Monday, December 19, 2005

The risks of Web 2.0

There is always a downside.

I like to talk about ecosystems, open APIs and how collaboration in technology can yield big benefits for the nonprofit sector., the social networking site recently acquired by Yahoo, went down this weekend. Lots and lots of website that depend on the API can't get access to data and are also down. Folks who display links on their web pages instead display a "we are down" message. Even companies like Flock, which to a certain extent build their business around, feel the pain with large parts of this product's functionality down.

The ecosystem of open APIs is just as susceptible to disaster as a natural ecosystem. The thing to remember is that an ecosystem is often not as fragile as we might think.

Both Flock and CiviCRM use a very simple strategy to address dependence on resources we have no control over: redundancy. In Flock, they have support for other social bookmarking tools. In CiviCRM, our dependency is on map providers like Google. We build in redundancy by supporting Yahoo maps.

The issue is not that dependency is bad. Leveraging other peoples' investment can make your offering more powerful. How you deal with dependency, how flexible your systems are. and whether you have redundency are all factors that make a Web 2.0 technology like CiviCRM better or worse.

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Google and AOL: Flexible definition of evil?

[updated 12/17]

From the NY Times:

Google, which prides itself on the purity of its search results, agreed to give favored placement to content from AOL throughout its site, something it has never done before.
From the Wall Street Journal:
As part of the deal, AOL would be able to sell advertising among the search results provided by Google on AOL Web properties. AOL's sales staff would also sell display ads across Google's network of Web publishers.
From the Washington Post:
Google's search results, based on equations that rank them according to relevancy, will not be changed as a result of the new partnership with AOL, sources said.
Clearly somebody got it wrong. I like John Battelle's idea of a trial balloon.

So, preferential ranking of AOL content in Google search results. Google seems to be careening toword a standard corporate path of profits over people/values. For those who watched the film The Corporation, you might remember they made the arguement that corporations could be clinically diagnosed as psychopaths. Psychopaths might have a different definition of evil than you or I.

As much as I love mash-ups and open APIs, I think it is time for the nonprofit technology sector to seriously look at providing their own technology services. Anyone want to contribute a little open source coding to write an integration between Dataplace and CiviCRM for a non-corporate mapping solution?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Social Source: Web 2.0 Collaboration

[repost from August]

I wrote this in reaction to some conversation that has been happening regarding NTAP collaboration.

NTAP Collaboration in a Web 2.0 World

Collaboration among nonprofits is a well-studied subject with fairly well defined best practices. The modern technological, Internet-enabled “Web 2.0” world changes the logic of collaboration.

In community development, collaboration can best be described as a process in which personal relationships are built, trust is established, and collaboration begins. In a Web 2.0 world, collaboration and trust is the starting point rather than the ending point.

Traditional Collaboration

One of the key best practices in collaboration is to recognize that the relationship between two organizations goes through a natural evolution that is anchored in trust, communication and personal relationships.

The initial stage is a competitive relationship between organizations, competing for funding, publicity or other resources, generally perceiving the relationship as a zero-sum game.

As organizations start forming personal relationships, getting to know one another, they can begin to cooperate…neither organization changing their actions or plans, but getting together when their interests coincide.

Coordination begins the process changing organizational behavior to accommodate ones partner and begin achieving more together than could be achieved individually, even through cooperation. Enough trust has been established that a phone call about a coordination opportunity is warmly received and seriously considered.

Finally, once communication and trust are strong, organizations can plan together, coordinate their activities, and form the basis for long term collaboration.

Web 2.0 Collaboration

In a Web 2.0 world, collaboration is the default world view.

Technology is often critiqued for depersonalizing human activities. In Web 2.0 collaboration, the depersonalization of the process of collaboration generates unique opportunities and significant benefits.

Web 2.0 Collaboration begins with a single organization offering collaborative opportunities to anyone off the street. The default posture is trust of potential collaborative partners, rather than the expectation that trust is built over time through personal relationships.

The Google Maps API is a good example. Google offers any individual or organization the ability to collaborate by creating a mashup of their data and a Google map. People have displayed everything from Chicago crime data to Craigslist listings of apartments for rent via the Google maps interface.

Google offers the collaboration opportunity openly, trusting collaborative partners first, before creating personal relationships. If people misuse the API, the personal relationship kicks in that allows Google to pull out of the collaboration.

The characteristics of collaboration in a Web 2.0 world include:

  • On-demand. Any organization can have on-demand collaboration with a partner.
  • Highly scalable. Traditional collaboration is bounded by the limits of human-to-human relationships, machine-to-machine relationships are much more scalable.
  • Independent of personal relationships. Since technology (APIs) rather than humans (phones) handle the collaboration, one-to-many and many-to-many collaborations can form and grow at a much higher rate.
Web 2.0 Collaboration Opportunities

The primary opportunity is for funders to support the “opening” of organizations’ proprietary outlook and systems.

Compumentor and VolunteerMatch have CRM systems with 50,000 and 30,000 nonprofits respectively. How can they open up their proprietary systems to provide a Web 2.0 collaboration opportunity?

Perhaps a partnership with Google or Yahoo enables adwords-like functionality on their websites. Compumentor and VolunteerMatch might derive revenue from such an arrangement, or require reciprocal arrangements with organizations, driving traffic into software sales or volunteer opportunities, respectively.

Technology producers like Compumentor, NTEN and Social Source Foundation can be supported in producing open technologies. Funders making key contributions… bringing a tool like Techfinder to a website run by an organization that neither NTEN nor Compumentor have relationships with… can jump start the sharing of technology.

CRM software built by the Social Source Foundation can be integrated with VolunteerMatch’s volunteer systems, providing seamless volunteer management or with Network for Good’s donation services, to provide seamless donation management.

All of these collaboration opportunities revolve around internal decisions at participating organizations to “open up” and put technology in place that facilitates and helps to manage openness.

Culture: The Only Significant Barrier

Most of the major technology nonprofits emerged during the dot com boom and are locked into proprietary “portal” business models that companies like Yahoo have long since abandoned.

Moving to a culture where the first question is “how can others leverage what I’m doing” rather than “how can I protect myself from other leveraging what I am doing” is a prerequisite for collaboration in a Web 2.0 world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Take 15 Minutes to Help Nonprofit Technology

Compumentor has put together the NetSquared project which is an interactive online effort to

  • share stories about how web-based technologies are impacting people’s lives
  • build toolkits for nonprofits around the globe to help extend their good work
They need some more content. Contribute a case study of a sucessfull example of how nonprofits have used emerging technologies (eCRM, web, email, wikis). Case studies can be contributed on their website (you'll need to log in first).

More interesting to me, they are asking folks to answer four questions about nonprofit technology. You can submit your answers on the NetSquared Website.
  • What's *really* new on the Web, as opposed to buzzwords and soundbites?
  • Which tools best embody the new opportunities from your point of view and why?
  • Who's doing the best work with the new tools (technically or in terms of social benefit or both)?
  • What's the bad news? What are the greatest barriers preventing web-based technology from producing social change?
Very interesting to see the different views of the nonprofit, nonprofit technology, and technology communities.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

When Technology Decisions aren't Technology Decisions

The guys over at Greenpeace have launched a big advocacy project called Melt. They have decided to "roll their own" technology platform for the effort. In the comments, I think there is a more compelling case for what why they rolled their own... the price of what appears to be a very high quality development shop (Thoughtworks) was the same/ less than proposals for folks using technologies like Drupal/CivicSpace.

In nonprofit land we have been making the case for years that technology decisions are "neutral." You develop your requirements, get vendors to bid on the project, and make a decision about what best matches your requirements. And over the past 10 years the sector has invested millions of dollars of donor money in building the same systems over and over again.

Now that open source has entered the conciousness, projects are being created under open source licenses, but the basic technology decision is still: (1) How much? (2) Quality of the people delivering and (3) Are the requirements met?

Around CiviCRM we are trying to meet these three questions head-on for customers. We are recruiting high quality shops that can deliver low cost solutions that meet customer requirements.

But we what we really care about, is leveraging the kinds of investments that Greenpeace is making into software that benefits the entire sector. Greenpeace is going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. By participating in existing ecosystems, that investment could be leveraged to help the broader environmental movement, disaster relief, and small grassroots groups accross the world.

Greenpeace made a rational choice for them. They might even have plans for spending the million dollars or so it would take to create a sustainable community of technology firms, customers, and users around Melt.

But it is expensive and risky to go down this path. When ecosystems of nonprofits (CivicSpace Labs, the Social Source Foundation), firms (twenty plus consulting firms that operate in the ecosystem), and users (500+ installed sites) already exist, we hope major players like Greenpeace would also factor in how their investment could impact the "public good."

[P.S. Greenpeace has had lots of challenges with vendors who have made similar arguements in the past so I undertand their desire to work with a high caliber vendor. I would simply hope other major efforts in the future factor in the opportunity to leverage their technology investments to the benefit of the broader nonprofit sector.]

Monday, December 5, 2005

"Betting against FLOSS is like betting against gravity"

Gotta love Sun. Jonathan Schwartz on open source Solaris:

Betting against FOSS is like betting against gravity. And free software doesn't mean no revenue, it means no barriers to revenue. Just ask your carrier.
He draws the comparison between Cellular companies giving away free handsets (and the customer busing the service and support) and companies giving away software (and the customer buying the service and support).

Now how do we start explaining this to the nonprofit community? There is still a vendor involved, we're just reducing the cost of technology by creating licensing software under an open source license.