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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday Links: June 23

Problogger, a service trying to make some money helping people blog, has Darren Rowse's blogging advice this week in Business Blogging 101. Although oriented toward business blogs, the issues he tackles come up in non-profit blogging as well. I've a number of non-profit execs have told me they shy away from blogs because they fear people might use the on-line medium to make critical comments about their organization. Darren's response:
I don’t have an easy answer for businesses thinking through the interactivity of blogging except to say that as user generated content becomes more and more prevalent that people will use the medium to talk about your company more and more whether you have a blog or not. My opinion is that rather than ignoring it, having a presence in the space at least shows your willingness to interact.
Every week we see posts like Darren's, often called "10 tips for a better blog". Do they all say the same thing? Kami Huyes pointed us a while back to a survey of 80 posts on the subject. The three most commonly offered bits of advice were, unsurprisingly: Post regularly, build a community, and read other blogs. Kami offers some suggestions of her own - starting with "contributing original thinking". Sad that this needs to be said, isn't it?

Internet Culture
Speaking of "contributing original thinking", Nicholas Carr is afraid original thought may be a victim of the "cut and paste" culture spawned by the Internet. If you don't read his always provocative commentary in Rough Type, you should start; often running contrary to the millennial hype about web2.0 and the new net, Nick always urges us to be careful not to throw away what is culturally valuable in our enthusiasm for the new.

The Semantic Web
Just the other day I posted some information on Microformats for the first time. Later that same day Christine Herron wrote about a microformats initiative at Yahoo! and Marnie Webb pointed us to Piggy Bank, a Fireflox plug-in from MIT that scrapes semantic content from web pages. And in a comment to my Microformat's post, Francis Storr let us know about Tails, another Firefox plug-in that recognizes numerous microformats. I have a strong feeling The Semantic Web is a part of the Next Big Thing.

If you're a web developer eager to get your feet wet with the new Ajax techniques but not sure where to start, take a look at Ajax Hacks, by Bruce W. Perry. Built around very concrete examples like user-logins and credit card validation, you'll find a lot of reusable code in this book that makes the AJAX approach to building more responsive websites "just programming" -- to use a phrase from our office . And the source is all available for download from the book's website! (use the examples link on that page - it took me a minute to find it!).

What can you do when you're branded?

I seem to be getting into the habit of including at least one link I got turned on to via Jeff Brooks' Donor Power blog. If all the hype about branding your non-profit, and worse, personal branding, is starting to get to you, you'll feel vindicated by the article Obsessive Branding Disorder Jeff found on the FastCompany.Com site:
Like Peter Pan, determined to stitch his own shadow to himself lest it get away, executives are obsessed with branding their companies.
And now for something completely different
I wonder what Nick Carr thinks about the cultural impact of this new technology?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A New Blog on the Block

Here's a new non-profit tech blog I wanted to bring to your attention: Today I cried. Weird name, hunh? The anonymous writer explains it this way:
I named this site quite appropriately. My first day as the sole technology person at a downtown Manhattan non-profit proved this. It's not that non-profits are difficult places to work, it's that they lack self-respect. I doubt any self-respecting organization would allow their network and infrastructure to fall into such ruin. What I saw today, knowing that I have to deal with it, would have made anyone weep bitterly.
One of Cried's themes is that because non-profits do not see themselves as real business, they do not focus on ROI or efficiency - and that takes a bite out of their ability to focus on mission. We can only hope his boss and board listen to him, because this is exactly the conclusion reached by consulting powerhouse Accenture in its study Executive Issues in NonProfits.

Welcome to the nptech blogosphere, Cried!
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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Microformats: they must be important - there's a t-shirt!

Many, many years ago, I got hired by a small investment firm to write a program that looked up stock information on an online service, extracted the relevant numbers from the displays the service sent down, and loaded them into a database for analysis. I thought it was a really exciting, cutting edge effort.

Nowadays the automated collection of information from web-pages is called "scraping". For example, shortly after I post this entry, you will be able to go to technorati and find it by searching for new items with the nptech tag. How does technorati index me accurately? It scrapes the tag off of my page. It finds it using a relatively new idea that I think is going to have some significant impact on data-driven websites: Microformats. The website is celebrating its first anniversary this week, so it's probably time the concept got out and about a little more.

What are microformats? The microformats webpage says:
Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards
More precisely, microformats involves a combination of traditional HTML markup - the way data has traditionally been layed out and formatted on the web - with the purely semantic, non-visual approach of XML. In other words, microformats provide a way of laying out information on a web page that can be both read by a person and interpreted by a program.

To go back to that Technorati example: you've seen the text blocks on blog posts itemizing the tags the authors wishes to assign. Let's get technical for just a minute. In the HTML div tag that begins that block of text, there always appears the attribute rel="tag". Technorati scans blog pages for divs with this attribute, and uses it to index the content. Pretty simple. When I did my scraping project way back when, I had to rely on knowing exactly where the data was on the page... if the vendor changed his display, I was out of luck. With semantic markup, we can find specific content no matter where it is.

More complex microformats are the hCard standard, for contact information, and hCalendar, for appointments and events. These are "translations" of the widely used vCard and iCal standards.

Why would anyone care?
A programmer could, for example write a little plug-in for Firefox that alerts you whenever it sees an hCard on a page you are reading, and asks you if you want to copy it into your contact manager. I think tools like this will become widespread as these techniques for adding sematics to the web become more widespread. And the microformat enhances visual display as well as semantic use: a web page designer can write a style sheet to control the display of standard microformats so that anytime one is used in a page, it will conform itself to this site-wide appearance.

Most microformats, as the name implies, deal with the presentation of bite-sized chunks of data. But the same concept of integrating layout and semantic markup can be used to produce some quite powerful tools. Take a look at S5, a javascript and markup based framework by Eric Meyer for displaying an entire slideshow on a single page.

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image uploaded to Flickr by Tantek

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bill High

My very good friend Bill High died in a traffic accident on Friday.

Bill was a guy who did not own a computer, and never carried a cell-phone. He never used email for personal correspondence; a note-card was far more to his liking. Bill had a sharp, wacky, intellectual sense of humor. He didn't believe that information packaged in bite-sized feeds for easy digesting was of much value - if we saw a movie together, I'd be likely to find sixty xeroxed pages of scholarly articles about the director in the mail a week later.

Bill devoted his professional life to the welfare of children, first as a child protection social worker, and later as a social worked in the Durham public schools.

I can't believe he's gone.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Friday Links: June 16th

How does your organization get its mission-driving info out to its supporters? Many of us writers promoting technology solutions for non-profits have been talking to you about RSS feeds for last year, touting them as an a approach to constituent communications in many ways superior to the traditional email newsletter. But a study by the Neilsen-Norman Group claims email is still a far more effective approach, in part because RSS is not widely used or understood, and in part because e-mail is an inherently "warmer" technology. Further discussion of this study can be found on Rich Zaide's, and Celeste W's Studio 501C blog.

Everyone's read by now that Bill Gates will begin transitioning out of his responsibilities at Microsoft to devote himself to the charitible foundation he and his wife created. Read the Microsoft press release here. And learn more about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here. Its not the only change at Microsoft - alpha blogger Robert Scoble, who has been the face of Microsoft in the blogosphere, departed for start-up His blog is at He's also well known for his blook on blogging, Naked Conversations, co-authored with Shel Israel.

He's a bit dramatic in his style, but Dave Churchville writes a very interesting blog on software development - and one I suspect is particularly valuable for the non-programmer who needs to manage programmers, or contract with them, or just hold them at bay. I particularly liked his recent post on fixing bugs:
Sure, we all understand that perfection is just an ideal, but we still should strive to fix every bug that we know about, right? Well, it's this idea that is the biggest misconception in the software industry.
In his current post, he says he received a lot of comments that he is striking at a straw man, that no one really believes that fixing all known bugs should be seen as a priority in software development. But I think many who buy software do feel this way, and this article may help to sharpen their perspective in planning with their developers if and when a bug should be fixed.

Internet Culture
An interesting debate has raged around the blogosphere in the last couple weeks in response to a polemical piece posted by Jason Lanier: Digital Maosim - Hazards of the New Online Collectivism. The post attacks the enthusiam for massively collaborative web projects, in particular, Wikipedia:
The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?...The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. Andthat is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise...
Discussion has been fast and furious - a sampling of it can be found of the superblog Boing-Boing. I think its just a piece of the larger cultural debate going on right now about the role of conventional media, and traditional authorship, in the wake of new media enthusiam.

And now for something completely different
Read about it here: Last week, state oil monopoly Petrovietnam's financial arm ordered 21 officials to write "self-criticism" reports for not singing karaoke at a business contract-signing ceremony.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Fundraising Lab

Last Friday Jeff Brooks had an interesting little piece on his Donor Power blog about testing your development efforts. His message is to avoid just jumping in to new creative ventures without really testing the value of your fundraising offers. He quotes a piece from a site called Inside Direct Mail that warns:
There are no shortcuts to direct marketing results ... thoughtful, solid and constant offer testing is the only way to get there ....
Jeff points out that your offer can be tested along many dimensions - he suggests playing with the the amount you ask for, the specifics of the call to action, adding leverage such a matching gifts program, and adding specificity to the accompanying program descriptions.

Jeff thinks this improvement is much more likely to come from fine tuning your offer than in playing with the quality of the material:
Spiffy new creative is exciting and fun. (Heck, I'm a creative director -- that's what I like best!) But the real leverage is farther upstream with the offer, or, in fundraising terms, the call to action.
But Jeff's post doesn't delve into the details of how to do this offer testing.

It's an issue of experimental design. You need to make sure that you try all combinations of each of the factors you are testing, so that you actually learn which factor contributed to an observation. For example, if you send Offer A to List 1 and Offer B to List 2, you do not know if the Offer or the List accounts for the difference. Similarly, you will want to make sure you vary single parameters between the offers. Don't try the high ask only on the big packet and the low ask on the simple packet. If you do, again you cannot separate the impact of the factors. And you'll need to make sure that each donation you receive is fully coded so that you know which list and which offer solicited it.

Finally you need to do some analysis on what you received. To do this, you need to look at the results along specific dimensions. Your software can give you a lot of help in the mechanics, but to make sure you are really using statistical tools properly, you might want to get a grad student volunteer to help you analyse your data. Better yet, involve her from the start of the campaign, so the whole effort doubles as also a valuable experiment, contributing to continuous improvement in your development efforts.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

wikiCalc beta

More online spreadsheet news: Dan Bricklin has released a beta version of his wikiCalc application. And announced a deal with Ross Mayfield's Socialtext for hosting. And he's gone to some lengths to describe how his product differs from Google Spreadsheets in purpose:
wikiCalc assumes that the result should be a normal-looking web page that is perhaps part of a larger website. The reader shouldn't know the page was created with a spreadsheet tool. wikiCalc is more in the class of a blogging tool or a wiki. Many of the other BBSS's assume you want an experience akin to sitting in Excel -- When designing wikiCalc I assumed that many users, and especially some corporate users, will want fine control over the look of the final output.... there is even a way to easily set explicit CSS classes or styles on cells. You can get data from a web service using a simple spreadsheet function and even grab data from regular web pages on other sites.
One of the nice things about wikiCalc is that you can download it to host on your own webserver, or to just run locally on your pc for evaluation.

You can see a screencast demo explaining wikiCalc on the Socialtext site.

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Photo of Dan demo'ing wikiCalc uploaded to Flicker by BetsyTheDevine.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Google Spreadsheets

Last week Google announced their new Spreadsheets offering. Take a look: you'll find that the program has a nice, crisp responsiveness unusual in a web app, showing off the Google development team's expertise with Ajax. But the application provides only the simplest subset of Excel capability. And it might take a while to get your account. Google is making people sign up and get on a waiting list - but my wait was less than a day.

What's the response been? Some bloggers have given it the usual approving murmur that we've gotten used to hearing about Google efforts; on the other hand there has been more than a little disappointment: TechCrunch's Michael Arrington pretty much accused the writers of admiring reviews of having drunk the Google Kool-Aid.
Google-love is getting out of hand. In fact, Google is getting out of hand. After I wrote about the launch of Google Spreadsheets this morning, one commenter said “Its very nice and sleek. Will be very useful for keeping track of money etc”, as if this was the first spreadsheet he’d ever seen. Some of the other comments were also overly effusive. Thankfully, another commenter noted that, in fact, the product isn’t exactly new: “spreadsheets have been around about as long as computers”. I agree - while Google released a very nice Ajax spreadsheet today, they didn’t exactly change the world.
Is this new product going to be useful to non-profits? It might provide a better way to share access to a simple budget spreadsheet you're developing than emailing it around and trying to collate the changes. But its not going to rock your world.
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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Dog and Pony Show

You can tell I've been wrapped up lately in a lot of sales and marketing activities: Last month I had a post on RFPs, and one on software development contracts. Today I want to talk for a minute about software demos. You've collected information on a variety of products and vendors - now you are inviting them to sit down with you and put their software through its paces.

Before you do this, stop and think about exactly what you want to get out of the demo. Your response may be, "Well, I just want to see it. We've read all your the product descriptions and proposals. On paper it meets our requirements. But we need to see it to get a good sense of it." That's true - and its a fine starting point. But you will get more out of the sessions, and more information that will assist you in making a decision, if you can define your objectives more sharply.

In a recent article, Managing Vendor Demonstrations, Eric Spiegel goes into detail about the type of advance preparation that can make your demos more productive. I'm always surprised how prospective customers will present us with an agonizingly detailed RFP for the written proposal, but have not put together any structure for the demo. In the absence of specific guidelines from you, the vendor (that's me) is just going to show you a lot of "cool stuff" and hope that you are wowed by all the great features. What you need to do is understand exactly what it is you want to see, and why. Then communicate it to the vendor before the meeting. It helps to build a little agenda with the vendor. That way we know we are all on the same page when we sit down in your conference room.

Think about the time frame of the demo when building a list of focal points for the vendor. Don't tell the vendor he has sixty minutes with you, and you want to see CRM, Accounting, and ten other modules. Do you really want to evaluate each module based on five minutes of presentation? You need a longer meeting, or several sessions, or a sharper focus on what is to be covered. You don't want to force the vendor to do what Doug Johnson calls "over-demo'ing:"
One demo'd nearly the whole time, full speed, non stop. I was pretty sure this product would slice tomatoes and squeegee your car if she'd gone on another 15 minutes. While this was great fun to watch, I could see folks try to follow her rapidly tapping fingers dancing intricate sets of steps that looked nearly unmasterable by the average Joe
When you are thinking about your objectives for the demo, don't just focus on functional requirements. Think about what your user's pain points and frustrations have been. Last year several prospective customers told us "You wasted a lot of time showing us how to enter data in your demo. We believe you can enter data into your system. I mean, duh."

It made sense. So we changed our style to cover data entry more as a survey of the data entry forms, without a lot of actual typing. But the first time we did this, the customer told us we blew it. "We wanted to see you really set up a bunch of new members and then register them for events. Data entry is really tediuous on our legacy system, and we wanted to see how it goes on yours". Now we know ask about the cutomers desire to see actual data entry before the session. What is it you really need to see?

Don't overwhelm your evaluators. Rees Morrison warns in Five Ways to Get the Most From a Vendor Demo:
Don’t schedule three demonstrations on the same day. It is too fatiguing and causes the systems to blur.
Sometimes we are asked to demo on a week where the customer has scheduled a demo every single day. We find ourselves jockeying to get in a good position in the middle. We've learned that too early and they will have forgotten us by the end-- too late and they will be so bored with demos they will pay us no attention. So make sure your people meet after each demo and get impressions down on paper. Don't let your contenders order of appearance become a factor in your perceptions.

Think about the room setup, especially before that first demo! Don't plan the session in a room that cannot be darkened enough for projection. Make sure you have a functioning network connection and power outlets handy. Match the room and the number of attendees so people are comfortable. And make sure the users you've invited are really free to come - we've often gone to a demo where key users get up after fifteen minutes saying, "I'll be one of the principle users of the software, but I have another meeting to go to, so I'll just ask Jeff to fill me in." You're doing yourself an injustice if your key evaluators cannot attend.

Every bit of advice for effective demos I've found on the net has ended by advising that that the vendor bring food. I'm going to eat right now!
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Friday, June 02, 2006

Links Roundup: June 2

As part of her "Solutionary Women" series, Britt Bravo posted an interview today with my very good friend Rebecca Kalin of Asthma Free School Zones. You can also find it on Britt's Blogher site. Rebecca points out that idling vehicles is the Number One cause of air pollution in urban areas! Cut that engine!

Susan Crawford has posted an illuminating discussion of why the net neutrality debate really matters and the very real dangers of caving in to the telcos on this issue. Susan, a law professor at NYU, has an insiders' view of Internet policy - she sits on the board of ICANN.

Google has released the Google Web Toolkit, a programming framework for AJAX development that takes a very new approach to Javascript development. It allows the programmer to work in Java, which it then translates to browser-independent javascript. The GWT console allows the developer to trace through the Java code while executing the javascript in the browser, finally bringing professional debugging capability to javascript code. You can find a more detailed review of the GWT on

Non-profit Blogging:
Nancy Schwartz in her Getting Attention blog points out this enthusiastic article on blogging by non-profit organizations, in The Journal News, a NYC regional paper. The article quotes Marc Sirkin of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as saying, "It's extra work, but we're reaching people where they want to be reached." Marc's job title demonstrates his organization's uncharacteristic awareness of the importance of new media: he's the vice president of e-marketing!

The Net-admin's Corner.
This blog's name is very appealing: Help Desk when Help Desk wasn't Cool. "Bitter help desk survivor writes cheesy blog" reads the subtitle. But sometimes there is some great info there. This article on how he has set up an administrative workstation for remote management might be of great help to the accidental techie whose installation is getting more and more complicated and needs to maintain a growing number of servers.

And now for something completely different.
This article from CNN on an odd aspect of the Silicon Valley geek culture.