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.