March 2010

FREE Software for Fundraising seminar

 Don't miss our free seminar tomorrow (Wednesday) from 1:00 - 2:00 Eastern Time:  Software for Fundraising.

In the research for our new Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits, we gave a lot of thought to how various types of software can come together to help with fundraising.  In this free hour long seminar, we'll walk through the types of software that exist -- from the basics to the more advanced -- and talk about how they can support fundraising, some popular vendors, and where to go for more information.  (Note that you'll need to call into a phone number that likely will be long distance for you, so any regular long distance charges will apply).

We'll cover, at a high level:

  • Donor Management Systems
  • Constitutent Relationship Management Systems
  • Integrated Online Systems
  • Online Donation Tools
  • Broadcast Email Tools
  • Friend-to-Friend Fundraising
  • Social Networking
  • House Parties and Meet-ups
  • Mobile Texting
  • Mobile Giving

Would love to see you there!  Read more or register now>

 

Backing up is not so hard to do

 

I had a close call last week with an internal database last week. Though I don’t consider myself an expert on back-up and network security issues anymore, folks nonetheless ask all the time. I got through our little crisis because at least this time I listened to my own advice and was prepared.
 
These days, the volume of storage continues to grow, individually and organizationally, and desktop and network environments also continue to become more complex. Meanwhile, back-up options have also continued to expand. It makes sense to check yourself and your organization on three types of questions:
 
  1. Will every document and file that could have changed today get backed up tonight?
  2. Can I go back to a previous version of a critical file if the most recently backed up version turns out to have problems?
  3. Can I recover from total meltdown of my computer or server?
 
The break-through revelation for me a while ago was that it often makes sense to have a strategy that includes multiple tools. These days, I personally use a combination of external drive, Mozy and Dropbox. Let me define run through the categories these reflect, offer some evaluation questions to ask, and then comment on how these choices affected my own little dilemma last week.
 
Option 1: Tape. Traditionally, back-up meant one thing: tape. And tape is still pretty cool as a long term archival format.  Tape has gotten a lot better, faster,  cheaper, higher capacity. Still, in general, I don’t recommend tape anymore. With tape, you have the cost of the drive and the tapes. You have the chore of loading the tapes daily and cleaning the drive regularly. Usually, re-mounting last night’s tape and searching for a file could take time. And maybe only one person knew how to do that.  And drives 
 
Option 2: External disk storage has emerged as the popular back-up alternative to tape.  Lately, it seems like manufacturers are just about giving them away free.  
A complete back-up will fun fast, can be scheduled conveniently and there's no cartridges to load, check or clean.  As disks grow in capacity and drop in price for computers, external storage has become truly cost-effective as well. Act now: Right near the snack isle at Costco, you can find your 1.5 Terabyte drives for just $129.99!
 
 They come in different sizes and configurations. Direct attached drives, via USB (or Firewire for older Macs) are the most popular and cheapest. They require direct physical attachment to the computer, while Network Attached Storage (NAS), which bear a  premium cost, can locate anywhere on the network.  
 
The cute pocket-sized USB drives ones are also more portable.  You can move the drive around to back up more than one computer and you can stash it away someplace safe when you leave. These can be pretty fragile if you drop them.  One approach is to get two, and alternate back-ups on each, so that if one fails, you  have the other. In a workplace, it also means, you can have one off-site at all times. 
 
For both tape and hard drive back-ups,  keeping the back-up drive (or the box of tapes for tape drives) next to the computer or server is convenient.  Check out the image below: looks familiar, no doubt. Yet doing this pretty much wipes out the use of the drive as part of a disaster recovery strategy. That is, if you have water damage, theft, etc, where you have the computer, you don’t want the back-up drive sitting right next to it.  An advantage of Network Attached Storage is that you can locate the drive as far away as possible within the house or building from the computer  it backs up.  And NAS devices can include RAID, which ensures the same stability as a network server—but at a cost. For a smaller organization and its network, it’s probably cheaper to go with the 2-external drive approach rather than setting up a NAS with RAID. For a larger network,  RAID may make sense. 
 
For laptop users, a related issue with USB drives is that you have to remember to plug them in every night to soak up all your day's work. You may forget, or when you plug it in, the back-up software may not  find the drive again automatically, and your back-up may not run. If you use direct attached external storage, you have to pay attention! If you use NAS drives, things may run more automatically.
 
Well, enough about the hardware choices. In a way, that's the easy part. The real challenge with external hard drives is with the software. You can pretty much take as a given that the cheaper the drive, the less flexible the included software. If you are using an external hard drive, you can also get your own software. Enterprise software, such as the suites from Acronis, are well regarded, but expensive and as complex as anything else on your server to set up.
 
For Windows environments,  I really can’t say enough good things about Second Copy from Centered Systems. For $30, it’s worth the extra purchase to have software you can really configure and monitor easily and that will work with most any drive you have—as well as to send files via FTP to off-site or on line storage.  I appreciate how easy it is to have multiple profiles running on different schedules with different parameters. These include the option to keep multiple versions of files to go back in time. Mac users also now have a great alternative, with Apple’s proprietary Time Machine. It too is geared toward backing up to external disk storage.
 
Option 3: On-line back-ups. These days, Mozy.com and Carbonite are probably the two best-known  low cost on-line storage solutions. I have used both. For less than $60 a year, you can get unlimited back-up, running in the background of a desktop computer. Both now support Macs, and are moving toward mobile file access as well. While they vary a bit, both are good personal alternatives. 
 
Both also have server versions, and that’s more my focus here. The server versions are priced by volume of storage. I am more familiar with the Mozy server product, which came on line first. I like that you can manage multiple servers from one dashboard, and also designate different users with access to each. 
Online back-ups present a different security profile than external drives. Not better or worse, just different. On the on hand, you are trusting that the connection they provide is as encrypted as it needs to be and that you can trust them with your data. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about theft, physical problems on site, failure of things to run and so-on. 
 
Most have trial periods, but be warned that the start-up time for an initial back-up can be days.
 
For many the answers to these questions plus the predictable, recurring cost compares well these days. Aside from this, they offer a compelling answer to most of the issues with external hard drives. 
 
Option 4: Shared on-line folders, such as Drobox.com  or drop.io. I started using Dropbox.com as a way to sync my older laptop with a baby netbook I take around most days. And it has grown to also provide a neat way to have project and team folders with co-workers. I blogged about it on idealware.org a while ago. It syncs files almost continuously, allows Windows, Mac and Linux computers to sync with each other, and has many other great features, including 2 GB free.  I'm a Facebook fan and all that.
 
Lately, I can see that Dropbox has ambitions as a back-up strategy. The paid version provides 50 or 100 GB of storage. Not likely enough for a full back-up, but enough to get all your files and not just the priority active project documents.  For my desktop, I considered eliminating Mozy and just using Dropbox. Here’s the problem: I really don’t want everything on my desktop syncing to my netbook. I don’t want them to be on that machine if I lose it, and I’m not sure the hard drive can hold all that stuff anyhow. 
 
Option 5: disk imaging software. None of the options described so far seriously address disaster recovery. This is really important to know before it happens. You can back up all the files on your desktop to a disk drive or on-line and still be stuck if your laptop or server fails. Why? Most back-up software either can be used at all or can’t be used easily to restore the operating system, system configuration files, or your installed application software. You have to start over from scratch. Then, once you have gotten back up and running, you can bring your files back over. 
 
Disk imaging software addresses that issue because it aims to provide a means to recreate the server or desktop environment entirely in case you have to wipe it clean and rebuild. Acronis.com true image is a well known commercial product that I find most frequently recommended for Windows Servers. Other commercial choices I have tried at one time or another  include Drive Image, Symantec Ghost and Paragon, and there are some solid open source products in this category. Here is a comparison on Wikipedia.  
 
My dilemma with these solutions is that they are not easy to master or test for a server environment if you are not an experienced system administrator.  You also need to really be sure that an image from your 3-4 year old server will work on the newer hardware you end up replacing it with in an emergency. This too requires technical adeptness.  It seems a great irony that the organizations that need a simple not so costly approach to disaster planning have the least staff resources to do it. 
 
For this reason, I generally recommend that if you don’t have a staff systems administrator, partner with a support organization who can put an acceptable plan in place. In any event, do not assume that just doing a daily back-up will protect you if your server fails.
 
A low cost approach here, if applicable. Replace your server or desktop before it dies on you and then keep the old one available in case of emergency. Do an actual drill of what it would take to restore all your files and switch back all until you can decide what to do. Even if not perfect, it will likely give you enough leeway to recover everything grinding to a halt. 
 
Option 6: portable USB flash drives, CDs, DVDs and so on. I mention them since so many of us relay on them. I don’t really recommend these. Too easy to forget, lose, go sour on you when you most need them.  Use them for what they’re intended, not as a back-up strategy.
 

Some evaluation questions

 

Here are some questions to consider in selecting among these to make up an overall strategy:

  • Can you control when the backup runs and with what frequency? 
  • Can you be reasonably sure they will run on the schedule you set without intervention or monitoring? 
  • Can you create profiles, for example, some files only need daily or even weekly checking, while others should be backed-up every four hours or even close to continuously.
  • Can you throttle back the processing power and bandwidth if they consume too much for the computer? 
  • Related, how much memory and CPU cycles do they consume when they are NOT actively backing things up?
  • Can they effectively back-up system files and databases even while they are in 24x7 use? 
  • How long and how easy to restore a file or folder? 
  • Can you get technical support? 
  • Do you feel comfortable with your data up in their cloud? 
  • For  external hard drives, how reliable is the drive? (It should be at least as stable as the drive on the computer it is backing up, yes?)
  • Does your back-up include versions, so that you can go back days, a week or a month in time if you need to get an older version of a file?
  • Do you need archival storage? This may suggest other criteria, since hard drives eventually wear out. While tape may not, tape drives and their software may fall into disuse. 
  • Do you have special medical or other security requirements? Know what alternatives could be ruled in or out in this way, including checking new legislation such at that in Massachusetts covering data security.
So what happened in my little adventure last week? We did an upgrade to our billing system to enable it to sync with new on-line project time tracking software (another time for that…). We did not realize for two weeks that activating the sync clobbered some existing data. Mozy server back-ups were reliable but did not enable me to go find the last good copy of the database with the missing data. The NAS external hard drive was cranking away running Second Copy, but I had not created a back-up profile for multiple  version back-ups of this database. Instead, we had specifically configured a dropbox account to sync the project tracking software with a back-up server off-site, as part of a disaster plan. There I was able to go back day-by-day in Dropbox’s simple-minded but really straightforward web interface until I found the day when the upgrade took place and the data was lost. A day earlier was missing updates from that day. A day later and the data was missing. Worked great—and prompted this post.  What’s your story and what solutions have I missed here? Would be great to hear. .
 
 (water tower in the clouds image, Creative Commons courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/purpletwinkie/; the rest, yours truly)  

 

 

Change: not the tech, but the people!

 I just started reading the fantastic "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard", and it's making me think about how I've managed change at the organizations I've been part of.   I lean towards presenting facts, rational arguments, and a use little bit of bribery (candy, booze, etc).  That's just who I am -  a pretty rational, thoughtful guy, who, if presented the facts, will make a decision based on those facts.

Actually, nope.  Not true.

Or at least, that's not really who I am, according to the authors, Chip and Dan Heath. I'm also an emotional, irrational, crazy person making decisions based on my gut.  One of the important things talked about in the book is this metaphor of the "elephant" and the "rider" - the "rider" is the rational thinking self, theoretically in charge, until the emotional "elephant" starts heading a different way.   It's when you align these two things, the elephant and the rider, that change can happen much more easily.

Thinking about big changes that I've been a part of, or that I've rolled out to groups of people at nonprofits, I'm guilty of trying to motivate the rider by presenting logical, rational information, and not really paying attention to the elephant.  Thinking about the elephant (emotional, irrational, whimsical), made me realize that I need to appeal to both to really make change effectively.  Things I'm planning to do differently:

  • Have regular open "share your feelings" sessions where people can express how they feel about the change that's coming/or has already arrived.  This may be 1-on-1 in an "office hours" type environment, or in a meeting situation.  I will make sure to have snacks at the ready - whether it's at my desk or in a large meeting!
  • Give some advanced early adopters cool "expert" badges to motivate everyone to learn a new system
  • Create FUN help and training docs.  These don't need to be completely dry - you can always create fake data with celebrities or cartoon characters.  Anything to lighten it up.  It also shows that there's a person lurking underneath all that technical expertise.

Here is a podcast series (Social Innovation Conversations) which has Chip Heath, one of the authors, talking about change as it relates to nonprofits.  Hope this helps you in making change at your organization! 

New article: A Case Study of How Idealware's Using Twitter

 Along with our new site, we've got a new article (no rest for the weary over here!):  Reaching Out To a Wide Audience: A Twitter Case Study


The article takes a look at Idealware's own use of Twitter -- how we're using it, how much time it takes, and how it's working.  It's in fact been a really useful channel for us -- less work than something like Facebook (where your ability to actually get anyone to respond is put on public display), but bringing tangible results.  Would love to hear what you think -- has Twitter been useful for you?

The New Idealware.org

 The new website is finally here!  Check it out at Idealware.org to see: 

  •    A much easier and friendlier navigation scheme
  •   A “Topic” centered site – which makes it easy for you to find all the information we have on Topics from websites to constituent management to back-office and operations software and much more
  •  Our polished and colorful new graphic design
  •  Lots of new information about Idealware, including our research methodologies and the commissioned work we do.

I’m thrilled with the new site (not to mention thrilled to have it launched!) and hope you are too.  Many thanks to our launch sponsors:

 

Heller Consulting:  Raiser's Edge, NetCommunity & Common Ground experts. 14 yrs - 700 clients - 1400 projects.

 

      See3 Communications:  See3 is an interactive agency that crafts online strategies and websites for nonprofits.

 Forum One CommunicationsForum One helps organizations plan, design and build influential web sites. Visit www.forumone.com.

 

Idealware and NTC

The Idealware team of bloggers and staff are so excited to be part of the upcoming Nonprofit Technology Conference in Atlanta April 6-8, 2010. There are a lot of great sessions at NTC, and the our team will be offering a number of them. We'd love to meet you in person at NTC, so please stop by and introduce yourself to us if you attend any of our sessions!  Idealware will also have a table in the Science Fair stacked full of great information. Please do stop by the table and meet Laura Quinn (Executive Director), Andrea Berry (Development Director) and other Idealware board members and bloggers.  At the table, you can pick up free Idealware articles, free review copies of our reports, buy a copy of the Field Guide, or to be entered into a raffle to win one of three free Field Guides. The Science Fair will take place on Thursday, April 8 from 3:00pm to 8:00pm.

Some of the awesome NTC sessions from the Idealware team:

Are you a techie, accidental or otherwise? Idealware blogger and board member Peter Campbell organized a 5-session Tech Track designed for people who install and support the use of technology at nonprofits. It is intended as a resource-sharing track for techies...accidental and otherwise. The goals of the track are knowledge, peer-sharing, and community-building. Peter is a speaker in all of the sessions, and fellow blogger Johanna Bates will be a session speaker in Tracks 3 and 4.

Tech Track 1: Working Without A Wire (But With A Net): Dealing with Wireless Networks, Laptops, and Cell Phones. April 9 at 10:30am. (Peter Campbell, Tracy Kronzak, Michael Sola, session speakers)

Tech Track 2: Proper Plumbing: Virtualization and Networking Technologies. April 9 at 1:30pm. (Peter Campbell, Matt Eshleman, John Merritt, session speakers)

Tech Track 3: Earth to Cloud: When, Why, and How to Outsource Applications. April 9 at 3:30pm. (Peter Campbell, Johanna Bates, Tracy Kronzak, Michelle Murrain, session speakers)

Tech Track 4: Budget vs. Benefits: Providing Top Class Technology in Constrained Resource Environments. April 10 at 10:30am. (Peter Campbell, Johanna Bates, Tracy Kronzak, Thomas Taylor, session speakers)

Tech Track 5: Articulating Tech: How to Win Friends and Influence Luddites. April 10 at 1:30pm. (Peter Campbell, John Merritt, Thomas Taylor)

Are you redoing your current website with a content management system? Are you wondering how to adapt content management practices to content management-based website projects? This session is intended for staff at nonprofits looking at CMS-driven website redesigns, and consultants who haven't worked with OS CMS before. The style will be conversational and engage the audience. Fellow bloggers Steve Backman and Heather Gardner-Madras are two of the speakers in this session.

Making It Real: Getting Project Management Right for Content Management Web Projects. April 9 at 1:30pm (Steven Backman, Ted Fickes, Heather Gardner-Madras, Mimi Kantor, session presenters)

Is your organization planning an online advocacy or fundraising campaign? I'm co-presenting a session focused on applying the principles of traditional community organizing to create successful online advocacy and fundraising campaigns. In this session, we'll review these principles, several case studies, and break out into planning groups to plan an actual online campaign. Come ready to learn and participate!

Bringing Community Organizing Into Online Campaigns. April 9 at 1:30pm. (Debra Askanase, Ivan Boothe, Amy Sample Ward, session presenters)

Do you have an idea for a tech project at your organization, but not sure how to lead it? You don't have to be the CTO or ED to lead a successful tech change! This session will explore principles of change management for successful tech projects (with or without formal authority), and learn from real life stories. (Chocolate included!)

Leading Tech Change When You're Not The Boss. April 10 at 10:30am. (Marc Baizman, Dahna Goldstein, Simone Parrish, session presenters)

Look forward to seeing you at NTC! Are you going?

 

Hearts and Mobiles

Are Microsoft and Apple using the mobile web to dictate how we use technology? And, if so, what does that mean for us?

Last week, John Herlihy, Google's Chief of Sales, made a bold prediction:

“In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant."

Herlihy's argument was based on research indicating that, in Japan, more people now use smartphones for internet entertainment and research than desktops. It's hard to dispute that the long predicted "year of the smartphone" has arrived in the U.S., with iPhones, Blackberries and Android devices hitting record sales figures, and Apple's "magical" iPad leading a slue of mini-computing devices out of the gate.

We've noted Apple's belligerence in allowing applications on their mobile platform that don't pass a fairly restrictive and controversial screening process. It's disturbing that big corporations like Playboy get a pass from a broad "no nudity" policy on iPhone apps that a swimwear store doesn't. But it's more disturbing that competing technology providers, like Google and Opera, can't get their call routing and web browsing applications approved either. It's Apple's world, and iPhone owners have to live in it (or play dodgeball with each upgrade on their jailbroken devices). And now Microsoft has announced their intention to play the same game. Windows Mobile 7, their "from the ground up" rewrite of their mobile OS, will have an app store, and you will not be able to install applications from anywhere else.

iPhone adherents tell me that the consistency and stability of Apple's tightly-controlled platform is better than the potentially messy open platforms. You might get a virus. Or you might see nudity. And your experience will vary dramatically from phone to phone, as the telcos modify the user interface and sub in their own applications for the standard ones. There are plenty of industry experts defending Apple's policies.

What they don't crow about is the fact that, using the Apple and Microsoft devices, you are largely locked into DRM-only options for multimedia at their stores for buying digital content. They will make most of their smartphone profits on the media that they sell you (music, movies, ebooks), and they tightly control the the information and data flow, as well as the devices you play their content on. How comfortable are you with letting the major software manufacturers control not only what software you can install on your systems, but what kind of media is available to them, as well?

The latest reports on the iPad are that, in addition to not supporting Adobe's popular Flash format, Google's Picasa image management software won't work as well. If you keep your photos with Google, you'd better quickly get them to an Apple-friendly storage service like Apple's MobileMe or Flickr, and get ready to use iPhoto to manage them.

If your organization, has invested heavily in a vendor or product that Apple and/or Microsoft are crossing off their list, you face a dilemma. Can you just ignore the people using their popular products? Should you immediately redesign your Flash-heavy website with something that you hope Apple will continue to support? If your cause is controversial, are you going to be locked out of a strategic mobile market for advocacy and development because the nature of your work can't get past the company censors?

I'm nervous to see a major computing trend like mobile computing arise with such disregard for the open nature of the internet that the companies releasing these devices pioneered and grew up in. And I'm concerned that there will be repercussions to moving to a model where single vendors are competing to be one stop hardware, software and content providers. It's not likely that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google or anyone else is really qualified to determine what each of us want and don't want to read, watch and listen to. And it's frightening to think that the future of our media consumption might be tied to their idiosyncratic and/or profit-driven choices.

Virtual Office Toolkit

Since my brick-and-mortar nonprofit org closed its doors, I have been working exclusively virtually, mostly with people who live on the opposite coast. I have a home office in a house I recently moved in to. It's got "vintage" 1975 five-color shag wall-to-wall carpeting (really—see pic to left; that's one of my co-workers, Sadie). But even before my org decided to close, we decided that if we got enough funding to keep our programs alive, we'd become a virtual office to save money, building on a fairly flexible office culture that had been evolving for years.

We were a small organization and most of us were parents. Our workplace culture was one in which we trusted each other to get our work done, even if it wasn't always between 9 and 5. The org made lots of space for people to take care of themselves during the work day—to go to doctor appointments or a kid's event—as long as we got our work done somehow. I telecommuted from time to time, sometimes for a couple months at a time, especially in the early days of parenting. It was a kind of informal flex time, which NPR reports is an increasing trend in some sectors and can allow for a better work-life balance. For me, working flexibly and virtually in this way has definitely improved my quality of life.

Since I work in tech—obviously a type of work conducive to the virtual/flex office—I am aware of more and more virtual orgs and companies as broadband becomes more ubiquitous, and as more people use telecommuting and flex time for various reasons. Some pros and cons...

Pros:
  • No commuting required. Ahh, so nice.
  • If you do advocacy work, or promote/cover events, you can use a virtual office setup to work and live blog/Tweet from the field. When appropriate, this can be a great way to promote your cause and engage constituents.
  • You can work in your pajamas, outside, in front of the fire, in your favorite cafe, or while you're waiting on the bench at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • My favorite pro: you can take breaks to exercise, walk, see a friend or your partner or child, take photographs, or make something. This requires some self-discipline, but the payoff is worth it.
  • You can work anytime of the day or night, not just 9 to 5.
Cons:
  • You can work anytime of the day or night, not just 9 to 5. Work and life boundaries can be hard to maintain if you're not really disciplined about it (I am not yet there, myself).
  • No face time and no spontaneous hall chats that lead to brilliant work-related insights (and fill the need we all have for socializing).
Here's my toolkit:
  • Laptop, smart phone, and broadband, obviously. I live in a rural area, so I don't take those last two for granted. The town next to mine has no broadband and no cell phone coverage, and a lot of people who work virtually in cafes and libraries as a result.
  • Telephone & web conference/meeting software: GoToMeeting or ReadyTalk are the two main ways that I have work meetings with my co-workers.
  • Jing and SnagIt for screen casting and screen shots, respectively. These helps me communicate in certain situations when I would otherwise call a co-worker or client over to look at my computer screen.
  • Collaboration Software: Basecamp, GoogleDocs, GoogleGroups, CentralDesktop (an alternative to Basecamp), Redmine (open-source ticketing and wiki collaboration software), Groupsite (fancier Ning; hosted social networking, document sharing and collaboration software). These are absolutely key for sharing files and communicating about and managing projects with a group of people.
  • Instant one-on-one or group communication: Twitter, IM, Yammer and Google Buzz for instant private group convos. Yammer is my new favorite; you can set up a private Twitter-like group, share documents and images, and communicate socially and about work, almost like a virtual watercooler. For me, IM, Yammer and Twitter can help replicate that missing co-worker hall-chat epiphany experience (and some of the socializing).
Are there other virtual office workers or telecommuters out there? If so, what are the best tools in your toolkit?

Gov 2.0 and the Social Sector

“Change” may not be coming to Washington as fast as we expected a year ago. Yet at the grass roots level, in the technology realm, something is definitely happening, and its going to help the policy reform process. The same kind of democratizing, collaborative, open source/open content trend that has swept through nonprofit technology now is gathering momentum in local, state and even national government. That was my overall takeaway from taking part in the March 6 New England Gov 2.0 “Unconference” at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Even if you didn't attend, you can find a lot of notes and material here: http://gov20ne.pbworks.com/ or look for Twitter archives at #gov20ne.

About 250 of us gathered in Cambridge as part of a series of Gov 2.0 summits and informal conferences around the country initiated last year by O’Reilly (the publisher) and other partners. While I have followed these to some degree, this was my first outing. Read more about the national efforts here: http://www.gov2summit.com/. On the related blog, you can sign-up to be part of the nonprofit/public sector connection.


Feeling that my own work straddles the fence between nonprofit and public sectors, I wasn’t sure how I would feel or where I would fit in that day. Right at home: we had an energized mix of public officials, government technology policy staff, nonprofit policy advocates, community activists, software developers, and academic researchers and students. Judging by the conversations at this conference, those working in human services, policy advocacy and political activism need to pay close attention to what is happening here. The public and nonprofit sectors have a lot to learn from each other, they serve common goals, and progress around effective use of data and the web will be mutually reinforcing.

“Data” was likely the biggest buzz word at the conference—open data, sharing data, collaborative data, mapping and visualizing data and so on. This being an unconference, it aimed to self-organized by interest and we started by everyone giving a three words introduction of their background and interest. (Mine way, “share data now.”) Looking at the wordle (word cloud) of those introductions, you can see that data and open information drew many to the conference. (Creative Commons credit to http://www.wordle.net/ for the "Gov 2.0 Camp New England ")

Federal, State and Local Government agencies sit on enormous repositories of data that traditionally gets collected as a matter of course for regulatory reasons. We have business, economic, environmental and other data that advocacy groups need to be more effective. It’s often there but hard to get one’s hands on.

We also have mounds of data extracted from nonprofit social services and educational organizations at tremendous cost of time and infrastructure. Busy staff collect data to satisfy public grants as much or more than private foundation grants. From my point of view, this data may start as your data, yet once it passes to the government, it becomes public data. It makes sense that this data—in aggregated, depersonalized, privacy-protected form—be available back as well for communities to learn from, make their own assessments and evaluations of success and effectiveness.

In the public sector, making public data public serves the general good. Elected officials can commission and use (or ignore, as they see fit) qualitative assessments for policy making. The Gov 2.0 trend represents a desire for transparency around that government policy research.

Meanwhile, social sector advocates and activists have learned a lot about mining data to assess trends, correlate results with demographic and other community factors, and press for results and changes. We are all collectors of data and measurers of outcomes. This experience outside the government is an accelerant that will drive change inside the government. Organizational staff and consultants may gripe about grant requirements, yet we are also increasingly using the experiences to improve our own strategies and organizational management.

Toward a policy of "Data Impact Statements"

What should we look for, expect and advocate for in these realms?

First, the public wants more, easier, fuller access to government data. Yet government agencies have old systems, have legitimate boundaries around confidentiality and privacy, and have tight budgets and overwhelmed staff these days with little room to build elaborate data reporting systems. How do we strike a balance?

Where government agencies collect data, and most do, we should expect increasing transparency about what will be collected, at what cost in agency staffing and in compliance time and cost for those required to submit the data, with what quality, with what expected use internal to the government agency, and with what return back to the public. A few years ago, when incoming Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick asked for testimony to his Transition Teams, I proposed the concept of a standard “Data Impact Statement.” Like an environmental impact statement, government agencies would need to file a statement in a standard, readable format on any new initiative that collected data—individual filings or anything else. The statement would list what was being collected; what privacy, confidentiality, or security concerns there were about it; a pre-emptive judgment of the likely quality of the data; and what provisions the agency planned to make to put the data in the public domain.

In the not so distant future, we should aim that reactive freedom of information lawsuits will fade in favor of proactive Data Impact Statements throughout government. By having Data Impact Statements, at least advocacy organizations and human services agencies would be able to review, comment on, and press for change on what was going to happen with data their communities would provide and what of use they would get back. Over time, we can move toward uniform expectations—and funding to back it up.

Second, we should press that the release of data follow emerging technical standards. Web sites with pages of information, even if searchable, are not the same as reusable, transferable data format. The data evolutionary trajectory goes from text on the web, to tabular data on web pages, to downloadable text or Excel, to XML and now to the emerging concept of RDFa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RDFa and http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml-rdfa-primer/. This year’s new Drupal release, for example, will embrace RDFa as a standard for web services and data exchange. I suspect that other modern data and community oriented software will as well.

Helping people ask, "How would this look on a map?"

Third, where the average person might reasonably ask, “how would this data look on a map,” public data should be presented with geographic information right there for use. The Gov 2.0 conference gave interesting attention to opening up data for spatial analysis, using geographical based information in crises such as Haiti and Chile, and innovative light-weight open source software like Ushahidi for social mobilization and response.

Fourth, even in the midst of glaring global policy issues from health care to the economy to the wars, we should give some attention to reinforcing national leadership coming in the tech sphere. The Obama administration has taken a strong stand on the democratizing of public data. The http://www.data.gov/ web site is both a growing repository of data anyone can use in the policy making process as well as a sounding board for developing technical and policy standards. It is a welcome initiative and I part of the framework that makes the Gov 2.0 conferences so timely.

Let data inform the educational policy debates

Fifth, if data is flooding in to government and beginning to steam out, we need keep a steady eye on privacy and confidentiality issues. Protect privacy yet don't let it derail opening things up.

A good example is in the realms of education policy. Policy advocates want to be able to do their own refactoring of data on mandatory testing, the record of charter schools, programs to reduce educational inequality, and other elements of No Child Left Behind and its local equivalents. Often this data usage gets lost or delayed because of how long it takes to resolve legal issues around protecting individual student and teacher performance data. In this day and age, we should be able to keep individual data confidential and make aggregated data public. We should also be able to let public school systems and community-based youth jobs and enrichment programs securely exchange individual level student data where both sides agree, have signed appropriate agreements, and have family sign-offs as well. This is probably the single most recurring technology related demand from staff I work with on youth and alternative education programs.

Mobile and Social Media And the Gov 2.0 Trend

Sixth, there is better access to existing data and there is creating new data. In particular, an additional important trend is the use Web 2.0 and social media technologies to inform, energize and empower the public. At the conference, probably the most frequently mentioned example of local tech initiative was the local transit authority’s initiative to put realtime tracking of buses and other transit in the hands of the public. Yes, others may have started on this long before Massachusetts. Yet it has been remarkable how quickly local developers rushed to create mobile apps and all kinds of technology ideas have surfaced around the transit data. At one level, having this information helps busy people know whether they can grab that extra cup of coffee and therefore promote local business at a time when the state really needs it. At another level, it will also help transit and environmental activists really focus in on questions about which areas of the city get what kind of service.

As we learned at the conference, many local communities are experimenting with mobile phone-based systems that enable people and organizations to report problems, oversee responses, and work collaborative to improve services.

All these trends and more will also aid business planning and development. For the moment, the main learning and drive in the Gov 2.0 trend is collaboration and sharing among nonprofit and public sector technologists and policy makers. If you aren’t yet following this trend, you need to.



Why Use Widgets Anyhow?

I'd like to thank new Idealware blogger Debra Askanase for the inspiration for this post, which actually take from her idea for a post around fundraising and advocacy widgets, and which she graciously let me run with due to my slight obsession with widgets. I look forward to her thoughts on the big picture around this web trend and hope she will post a follow up and others will share their insights in the comments below.

There are many great resources and experts out there on viral strategies that apply to using widgets and I won't try to cover all that here. I'll just attempt to provide a brief overview about what some organizations are doing and what they are using to implement their outreach.

In addition to checking back in on what nonprofits are doing now that Sprout Builder is moving to an enterprise level application only, I started thinking about some of the possible uses and options for viral or "moveable" widgets that nonprofits are likely to see as helpful.

Why use widgets anyhow?
Well, widgets are basically movable, sharable mini-applications that can be used to raise donations, take action on a cause or spread information and awareness about your mission. The fact that your message and actions can be placed and seen "where the people" greatly increases your exposure to new potential supporters. Let's take a look as some possible uses and options for each purpose.

Fundraising
Widgets or "badges" have been around for a while to promote and measure online fundraising drives. There are quite a few options if you are just looking to have a basic charity badge that allows donors to give and supporters to set a goal and place their progress on their web sites and social networks.

These types of badges are not usually very interactive and only allow for a logo and/or photo, short description of the cause, link to a video or more information, possibly some sort of progress indicator and of course a donate now button.

Network for Good was a forerunner in this space and has built several different styles of their Charity Badges including the celebrity based SixDegrees.org

Other community or peer to peer fundraising sites like Changing the Present have incorporated sharable widgets as part of each personal fundraising campaign.

Some paid custom types of "make your own" donation widgets provide more flexibilty for both the organization administrator and end user such as Giving Impact. Also check with your donation vendor as they might even offer these tools. I am aware that at least Click and Pledge and Convio do.

Some examples:
Kevin Bacon's 6 degrees badge
ASPCA donation widgets (Convio)

Direct Advocacy
This week Change.org announced its sparkly new petition widgets (powered by DIA) that allow any change.org petition to be embedded and shared and even signed by supporters right on your site as well as customized and shared.

Also a new service called Call2Action provides multiple tab widgets offering both advocacy and donations using video as the engagement hook.

Some examples:
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund has a whole array of advocacy widget options for supporters including mobile campaigns that are worth checking out. They are built on the Clearspring sharing platform*.

And first noted in 2007 by Beth Kanter, the 18seconds.org widget based campaign is still going strong built on Yahoo widget maker.

Awareness Raising & Mission Based Information
This is a pretty broad category and its impossible to cover all the possible ways a widget can be used to get your message out or to distribute meaningful data to your supporters.

News and Blog feeds to supporters

Widgetbox.com seems to have a fairly active nonprofit following that use their widgets in this way including IFAW and the National Wildlife Federation .

Kaboom offers members the opportunity to post progress update widgets for their playground building campaigns which seems to be built on KickApps and shared via Gigya.

Search and Display relevant information
Here are just a few of the widgets I found that provide supporters or the public with pertinent actionable search results wherever they find the widget online.

Kaboom's playspace finder Built on KickApps
Americorps' volunteer opportunities finder Built on Widgetbox
NRDC's What's Fresh local produce finder Originally built on iWidget (now Transpond ) and made shareable with Clearspring*. (full disclosure, I worked on this widget)
FoundationCenter.org's charity IRS form 990 finder Built on Widgetbox

Some other popular awareness raising tools used in widgets are maps, slideshows, videos, polls, quizzes or other interactive content. And of course many organizations also want to offer forms that collect all kinds of data like event registrations and the like as well. For more complex applications you'll want to check out what's possible with KickApps, Widgetbox and Yahoo Widgets already mentioned and the options below.

And some more widget tools for whatever you can dream up.

Simple Stuff
Display RSS feeds of nearly anything - Grazr
Simple & multi-tab flash banners - BannerSnack

Flexible Flash "mini-site" producers
WIX
Produle
Ahead.com (but I couldn't get their site to load)

Custom application options and intense Facebook integration
Tran spond ($2,400 You build. $4,000 We build)
Involver (Facebook applications - some free)
Get Social Apps

And Open Source fans will want to keep an eye on the variety of options that Peter Dietz at Social Actions has collected on his list of Action apps.

And finally a short Sprout Builder update

Via various Facebook comments on Beth Kanter's fan page I found this:

Beth Kanter
"Here's what we learned - they're going to continue to serve existing nonprofit clients - reach out to Trudy Marquardt "

Other nonprofit staff have reached out to Sprout Builder and been told that the discount is good for one year only at half off ($1500 paid up front) the regular fee $3000. There is no official word from Sprout Inc yet, so there is no way to tell if this applies to everyone or how long the offer stands. I still strongly recommend Sprout using nonprofits contact them right away to see what can be worked out for your organization.

* And in other widget making news, ClearSpring is now transitioning to AddThis platform for sharing & distribution - so their previous platform is going away. (hat tip Andrew Watson's interesting take on all this) If you build your own widget in HTML or flash and just need the sharing ability it looks like this is still free.

Also, several options I listed in previous posts are now offline including poplfly, iWidgets and Blist. Dapper has split into a paid advertising site and an open source community for data mapping widgets now at http://www.dapper.net/open/

Hopefully all the turbulence these services are experiencing will settle down. If you take a look all the things nonprofits are doing with sharable content and engagement you realize how many more possibilities there are. And its looking like movable apps and widgets are a core constituent in the distributed world of Web 2.0. So if you want to start sharing through widget you'll need to be careful selecting your service partner, keep assets backed up and have a fall back plan. Which of course also applies to pretty much everything.

So have fun widget building and as always, please Share your widgets, strategies and vendor experiences in the comments and help build on this post for your colleagues - after all, its all about the shared content - thanks!