Monday, July 1, 2002

Social Source Newsletter v1#1

Social Source Newsletter
July 2002 v1 #1

This occasional newsletter is dedicated to exploring the relevance of open source software development and concepts to nonprofit organizations.

Steve Wright Proves that Open Source can be Plug and Play!
~Three hours to a functional server
~Coaching is key
University-based Models of Nonprofit Open Source Development
~Universities building custom software for nonprofits
~Is the model replicable and/or scalable?
When I talk to people about open source solutions, I often get what I like to call the "command line" reaction: Everything must require the command line. Everything must be hard. Apparently, everything must be scary.

With modern open source distributions, this does not have to be the case, as Steve Wright from the points out.

[Quoted with permission]
>I send out a version of this email anytime some one mentions open
>source. Here is my latest Open Source story.
>In a total of 3 hours I sat down with a Community Technology Center
>(CTC) lab manager who had no previous experience with Linux and
>installed a Mandrake Linux OS server which included: 1) Apache - Web
>Server 2) Mysql - Database 3) PHP - ASP like programming language that
>enables interactivity on your website. There are several web portal
>systems that are being developed for on-line communities that use this
>language. You do not need to know any MySQL or PHP to install these
>portals and they provide a community web interface that allows for
>individual logins, discussion groups, newsletter-like functionality.
>Image upload/viewing. Content creation with NO HTML knowledge
>necessary. The installation requires some nerdability but mostly it
>requires the desire IO MAKE It happen. Check out
> 4) SAMBA - Windows networking server
>5) NetaTalk - Appletalk server
>EVERYTHING worked "out of the box." When I left this machine was
>serving webpages AND acting as a cross-platform Intranet server. The
>only cost involved was the machine and the $30 for the Mandrake CD's
>(which can be downloaded or copied for free.)
>Steve Wright
>Program Director

How to Make Plug & Play Open Source Work
I drew some conclusions from Steve's experience.

A lot of technology adoption can be driven by mentoring. Sitting down with someone and helping them install software via "shoulder to shoulder" training is a strong model. A good question to ask yourself as a nonprofit is whether you are willing to be mentored, or would rather pay for the luxury of not thinking about technology by hiring a consultant.

I would guess that the long term success of Steve's effort is 100 percent dependent on the commitment of the CTC lab manager to figuring out how this stuff works. They have a great head start, however, since the open source tools Steve is using are no more difficult to use than networking a couple of PCs.

Consultants need to become familiar with open source options
If it really is this easy, perhaps we should be focusing on "shoulder to shoulder" training for nonprofit consultants so that they can have open source tools in their toolbox right next to IIS and Access. Given that it is apparently *that* easy, why is it that I haven't heard stories from the NPowers of the world about how they have successfully installed open source solutions? If they have tried to use open source tools and found them *not* to work in certain situations, these stories are equally important.

Open Source is not for everyone
I am always very cautious in evangelizing open source too aggressively. Steve was able to install the software simply and easily. BUT, what is the total cost of ownership (TCO) of this solution vs. others?

Will these agencies have the internal staff to support the server over the long term? Will Steve be called on every month to tweak some small feature of the servers that have been installed? Will Steve eventually wish these people just stop calling? ;)

Hopefully, the TCO study that is being implemented by the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) will answer some of these more strategic, long-term questions. If you want to participate/ contribute to the in the NOSI TCO study, visit and join the email list.

A good list of OS software for nonprofits would be nice
Maybe we need to convince the guys at to add "nonprofits" to their list of intended audiences. I've had discussions with the foundry manager at about creating a nonprofit foundry and it seems to be around the corner (see the beta at

There are also efforts to produce a CD of relevant software, though the various distributions (Mandrake, Red Hat) seem to do a good job of putting it all in one place. Perhaps the next phase is to create an .rpm that cuts down Steve's install time from 3 hours to 20 minutes (An .rpm is an 'installer' for Linux systems that installs and configures software without user intervention).

~ Teach yourself how to install Mandrake and and do some shoulder-to- shoulder training with an accidental techie or nonprofit technology consultant.

~ Share a similar story by writing it up as a case study and posting it on the NOSI web site or email list. Perhaps others will be inspired by and learn from your experience.
======================================================================= The Coolest Thing I"ve Seen All Year (University Open Source Development for Nonprofits) =======================================================================
The email started with the modest sentence, "An innovative class is seeking community projects for their students learning how to develop web-based applications." I was pretty much hooked from that single sentence.
Four years ago, when I was the Director of the Eastmont Computing Center in East Oakland, I badly wanted to deploy a community-focused, web-based application serving our neighborhood. I didn't have the money, skills, or time to create a solution--here I find a group providing the assistance I needed in 1998.
Randy Groves and Doug Schuler from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington are giving a college course entitled "Community Information Systems." What better way to learn about community information systems than to build one?
"A major part of this program will involve our students (in teams of three to six) working with communities around the world to develop information and communication technology that will enable that community to further some of its aspirations. We're planning to work with eight to 15 communities. We plan to concentrate on communities that may not be receiving adequate attention in relation to information and communication technology."
The Evergren model strikes me a good, concrete example to take to universities in your local community. Maybe some of them will adopt the same approach. Ask them to dedicate class projects to local community information needs. Many universities already offer community focused classes, but may not be doing community focused projects (the University of Massachusetts, Boston, for example--
So Randy and Doug have put out a call for proposals. Community groups are encouraged to fill out an online form to express their interest in participating (
Universities as Application-Building Resources ===================================
When I ran the Eastmont Computing Center--a community-based agency with a budget of under $500,000--I always got the advice to "partner" with the local university (University of California, Berkeley, in our case). I got great conversation, but little in the way of concrete resources for my agency (though we did jointly launch a regional initiative with university resources).
University partnerships are *hard* in the same way any partnership is hard-- both partners have to get something out of the partnership. Randy and Doug"s model of a successful project makes that partnership process a little easier. Plus, many universities are actively seeking ways to connect with the work going on outside their ivory towers.
With a concrete plan, like the one articulated in the call for proposals, the process of generating a university partnership becomes possible even if you don"t have an existing relationship with the university. So what do you do?
1. Research. Find out if there are courses or departments relevant to community information systems. Library Sciences programs often have such a component. Make a list of relevant professors and administrators.
2. Call your list, Tell them you want to replicate a fantastic model for students doing community work as class projects. Send them call for proposals as an example. Add people to your list as you get referrals.
3. It either worked or didn't. Once you are at the end of your list, you will have either started to engage with someone or you"ll have found out there is not much interest in the concept.
~ Copy Randy and Doug"s call for proposals and send it to your contacts at your local university. They might become inspired and implement a similar class project.