted monopolist to manage your identity, and then from some serious security flaws.

So what does this mean for non-profits? Well, unless I’m missing something, it’s possibly a threat, and it will probably put orgs in a bit of a catch 22. Like most companies, you want to capture contact data from your web visitors. It’s key to your CRM strategies. Supporting Open ID removes the most compelling reason for them to give you that info – access to your interactive web services that require authentication. You’re going to have to beef up the begs and rewards for sharing more data if you support it. But, if you don’t support it, and it becomes a widely-spread standard, you’re going to look unethical.

I do think that additional trends and standards will grow around the personal URLs. I can’t see why they wouldn’t grow into Plaxo-like contact pages, to a small degree. But I doubt people are going to standardly publish addresses, phone numbers, etc, for the same reasons why you would hesitate do that on MySpace or Yahoo!. OpenID will not be a contact verification standard – it’s an authentication standard. Like a lot of things that threaten our marketing efforts, we’ll probably all really appreciate it, at least when we’re not in the office.

I’ve been busy

As you’ve noted if you read this blog either through NPTech.Info or Techcafeteria.com, I’ve been doing some serious remodeling. I’ve never been happy with the plain white look of NPTech.info, but, being much more of a plumber than a gardener when it comes to web development, I’ve been too shy to tackle it. But I’m actually proud of the work I’ve done on Techcafeteria, so I decided to share the wealth, bringing NPTech into the fold, so to speak, but I think it’s an improvement. Let me know if you have any thoughts one way or the other.

Techcafeteria was thrown up in my spare minutes during my last week at Goodwill, while I was cramming to finish up there and prepping for the NTEN conference. I basically typed it in on my laptop whenever I could catch a few spare minutes. This week, I finally took the time to turn it into a real web site with more of a graphical feel, some ajaxy stuff, and search. I’m using Google Custom Search because it searches through a variety of file types and allows me to publish the results locally.

Buying Software is like Buying a House

Well, let me qualify that. Buying a data management system is like buying a house. And it isnt, really, but there are some important parallels that highlight the things that go into a proper needs assessment. A data management system is any application that stores business information, usually in a database format. Common examples of data management systems include HRIS Systems, Accounting packages, Donor databases, etc. While Office applications like Word and Excel can be thought of in this manner, they’re actually tools that work with data and don’t really manage it at all – they leave that to you.

In the early 21st century, effectively managing your business, non-profit or otherwise, depends on your ability to manage and make use of your business information. Quantifying results, understanding outcomes, maximizing people and systems and streamlining processes are the essential strategies. Wal-Mart makes the billions because they know that people stock up on Pop-tarts before a hurricane hits, and they know that because they can analyze their data. EBay, Amazon, and, of course, Google are all highly profitable data warehouses. Non-profits and social service organizations are no different. Grant funding depends more and more on quantifiable outcome reporting. Maximizing donors is about understanding who our donors are and maximizing those relationships. A data strategy is an essential business tool.

When you buy a house, you are moving into a neighborhood. And when you deploy a data management system, you are setting it up in a neighborhood where, most likely, others reside. So you want to know something about those other systems before you put down the money, and make sure that you’re setting up a harmonious arrangement. Subscribe to standards (SQL, XML); evaluate the user interface; verify that they offer webinars and ongoing training at a price that you can afford. You want to buy a nice house, not a fixer-upper.

A House is an investment. While you can often start using it immediately, you’re setting up something that will grow in value. Spec out a system that will mange your business in two years or six, not just the data that you have today. Anticipate growth, both in the size of your business and the amount of strategic information that you will be gathering.

You need big enough rooms with ample doors and windows. Because you’ll be going in and out of this house, and others will be coming in. Consider data integration needs before assessing systems and ask the vendors how that integration will be done. If their license states that your warranty is void if you have a need to manipulate that data in any way – such as mass-updating records, or automating integration from other systems, run, don’t walk, to another vendor. They have no business restricting the things that you can do with your information.

Information, like people, is a living thing in your organization. You don’t want to lock it in a box and throw it in the basement. And you do want to buy the house – storing your data in Excel shacks and Access lean-to’s is not a sustainable approach. You want to nurture your information in a healthy environment with parks and schools and shopping malls, where it can interact with it’s neighbors. When you buy a house, you have standards – for the structure, for the community, for the environment. You should have similar standards for your data management systems.

Why I won an Anonymous Blogger award at NTC

I’m just back from NTEN‘s wonderful annual conference, which was in DC this year. This is my third year attending, and my first in my brand new career as a technology consultant. You can check out that gig at my new domain, Techcafeteria.com. Right off the bat, at the Member’s reception, I was the proud recipient of an “NTENNIE”, which is awarded to those of us who are big NTEN supporters. It’s a pretty congenial and humorous honor – recipients receive a headset of antennae to wear, and my seven-year old boy was thrilled to appropriate that on my return.

I was somewhat surprized by the category I won in – “people most likely to be blogging anonymously”. I asked Holly which anonymous blog they suspected I was the author of, and she didn’t have one – they just thought that it roundly described me. So, what I take away from that is that people recognize that I have a lot of opinions and I’m not shy about jotting them down on public forums. But, clearly, my lack of attention to this blog has made it completely invisible.

Now, my last day, after six and a half years, as the lead technologist at SF Goodwill was Friday, March 30th. And the conference ran April 4th through 6th. The timing was great – I made a lot of good connections, and walked away with some serious referrals and opportunities to ply my new trade. It was really different attending the sessions, though, not as a representative of a large non-profit, but as an independent consultant, more interested in selling my services than buying others. I think I have a lot of chops that I can offer quality consulting with, and I’ve been picturing the work and looking forward to that. But the actual consulting is only half the job. The other half is business development, and that’s a bit of a stretch for me. At the conference, I conferred with a lot of other IT consultants and really started to work through what this career change means. It’s clear that I have to do what I pretty much did at the conference, and become a salesman. When all is said and done, it’s about paying off the mortgage and feeding the kid. But it’s also clear to me that the best way to sell my services is to be an active member and healthy contributor to the non-profit tech community, something which I’ve been unable to do successfully while working those 80 hour weeks at Goodwill. So I can’t afford to be an anonymous blogger. Heppy lend is going to pick up steam, and it will be republished at Techcafeteria, which I plan to build into a large resource and home for advocacy of sound technology practices at non-profits. The big issues, today?

  • Data standards, data management, data planning. This was my theme at NTC, where I led a session on “Managing Technology 2.0” and participated in the live version of the Open API Debate.
  • Breaking the myth that technology funding is overhead that drains mission-effectiveness. This is a battle-cry that needs to be brought to the technology-averse funders and CEOs who don’t understand that not investing in a technology strategy is equivalent to organizational suicide.
  • Deployment planning and strategies. Orgs need to have a sustainable approach to technology purchasing, development and implementation that factors in how they will keep it running, not just how much it will cost to get it installed. My second bullet is meaningless if there aren’t effective strategies for using the technology that’s deployed.

Overall, I’ve just stepped out of a 21 year career as a technology startegist and implementer, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way (I’d say “hard lessons”, but, the truth is, I’ve managed to avoid a lot of fiascos in my career!). There’s a lot more to technology deployment than just buying the server and training the staff. If technology isn’t tightly aligned to organizational strategy, objectives, and business processes, it’s a sinkhole – you might as well stick with the typewriters. So look for this to be the meat of this blog and the message of Techcafeteria.com for the near future.