July 29

Google Reader Reaches Out

As the internet has progressed from a shared source of information to a primary communications tool, a natural offshoot of the migration has been where the two things meet: people referring internet information.  If you’re active at all on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Friendfeed, or any of the numerous online communities, big or small, then you are regularly seeing links to useful articles and blog posts; cute YouTube videos, and entertaining photos.  Much of this information is passed along from online friend to online friend, but where does the first referral originate from? Usually, it’s somebody’s RSS reader.

The main reason that I’m such an RSS advocate is that I believe that it’s the tool that lets me find the strategic and useful needles lost in the haystack of celebrity gossip, prurient content, and corporate promotional materials that they’re buried under. But it isn’t “RSS”, per se, that does the filtering — it’s other people, whom I call “information agents”, who do the sifting.  If I want to keep up with fundraising trends, a topic that interests me, but, as an IT Director, isn’t my primary area of expertise, I’m not going to spend thirty minutes a day doing research.  I subscribe to some very pertinent blogs, and I follow a few people on Twitter and in Reader who find the important and insightful articles and share them with me.

Now it appears that Google wants to cut out the social media middlepeople.  As I alluded to in my article on RSS, and fleshed out in this post about sharing with reader, the ability to refer information that you find in Reader is one of the things that makes it so powerful.  Last week, Google seriously upped the ante by adding Twitter/Facebook/Delicious-like following, “liking” and sharing to the mix.

Here’s what the new features do:

Sharing now lets you share with the world, or just those members of the world that you want to share with.  Google has always allowed you to share items, but connecting to other people was a bit arcane and limited, as, by default, Google only allowed you to connect to those that you chat with in GMail.  If you read up on it, you learned that you could change that to any defined group of associates in your Google Contacts (all of this assuming that you use Google Contacts – many Google Reader users don’t).  As someone who does use all of the Google stuff, I still found that opening this up to 80 or so people in my contacts didn’t make it clear to many of them as to how they could connect with me.

The new Following feature lets you follow anyone who is willing to share, not just people that you personally communicate with. Now my shared items are marked as public, so anyone can follow my shared items feed by clicking on “Sharing Settings” (in the “People You Follow” section) and searching for me by name or email address.  Once you locate me (or someone else), you can (and should) browse through their items to make sure that they share things that you’ll find useful.  For example, I share a lot of things that are on the topics that I blog about here.  But I also share items related to civil rights issues and the occasional link that I find funny. Since humor and politics are very subjective topics, you might want to be sure that you’re not going to be annoyed or offended you before you subscribe to a feed.

But the internet is not just about who you know. The Like feature allows you to find new people to follow based on common interests.  You’ll note that certain articles have a new note at the top saying “XX people liked this”, where “XX” is the number of people who have indicated that they like the article by checking the option at the bottom of the post.  This message is a link, and clicking it expands it into links to each of the people who “liked” it, allowing you to browse their shared items and optionally follow them.  This, to me, enables the real power of the social web — finding people who share your interests, but have better sources.  It’s what initially was so exciting about social bookmarking service Delicious, and it’s about time that Google Reader enabled it.

I’m hoping the Google’s next round of Reader updates will improve our ability to not just tag and classify the information that we find, but also share based on those classifications.  That will enable me to selectively publish items that I think are of interest to others, perhaps sending nptech links to Friendfeed and the humorous stuff to Facebook.  But I welcome these improvements, and I appreciate the way that reader becomes more and more of a single stop for information discovery and distribution. The Internet would be a messier place without it.

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July 23

Why SharePoint Scares Me

For the past four years or so, at two different organizations, I’ve been evaluating Microsoft’s Sharepoint 2007 as a Portal/Intranet/Business Process Management solution.  It’s a hard thing to ignore, for numerous reasons:

  • It’s an instant, interactive content, document and data management interface out of the box, with strong interactive capabilities and hooks to integrate other databases. If you get the way it uses lists and views to organize and display data, it can be a very powerful tool for managing and collaborating on all sorts of content.  As I said a year or two ago in an article on document management systems, it has virtually all of the functionality that the expensive, commercial products do, and they aren’t full-fledged portals and Intranet sites as well.
  • Sharepoint 2007 (aka MOSS) is not free, but I can pick it up via Techsoup for a song.
  • It integrates with Microsoft Exchange and Office, to some extent, as well as my Windows Directory, so, as I oversee a Windows network, it fits into it without having to fuss with tricky LDAP and SMTP integrations.
  • All pretty compelling, and I’m not alone — from the nonprofit CIO and IT Director lists I’m on, I see that lots of other mid to large-sized organizations are either considering Sharepoint, or already well-ensconced.

So, why does Sharepoint scare me?

  • What it does out of the box, it does reasonably well.  Not a great or intuitive UI, but it’s pretty powerful. However, advanced programming and integration with legacy systems can get really complicated very fast.  It is not a well-designed database, and integration is based on SOAP, not the far less complicated REST standard, meaning that having someone with a strong Microsoft and XML programming skill set on board is a pre-requisite for doing anything serious with it.
  • MOSS is actually two major, separately developed applications (Windows Sharepoint Services and Content Management Server) that were hastily merged into one app.  As with a lot of immature Microsoft products, they seem to have been more motivated by marketing a powerful app than they were in making it actually functional.  Sharepoint 2013 or 2016 will likely be a good product, kind of like Exchange 2007 or SQL Server 2003, but Sharepoint 2007 makes a lot of promises that it doesn’t really keep.
  • Sharepoint’s primary structure is a collection of “sites”, each with it’s own URL, home page, and extensions. Without careful planning, Sharepoint can easily become a junkyard, with function-specific sites littered all over the map.  A number of bloggers are pushing a “Sharepoint invites Silos“ meme these days.  I stop short of blaming Sharepoint – it does what you plan for.  But if you don’t plan, or you don’t have the buy-in, attention and time commitment of key staff both in and out of IT, then silos are the easiest things for Sharepoint to do.
  • The database stores documents as database blobs, as opposed to linking to files on disk, threatening the performance of the database and putting the documents at risk of corruption. I don’t want to take my org’s critical work product and put it in a box that could easily break.
  • Licensing for use outside of my organization is complicated and expensive. MOSS access requires two or three separate licenses for each user – a Windows Server licence; a Sharepoint License, and, if you’re using the advanced Sharepoint features, an additional license for that functionality.  So, if I want to set up a site for our Board, or extend access to key partners or clients, It’s going to cost for each one.  There’s an option to buy an unlimited access license, but, the last time I looked, this was prohibitively expensive even at charity pricing.
  • Compared to most Open Source portals, Sharepoint’s hardware and bandwidth requirements are significantly high. Standard advice is that you will need additional, expensive bandwidth optimizing software in order to make it bearable on a WAN. For good performance on a modest installation, you’ll need at least two powerful servers, one for SQL Server and one for Sharepoint; for larger installations, a server farm.

I can’t help but contrast this with the far more manageable and affordable alternatives, even if those alternatives aren’t the kitchen sink that Sharepoint is.  Going with a non-Microsoft portal, I might lose all of that out of the box integration with my MS network, but I would jettison the complexity, demanding resources, and potential for confusion and site sprawl.  I’m not saying that any portal/intranet/knowledge management system can succeed without cross-departmental planning, but I am saying that the risk of a project being ignored — particularly if the financial investment was modest, and Sharepoint’s not cheap, even if the software can be — is easier to deal with than a project being fractured but critical.

If my goal is to promote collaboration and integrated work in my organization, using technology that transcends and discourages silos, I’m much better off with apps like Drupal, KnowledgeTree, Plone, or Salesforce, all of which do big pieces of what Sharepoint does, but require supplemental applications to match Sharepoint’s smorgasbord of functionality, but are much less complicated and expensive to deploy.

After four years of agonizing on this, here’s my conclusion: When the product matures, if I have organizational buy-in and interest; a large hardware budget; a high-performance Wide Area Network, and a budget for consulting, Sharepoint will be a great way to go. Under the conditions that I have today — some organizational buy-in; modest budget for servers and no budget for consulting; a decent network, but other priorities for the bandwidth, such as VOIP and video — I’d be much better served with the alternatives.

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July 14

Paving the Road – a Shared Outcomes Success Story

SMDS.jpg

I recently wrote about the potential for shared outcome reporting among nonprofits and the formidable challenges to getting there. This topic hits a chord for those of us who believe strongly that proper collection, sharing and analysis of the data that represents our work can significantly improve our performance and impact.

Shared outcome reporting allows an organization to both benchmark their effectiveness with peers, and learn from each others’ successful and failed strategies. If your most effective method of analyzing effectiveness is year to year comparisons, you’re only measuring a portion of the elephant. You don’t practice your work in a vacuum; why analyze it in one?

But, as I wrote, for many, the investment in sharing outcomes is a hard sell. Getting there requires committing scarce time, labor and resources to the development of the metrics, collection of data, and input; trust and competence in the technology; and partnering with our peers, who, in many cases, are also our competitors. And, in conditions where just keeping up with the established outcome reporting required for grant compliance is one of our greater challenges, envisioning diving into broader data collection, management and integration projects looks very hard to justify.

So let’s take a broader look this time at the justifications, rather than the challenges.

Success Measures is a social enterprise in DC that provides tools and consulting to organizations that want to evaluate their programs and services and use the resulting data. From their website:

Success Measures®, a social enterprise at NeighborWorks® America is an innovative participatory outcome evaluation approach that engages community stakeholders in the evaluation process and equips them with the tools they need to document outcomes, measure impact and inform change.

To accomplish this, in 2000, they set up an online repository of surveying and evaluation tools that can be customized by the participant to meet their needs. After determining what it is that they want to measure, participants work with their constituencies to gather baseline data. Acting on that data, they can refine their programs and address needs, then, a year or two later, use the same set of tools to re-survey and learn from the comparative data. Success Measures supplements the tools collection with training, coaching, and consulting to insure that their participants are fully capable of benefiting from their services. And, with permission, they provide cross-client metrics; the shared outcomes reporting that we’re talking about.

The tools work on sets of indicators, and they provide pre-defined sets of indicators as well as allowing for custom items. The existing sets cover common areas: Affordable housing; community building; economic development; race, class and community. Sets currently under development include green building/sustainable communities; community stabilization; measuring outcomes of asset programs; and measuring value of intermediary services.

Note that this resources nonprofits on both sides of the equation — they not only provide the shared metrics and accompanying insight into effective strategies for organizations that do what you do; they also provide the tools. This addresses one of the primary challenges, which is that most nonprofits don’t have the skills and staff required simply to create the surveying tools.

Once I understood what Success Measures was offering, my big question was, “how did you get any clients?” They had good answers. They actually engage more with the funders than the nonprofits, selling the foundations on the value of the data, and then sending them to their grantees with the recommendation. This does two important things:

  • First, it provides a clear incentive to the nonprofits. The funders aren’t just saying “prove that you’re effective”; they’re saying “here’s a way that you can quantify your success. The funding will follow.
  • Second, it provides a standardized reporting structure — with pre-developed tools and support — to the nonprofits. In my experience, having worked for an organization with multiple city, state and federal grants and funded programs, keeping up with the diverse requirements of each funding agency was an administrative nightmare.

So, if the value of comparative, cross-sector metrics isn’t reason enough to justify it, maybe the value of pre-built data collection tools is. Or, maybe the value of standardized reporting for multiple funding sources has a clear cost benefit attached. Or, maybe you’d appreciate a relationship with your funders that truly rewards you with grants based on your effectiveness. Success Measures has a model for all of the above.

Category: idealware, Management, nptech, strategy, techcafeteria | Comments Off
July 9

Useful Tools and Tips

Interesting things pop up on the web all of the time; here are a few things I think are worth sharing:

Twitter Results in Google

Even if you will never tweet, it’s obvious that Twitter is a source of useful information, and, in some cases, a more timely source than traditional search engines and media. If you use Firefox as your main web browser, and have the popular Greasemonkey add-on installed, which serves as a kind of macro language for the web, then the Twitter Google Results script adds some real power. Any Google search you perform will also search Twitter, posting the top five relevant results. Why is this useful? Well, when we heard rumors that a bomb had gone off somewhere near our Bozeman, Montana office, the Twitter results had current info and links that weren’t indexed by Google yet.

One Stop Web 2.0 Sign-up

Namechk checks for your preferred username on a slew of Web 2.0 sites, from Bebo to Youtube. I found this useful to reserve peterscampbell at a few sites that I want to use but hadn’t signed up for, and to learn that some other guy named peterscampbell had already grabbed it at Youtube, where I had used a different loginname… snap!

Make Friend Lists on Facebook

This is a tip, not a tool – if you’ve been stymied by Facebook’s recent changes to how it handles updates, you can make a lot more sense of it by making lists of related friends, and then filtering the updates by group. Click on Friends and the “Create New List” button is at the top of the screen. I have lists for family, nptech, Boston friends, SF Friends, and a special one called “no tweets”, which filters out everyone who cross-posts all of their Twitter updates to Facebook (my default view). Keeping up with all of this info is always a challenge, so the ability to filter out the echoes is a must.

Exhibit Your Info

Exhibit is a web site that lets you upload spreadsheets, maps and other data to an information rich, filterable, active web page that can then be shared. If your org works with a particular environmental cause, seeks a cure for a disease, or supports a particular community, you can share data about your cause dynamically and expressively with this amazing site.

Google Voice is on the Horizon

Google revolutionized email with GMail, the first email platform in decades to question the basic assumptions about how email should work (by filing important email into folders). They’re about to do the same thing with Voicemail. A year or two ago, they purchased Grandcentral, a service that allowed you to route multiple phone numbers to one shared voicemail box. A few months ago, they opened the revamped Google Voice to existing Grandcentral customers, and, surprise, it looks a bit like GMail.

When I look at GMail, Google Voice, and the recently announced Google Wave, a real-time communication and collaboration platform, and then picture these all integrated into a Google Apps account, it becomes clear that our phone systems are moving into the cloud as fast as our servers are, and, while it is always that controversial proposition of Google giving you stuff in return for the right to market to you based on all of your data, it still looks like they are poised to offer one of the most powerful, integrated communication platforms that the world has ever seen.

Have you run into any awesome things lately worth sharing? Leave a comment!

Category: idealware, Miscellany, nptech, software, techcafeteria, twitter | Comments Off