July 2009

Why you should care about iPhone jailbreakers

The Electronic Freedom Foundation wants you to be able to load and run any software you want on your new iPhone, or any other smartphone for that matter. It’s your phone, and your risk, the EFF argued with the US Copyright office last year.

Jailbreakers install software and modify the iPhone so that iPhones can run software not necessarily sold directly by Apple. Apple’s earlier arguments focused mainly on the risk of breaking the phone, making it unserviceable and so on. That argument lost credibility when an estimated 2.3 Million iPhone users so far have taken this step without much sign of harm. Apple also argued that jailbreakers violate Apple’s intellectual property and the DCMA by so doing.

Of course, you can install anything written for the Mac whether purchased at an Apple store or not without violating Apple’s intellectual property. Not so iPhone games or utilities. Either buy directly from Apple or you have broken federal law, according to Apple attorneys. Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School explores the effect of these kinds of policies on innovation and creativity in his excellent, “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.”

With the support of the Mozilla Foundation (maker of Firefox) and other technology companies, the EFF filed legal motions saying owners should be able to install software outside of the App Stores without violating the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

According to press reports, Apple now claims that “jailbreaking” an iPhone could lead to the crashing of cell phone towers, adding and abetting drug dealers, and even threats to national security. Yikes!

It is hard not to chuckle when reading the news reports of dire threats to our infrastructure and security from owners installing things Apple has ruled off of its App Store. There are lots easier ways to use cell phones anonymously than jailbreaking an expensive iPhone. (Just watch HBO’s the Wire).

Yes, Apple is entitled to preserve the success and profitability of its App Store. And yes, it is entitled to do what it can to enforce its exclusive marketing agreement in the US with AT&T.; We should just recognize these for what they are.

Apple and AT&T; for example have refused so far to let iPhone users in the United States install software that will let you use the iPhone as a modem for your laptop. Using a cell phone in this way comes in handy when you don’t have a free WIFI signal. I have done it regularly with my Nokia E71, and before that my E62, on my AT&T; account. So we know it’s not a technological limitation of the AT&T; network. And new edition iPhone users in other countries can use their phones in this way. So it’s also not a limitation of the phone. It’s a business decision between Apple and AT&T.;

Likewise, Apple has also blocked use of Google Voice on iPhones. (I hope to explore Google Voice in another column). It even retroactively removed a utility called Voice Central previously approved that enabled iPhone users to integrate Google Voice.

So far as I can tell, both these moves are partly about protecting AT&T; while it slowly upgrades its infrastructure—and figures out a premium price! Yet it is also seems partly to blunt competition by keeping rival services off the iPhone.

Whether or not you use an IPhone or other smart phonex, if you work with technology or advise others on it, these issues matter. Our work succeeds when organizations can exercise choice about their systems and software, when issues of intellectual property and licensing are out on the table, and where organizations and consultants preserve long run ability to modify and adapt the technology they invest in.

The mobile technology world, along with showing the power of innovation, also shows the fragility of intellectual creativity at the hands of the major carriers, phone makers, and commercial technology giants generally.

Looking at the mobile technology world, it’s easy to be dazzled by the pace of change. Even when we think ourselves pretty sophisticated, it’s easy to imagine that free market competition serves social progress.

In the first half of 2009, we have seen quite a wave of cell phone innovation. We have the new Apple iPhone 3Gs from AT&T;, Palm Pre at Sprint, new Google Android myTouch no at T-Mobile , Blackberry Storm touch screen at Verizon--and Nokia 5800 and amazing N97 if you happen to live outside the United States. The power of new smart cell phones and mobile software is changing what we use for our daily on-line business and fun, from email to search.

From a global point of view, the prevalence of mobile technology, even if the phones carry a premium price, tends to reduce the gap between those who live or work in countries with extensive broadband Internet access and the bulk of the world who does not. Cell phone access is more pervasive than DSL or cable. Mobile tech also lessens the gap between those with full bore desktops and laptops at home and those who need to rely on their phone. Taking the T (public transit) in Boston, it is remarkable how many teens have Sidekicks or other youth-marketed phones with keyboards for communication.

The battle over the restrictiveness of Apple’s App Store and exclusive agreement with AT&T; in the US, which has now reached the attention of Congress, shows the limitations of corporate driven innovation. I don’t mean to pick on Apple here. The fact that Blackberry offers different styled and featured models for each of the carriers it works with is another example of the same issue. The Google Android phone software will only reach its full potential when it too becomes more entirely available. Nokia’s limited presence in the US yet dominance in edgy emerging markets in China, India and elsewhere reflects deal-making.

The gap between the wireless technology used by AT&T; and Verizon (with others lining up on one side or the other) is pretty much unparalleled in the rest of the world. It would be as if your TV could only work on signals from cable or DSL but not both.

The mobile industry appears to be a huge arena of innovation in the US. Yet, it also exemplifies the power of lobbying and business alliances to hold back the pace of change and the public interest. So, in addition to affecting personal choices about your phone, look at these conflicts over the openness of the iPhone and related battles as skirmishes over what will really drive innovation and creativity in technology in the years ahead. The EFF and the Berkman Centre and others are on to something.

Compensating for Chaos

In 2000, after spending 15 years at corporate law firms, I made a personal choice to start working for organizations that promote social good by reducing poverty and protecting our planet. I understood that this career move would put some serious brakes on what was a fairly spiraling rise in compensation - my salary tripled from 1993 to 2000. And that was fine, because, as I see it, the privilege of being compensated for doing meaningful work is compensation in it's own right.

We all know that we make less in this industry than we might in the commercial world, and we're all pretty okay with that. But how much, or how little, the discrepancy between "real world" and nonprofit salaries should be is a metric with little established thought behind it. We don't base our pay scales on any rationale other than what we determine others are paying and what we can afford. My concern is that, by not taking a strategic, reasoned approach to compensation, nonprofits are incurring far more unnecessary expense than they might, particularly when it comes to technology support, although these thoughts apply across the org chart.

The problem is that, when it comes to determining the market value of a nonprofit employee, we often go to nonprofit salary surveys, such as the one put out by NTEN and the Nonprofit times. But job seekers don't read those surveys. In San Francisco or New York, a good System Administrator can make $70-80k a year at a for-profit. Even if they come in to your org understanding that they aren't going to be offered the market pay ($75k), they have an expectation that they'll either be on the low end of it ($70k), or within 10% of it ($67.5k). The recent NTEN Staffing Survey puts the average nonprofit Sysadmin salary at $52k, which is about 75% of that market. So, given this scenario, here are my questions:

  • How many excellent candidates are eliminated from consideration because they can't afford to take a 25% pay cut?

  • Of the ones who can afford that pay, how many can afford it because they aren't qualified for the work required?

  • How many can afford it because they have other primary income sources, and therefore can take a low paying job and not feel very committed to it?

  • If a good Sysadmin takes a job at that rate, how long will it be before they decide that they need more money and leave?

  • What is the impact of having a heavy rotation among the staff that maintain and upgrade your technology?

  • What is the impact of having of having often empty critical IT positions?

But, let's get really into this. Unless the IT people that are hired at the 75% rate are extremely mature, then they might have some of the common failings of immature Sysadmins:

  • Many are often controlling and secretive. I've been in multiple situations where I've come into an organization and learned that the prior IT staff left with the key system passwords. I've also seen numerous situations where the IT staff left en masse.

  • Most Sysadmins are lousy about writing things down. What is the ramp-up time for your new staff when they have to research and guess how everything works on arrival?

  • The general instinct of a new IT person is to rip everything out and install their favorite things. Got Windows? They like Linux. Got Word? They like Google Docs. They don't necessarily understand that one platform is much like another, but imposing massive change on an organization can be dangerously disruptive.

Technology candidates need to be assessed not only for their technical skills, but also for their attitude and maturity. A very sharp tech, who can answer all of your Outlook questions, might have little patience for documenting his or her work or sharing knowledge with other technical staff. And those skills are the ones that will allow you to transition more smoothly when the tech leaves.

Mission is a motivator, and it has value that can be factored in to overall compensation, but not to the point where it's so unattractive that it knocks the pool of candidates down to a pool of uncommitted or desperate ones. The impact of paying poorly isn't isolated to the salary bucket on the balance sheet. In many cases, particularly with technology, it's tied directly to the ability to operate.

In Defense of Software Profiling: Use Filters, Not Too Much, Mostly Independent Sources

Yes I did just finish In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, which has been really helpful to me in separating real food from cheap imitations. It's my newest filter for navigating the grocery store, providing an easy to follow set of best practices for avoiding nasty edibles that cause us more long term harm than good. And yes, this book can even help us with software selection.

Michael Pollan reinforces that we must be careful when we enter a unfolding situation, already having decided on certain outcomes. We software experts and users spend a lot of time grouping software into similar features, development models, support system, company backing and more. This work is extremely useful to helping our understanding of software, but must always be taken with a grain (or two) of salt.

So how do we keep our critical eye sharp without getting overwhelmed with the myriad of possibilities when evaluating software?

(1) Frame your context

Understanding your organization processes are key, we software geeks say this all the time. Also important is understanding your organizational capacity to change. Important factors include internal staff expertise, general workload, organizational growth pattern, and system of governance. Defining how you do the work you do helps eliminate features and services that are unnecessary or come into conflict with your organizational context.

(2) Use filters

Filters can help us make sense of complexity by removing some of the detail. Quality software reviews are very helpful filters as they provide both strong context describing who the review is for, and well defined categories to help you group software according to common and critical needs. Internal organizational experience with software are also great filters as they come with institutional knowledge of the organizational context, offering a unique opportunity to combine this knowledge with software experience to shape well fit decisions.

(3) Be discriminating, don't discriminate

Look behind the filter to understand what it does not include. Often filters will look at software from certain perspectives that hide important information. I often run into this problem working with nonprofit associations, for which many vendors have created "association management software". A smartly compiled list of best vendors in this space is a great filter to have. However, it turns out the needs of associations are far more diverse than these association management packages support well. By limiting the focus on association management solutions, nonprofits often miss out compelling offerings provided by donor, membership, constituent management and content management vendors. Vendors generally are one good source of information about their products, however it is much better when verified against independent sources with specific experience using the vendor services.

(4) Test assumptions

Keep a critical eye on your plan for a new system. How many "needs" are supported by assumption versus research? Some nonprofits face difficult change management issues by launching a new system where the core users were not adequately engaged in planning and implementation. Others are disappointed to find that features that claim to be present really are no good for their needs. Beware the salty snacks - some tools make it seem so easy to keep adding fields or new features, but they can make your system very sick with bloat if overindulged. Understand the source of any advise or reviews you receive - what is their context? Who is their intended audience?

Social Networking - Is it really all that it is cracked up to be?

Questions you might be asking yourself about social networking -

Have you been asking yourself why you would put time, energy and potentially even funding towards social networking when you are have your hands full just keeping your core technology operational? Or, have you jumped on the band wagon, have your Facebook page up and have begun to tweet but are not seeing the results that you were expecting?

To address the first question – Why even start? – social networking is the “new” communication medium and is used extensively by people crossing many of the boundaries that exist for other media – age, gender, culture, education, etc. Social networking is simply a new tool and methodology for communication. Like any other business critical system, if there is an upgrade available that provides greater functionality, it is in the best interest of your organization to determine if the benefits of that upgrade are worth the related cost.

To engage your community in your mission, efforts have traditionally been focused on producing print, TV and radio advertising materials, providing content on your web site, and more recently many organizations have moved into email marketing/communication. Each of these methods of communication brings with it different costs and benefits, and reaches a potentially different audience. They all have two things in common – you are “pushing” information in one direction – out, and there is limited if any “ripple effect” from your messaging. The concept of social networking is simply that information is pushed out and/or conversations are started, and they are spread via your constituents’ personal and professional networks. The unique characteristic of social networking is that your potential benefit increases exponentially with a single piece of communication, and without increasing the cost of production.

Addressing the second question raised above – Why am I not getting the results I had hoped for?

There are a couple of questions below, and your answers will guide you to the correct action…

1 - Has an assessment been completed including the following items?

  • Assess your audience

  • Determine the appropriate framework for your message - Twitter allows 140 characters, Facebook has virtually unlimited capacity, and in both, you need to continue to actively message to stay “above the fold”.

  • Identify the appropriate tools to deliver the message – blog, Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Flickr, and so many more exist. Each has different qualities and drawbacks.

2 – Have you defined a strategy including the following items?

  • Training on selected tools and best practices in their use

  • Implementation plans

  • Schedule for content updates

  • Staffing for writing content and ongoing maintenance

  • Definition of evaluation methods – what are your metrics for determining if your efforts are successful?

A few closing thoughts to help you design a successful social networking strategy – Your planning for entering this new medium of communication should be as thoughtful as the planning for a new education or marketing campaign in any other medium to realize the maximum benefit. You must remember that this is a new medium, and like all new communication efforts, it takes some trial and error to find the best fit for your organization in terms of tools, frequency and substance of content. Know what you are evaluating for and do the analysis necessary to determine if your efforts are paying off. Finally, if you are not sure where to start – there are resources available, both freely accessible information on the web and consulting expertise.

Avoiding data conversion hell

Why don’t my report counts show the same numbers on your new system as they did on my old?

Ugh, do I ever hate to have this question come up in a project review meeting. It is surely my candidate for the question consultants least like to hear from a client.

And this question usually follows by a few weeks or months a close runner up question, Can you convert all my old data into the new system. Clients who ask this and consultants who answer yes are looking for trouble for themselves.

This has been on my mind as our team approaches the end of a current and some recent projects whose conclusion has been directly linked to resolving data ‘errors.’ Sometimes you find unexpected joy, such as last winter when a conversion from a really old Raisers Edge version to Giftworks provided historical donation totals that matched entirely. Not to be a pessimist, but yup, I was surprised.

In our hearts if not our experience, we all know that data conversion gaps occur way more often. Here are some thoughts for “both sides” to keep in mind in approaching that next software upgrade.

First, as a background philosophical thought, if an organization’s data looked just right in its old system, would you still need to upgrade or replace? Business practices change and the old ways no longer work. We generally welcome change and we can expect staff to look forward to operating in new forward-looking ways. Yet fitting the old data to the new may be, as a colleague said yesterday may be mixing apples and oranges. The old and the new may never align again.

If you do convert piles of old transaction data or program enrollment data, and the new system has involved strategic planning and incorporation of new business rules, accept that reports will look different. Embrace the new and appreciate it.

Second, conversely on the human or philosophical side of things, you have to make an estimate of how much staff not just “hate the old way” but really are ready to “embrace the new way.” I think of a data conversion some years ago where staff continued to run mailing lists from their old system months after they were doing data entry in their spiffy new system, with its way cooler list generator. Hostage syndrome. They had grown hostage to the features that bore down on them in the old system. So if things ARE going to look different, you need to prepare everyone for it 100% or life will be difficult.

Part of the way to do this is to make sure staff at all levels of the organization are in the room when you discuss data migration. It is not sufficient to just look at reports and lists and to talk with the managers who use them. Let everyone hear how admin and program staff actually enter data, the compromises they make, the guerrilla warfare they may be waging against existing data validations to put what they want where they want it. This may be sobering to senior management and support realism about the conversion.

Third, consider if you can just leave historical data where it is. If you have been paying for a proprietary on-line data system that you want to stop paying for, you may have no choice but to extract old data and put it somewhere it can still be used. If not, why not just continue keep the old system available to run historical reports and start fresh with the new? Two pending conversions to Salesforce to replace a collection of spreadsheets and old Access databases have been way pleasant from a decision to not incorporate years of messy and unaligned old data.

Deciding not to convert may be a major policy decision if senior management or the board is used to a certain kind of review. I don’t underestimate it. But it is worth pursuing the question at the outset, before anything starts.

Fourth, consider converting just top level data, such as all primary demographic and status information for current contacts and leaving aside in the old system. Start with just what you know to be clean and essential.

Fifth, a variation on the third, fill in complex and messy old data by hand over time. As new cases or activity occurs for a contact, fill in or correct the gaps in their data from the old system. Meanwhile, don’t try to run multi-year historical reports on the new system

Sixth, if the data is messy, clean it up parallel to and prior to switching to the new system. My experience: most of the time, it is going to be easier to correct messy data either in its present home or in some convenient way station. In another conversion to Salesforce, where the data now resides in Filemaker, we have agreed to freeze data entry for a bit, and pull the data into a combination of Excel or Access where it will be more susceptible to bulk manipulation and checking.

Seventh, tell the consultant everything you can. If you are relatively new and the system is not well documented, find the staff members who have been there long enough to explain quirky things lost in the mists. In a current conversion from a proprietary undocumented membership system to CiviCRM, we have had one gotcha after another. For example, the current system shows five membership levels. The new system will have the same five membership levels. The paper forms show five membership levels. We checked at the beginning. Great! Easy! Except a faction of the members, in their actual extracted data showed a sixth membership level. And CiviCRM importer chokes on those records so it has to be addressed. OK, we figured this out, but if you add up field by field the consultant detective work to resolve things like this, you suddenly have blown a reasonable data migration budget.

Eighth, agree to leave data conversion out of proposal bids and do it on a time and materials basis only. This will enable everyone as the inevitable problems arise to make pragmatic decisions. Yes, it is worth it to write a script to fix this problem. No, it is not worth it, leave it alone. Or, yes, we need this and organizational staff will fix it ourselves or hire temps to do it.

I regularly resolve not to submit proposals where I have to include data conversion in the cost estimate, and I regularly find myself unable to keep that commitment. Even if you allot a few hours as part of a preproject assessment, it is unlikely you will find all the problems. A current project that is not exactly a system migration, but instead will need to enable staff to use purchased business data in a Drupal-based research and organizing framework. The data is good, used nationally and expensive! It should be clean say the developers! Yet even here we find quirky things. What should we make of a crucial research field which sometimes is stored as an actual dollar amount and sometimes as a coded list of dollar values. Since this is an ongoing data feed and not a one-time data conversion, we need to address it so that data searches will work on both kinds of cost valuation figures. And it’s just not realistic to expect to find all this stuff before you get pretty deeply into it.

Nine, if you are the consultant, you often, not always, do a trial conversion, leave it on a development site for a while for testing, and then do the final conversion to go live. It is really important to carefully document the conversion steps. In one really messy conversion, we ran, tested and refined the 40 or so separate conversion scripts several times before deciding the soup was ready. Different people contributed to the scripts. Having the scripts catalogued and organized lessened the pain of having to rerun them. Plus even a year later, it was possible to go back and find the script that massaged this messed up status category or performed some other task when the client asked about “what happened to the people with interest code x”?

Ten, hmm. I am leaving a slot for you, veterans of data conversions. Your thoughts? I could certainly use them…

Meanwhile, this post derived from a suggestio n from fearless editor Laura Q to write about the question consultants least like to hear from clients. When I posed this to my co-workers here at Database Designs, I got so many suggestions, I first thought of doing a “top ten” and decided to just start with my “favorite.” This could turn into an occasional series, and to balance, my colleague Mimi suggested one on questions consultants MOST like to hear from clients.

A New Idealware Blogger: Shawn Michael

I’m thrilled to welcome Shawn Michael as the newest Idealware blogger! Shawn is the NPower Oregon Director at TACS. She has more than 15 years’ experience helping nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and governmental entities understand how technology can make their work more effective and efficient. She helps nonprofits assess their use of technology, develop comprehensive plans, and evaluate software used for client and service tracking, fiscal management, customer relationship management, donor management, and community resources. Read her bio for more http://www.idealware.org/bios/smichael.php

Shawn’s been a wise and valued friend to Idealware over the years. She has an amazing ability to boil down the real-world considerations and options to what’s really important to making an effective technology decision. She can always be counted on to tell you what’s what, compare one option to another, and give you candid and practical advice.

So we’re excited to be able to bring you her wisdom, now in blog form. Welcome, Shawn!

Online Tools for Automated User Testing

I was at a great talk about Trends in Usability Research last night, hosted by MaineUX/ MaineIxDA. Kyle Soucy of Usable Interface - a nationally recognized leader in usability testing - talked about some of the newer approaches that people are taking to user research.

It's apparently been a long two years since I was last doing user research, as there's now whole classes of tools that I didn't even know existed. In particular, there's some really interesting online tools that will help you do unmoderated user testing. For most of them, you'll still need to screen and line up your users, but instead of talking to them one-on-one, you can point them at a website and look at the results later.

You'll of course lose some of the detail that you get from individual conversations and being able to ask the user questions one-on-one. But it can allow you to test more users, and thus get some quantitative heft behind your results - which can be particularly persuasive to decision makers.

Here's some of the tools Kyle covered:
  • Loop11: Currently in a free beta stage - request an invite, and you'll get a free login and password. You define the tasks you want your users to conduct, and then send your test participants to your testing site. They see your website (or whatever you're testing) with a header frame that tells them what tasks they're supposed to be doing, and solicits their comments. You can then analyze the results by looking at the success rate for tasks, time to complete, and other useful metrics.
  • UserZoom: It's a little harder to get a sense from their website, but I think based on Kyle's talk and their info that this one is an up-market version of Loop11. Kyle estimated it at about $1000 per study, depending on the number of users you're testing.
  • Treejack: Free for up to three tasks, or $109/ month otherwise. Very cool in it's simplicity. You upload a set of terms or categories in a hierarchical structure from an Excel spreadsheet, and it creates a simple drill-down interface from them. You then define some tasks (for instance, the term you want your user to look for), and point your test participants at it. They try to find the terms in your structure, and you can see overall success rates and time to complete.
  • Chalkmark: By the same folks as Treejack, with the same pricing structure, and even simpler. Upload a screenshot, and define one or more tasks ("Find information about our Executive Director"). It records where they click on the screen, and shows you a heat map of the aggregate results.
  • UserTesting.com: Interesting and cheap, but questionable. For $29/user, people will walk through the tasks you define, and you get an actual video of their actions and thoughts, and a write up. However, they're not testing with actual users. Rather, they're paying people to do nothing but sit there and user test sites for all their clients. So it's likely they'll have a somewhat distorted perspective of what it's like to use sites - though better than nothing, certainly, and better than not asking anyone external to your organization at all.
So there's some very cool stuff I knew nothing about! Are there others in this realm that you've had good experiences with?

Want a Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits?

We're nothing if not busy over here at Idealware world headquarters! In addition to putting up new articles, setting up a new office space, and finishing off our Data Visualization report, we're in the planning process for a new resource, The Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits: Fundraising, Outreach, and Communications - a concise book that will help nonprofits pinpoint the types of software that might be useful for their needs and provide user-friendly summaries to de-mystify the possible options.

Does the Field Guide sound useful? We're looking for some Pilot Partners to help put it in the world - read on!

The Field Guide will help nonprofits understand the many different types of software that can help with particular organizational functions—like fundraising, or reaching new audiences—based on their own level of technological sophistication, and then provide friendly and easy-to-reference information on each relevant type of software, including typical pricing levels, features, common vendors and additional resources. We plan to eventually cover the whole spectrum of software for nonprofits, but are starting with a more targeted look specifically at tools for Fundraising, Outreach and Communications.

We may sell copies of the Field Guide through our Web site, but the primary distribution channel will be via licensing partnerships with foundations, affiliate organizations and membership organizations. For a license fee of between $1000-$2000, depending on number of members or affiliates, we'll provide a co-branded and a distribution- and print-ready version of the Field Guide, and our partners can then print or distribute as many copies as desired to their specific community. We can also work with partners to customize the whole Field Guide for your organizations, for an additional fee.

There's more about the Field Guide, including pricing and a mockup, online at http://www.idealware.org/field_guide.php

Know an organization that might be interested in this? Spread the word! A printed book version would make a terrific premium or membership benefit for a membership organization. Or an affiliate organization could use it to help all of their local offices get up to speed at the same time. For foundations, it would be a terrific way to boost the capacity of their grantees to support both theirselves and their specific program work, without a huge investment. We're getting a lot of interest, but hoping to sign on a few more partners to make sure we can make it happen.

If you know folks that may be interested, send 'em my way, at laura@idealware.org.

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.

New article: The Role of Email in Your Communications Mix

We've just posted a great new article: The Role of Email in Your Communications Mix, by Heather Gardner-Madras.

I'm really happy with this one. Heather interviewed a number of actual organizations about how they're using email compared to other communications methods (everything from direct mail to telemarketing to mobile texting), and summarizes their thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of these different methods.

Is email dead? Or is it thriving and instead killing off direct mail? We found that these were the wrong questions. Rather than deciding whether to use email or another method, nonprofits should be using email and other methods to communicate with constituents, volunteers, donors and others.

The article was created as part of the content for Aspiration's ANSWR project, a knowledge aggregation platform being developed to track best practices and frequently asked questions in nonprofit technology.