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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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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The permanent Beta?

Browsing through some old posts in the always worthwhile Creating Passionate Users blog, I came across this interesting post from last March: Ultra-fast release cycles and the new plane. The post is about the growing popularity of extremely short turn arounds between versions that has become characteristic of web2.0-type development - what O'Reilly called the permanent beta. This is an issue we discuss in our office quite a bit.

We have some users who demand rapid release. They feel that if they find a small bug on Monday, dream up a new piece of functionality they'd like on Wednesday, and want the menus reorganized on Friday, they should certainly be allowed three versions that week. After all, they're paying. What about the increased risk of defects? Well, they don't mind... they'll report them and they will be fixed in the next rapid release.

On the other hand, we have users who despise the rapid release. These clients expect us to organize their requests, implement them all, test them all, and give them an upgrade once or twice a year at most. Installing any more often, they've told us, complicates user training and increases the risk that a new release will break something that was already working. Far from demanding rapid release, they see it as a lack of professionalism.

How do we understand this difference? In the Creating Passionate Users piece, Kathy Sierra talks about the short-release trend as a "cultural" one. She's focusing on the youthful subscribers to the Myspace website, her model of the rapid release project. So she focuses on factors relating to youth culture. What she does not dwell on is that Myspace is fundementally different from business software - it is not critical to most users' bottom lines.

Let's look at this "cultural" difference among the staff of non-profit organizations using our Members Only software. It seems to me the difference here hinges on the perception of real costs and real risks associated with installing a new version. These costs and risks actually differ significantly between organizations, so the evolution of different cultures around software installation is not at all irrational. It has to do with the organization's size (in number of users, and in number of locations) and the level of activity (How many transactions go through the software in an average day.) Large organization using software for mission critical purposes are aware of the costs of training and of the bottom-line impact of a significant defect, and therefore want to minimize the number of training and testing cycles they expose themselves to.

Where does you organization fit on this spectrum? Are you happy to use a permanent beta? Are new features on a regular basis worth encountering bugs you will need to report? Are you the kind of user who is always pushing for the next update, or are you loathe to install them? What factors have shaped your attitudes?

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Siguida Keneyali

When Doria and I were in Mali earlier this month, we found that our nephew Fodé Camara had started to work with a group called Siguida Keneyali - Health in Our Homes - an organization working to improve health in Sikoroni, the poorest Quartier in Bamako. While we were there, we had a chance to talk to Fodé and his colleagues Caitlin Cohen and Modibo Niang about the organization and its approach. And Fodé and Niang took us on a stroll through the neighborhood, where we were always surrounded by the exuberant kids of this village.

The organization is guided by a local board with deep roots in the community.Fodé emphasized the grassroots nature of the organization:
Siguida is a shift from the top down practices common in this type of development effort to a more participatory approach where the community is involved in identifying project goals, and in the design and the management of the project while taking in to account the local cultures and traditions.
A preliminary health survey showed that by far the most serious problem confronting the village is malaria, and that is the area where work will begin. In an email, Caitlin shared the survey results with me and pointed out a group of questions that revealed the low level of health knowledge and information among Sikoro residents. There's no doubt a health education component will be key to the project's success. The renovation of an old community center to serve as a library and discussion place should help in this effort.

Check out the Siguida ' website - there are lots of ways you can help this great community effort.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Andrea Parhamovich

Everyone on our office was saddened to learn today of the death of Andrea Parhamovich in Baghdad. Andrea was there working with the National Democratic Institute, training on election norms and other democratic practices. She was 28.

Three members of the NDI security detail were also killed when their convoy was attacked as they left a meeting with Sunni politicians - the names of the security personnel have not yet been released.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, currently the chair of NDI, is quoted on the NDI website as saying:
There is no more sacred roll of honor than those who have given their last full measure in support of freedom. Yesterday, in Iraq, Andrea Parhamovich and our security personnel were enshrined on that list. They did not see themselves as heroes, only people doing a job on behalf of a cause they believed in. They were not the enemies of anyone in Iraq; they were there to help. Now, the prayers of all of us at NDI are with them and with their families. We pledge to do everything that is within our power to see that they did not die in vain. We will honor their example, keep alive their memory, and carry on their work.
NDI sent us a link to this story about Andrea in the LA Times. The article quotes a former co-worker of Andrea's at Air America, the liberal comedy radio network as saying:
She had to go to the heart of the war and create change and understanding. She was so obstinate in her efforts to create change. Nothing could stop her."

The National Democratic Institute "works with democrats in every region of the world to build political and civic organizations, safeguard elections, and promote citizen participation, openness and accountability in government." NDI has been a client of ours for many years. The tragedy of Andrea's death underscores for us just how important their work is.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Microformats anyone?

NTEN LogoThe 2007 Non-Profit Technology Conference is coming to my town! Yup, it's April 4-6 in Washington, D.C. I had a great time traveling to Seattle for last year's meeting, but it will be very pleasant to just roll out of my own bed and wander up the hill for muffins and coffee! Members Only Software will be participating in the science fair (nothings changed in my life in 50 years, has it?) and I've been asked to host a session on Microformats. Here's what the organizers have in mind:

Microformats Are the New Tags

But are they a flash in the tech pan, or are they here to last? Microformats are the latest attempt to address the most important hurdle in technology - data sharing. This session will address how they work, why they may be better for data sharing, and whether or not they will last.


  1. Definition of microformat
  2. Understanding of how they can be used with tags and other similar technologies
  3. Examples of how and where microformats are being used now

Session Tags:

Web2.0 Webmasters Opensource
I've already got cautions and quibbles with this intro - but that's what gets discussion going. Speaking of which: I'd love to find a few collaborators for this session. So if you have experience using Microformats, or if you have strong ideas about the should be or could be used, please drop me a note as soon as you can. I've written just briefly about microformats here and here in this blog.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Over my morning coffee

Five Things, redux
I felt vaguely weird responding to the five-things game yesterday... so I was pleased to see that Jeff Atwood, author of the Coding Horror blog, also had complex feelings about responding. Which he did in a novel way. Look at that office: I guess he isn't working primarily for non-profits! He writes a great blog on software engineering and design though. He has a tendency to stop and ponder issues that are easy to pass right over, like last week's thoughtful post on the selection of default values in software applications. It really makes sense. When we add new features, we usually set them off by default. But if a particular setting is one you think best for most of your users, shouldn't that be the default configuration?

The digital life
Kilkat at Geeks are Sexy points readers to an article in Information Week that documents of the use of cell phones and pcs by toddlers as young as two. According to this piece, 15% of children age 2-5 in the United States use cell phones.

A Washington Post story, just a day earlier, focuses on the surrender of privacy that is implied in many of the high-tech conveniences that have become commonplace over the last few years - from EZPass to GPS to online shopping.

Security vs Panache?
The non-profits we work with are always trying to pack more punch into their communications with supporters. We've seen more and more of them adopt graphics-rich HTML mailings newsletters to help them get their message across. Which is why I felt that Brian Krebs' position in this Washington Post blog just wasn't going to sway a lot of readers. It's true that active emails can try to sneak around security measures - but I don't think users are going to go back to the plain-text for their critical constituent communications. It's Windows fault if just reading an email can trash my pc, and Microsoft needs to fix it - that's what I bet most users will say. What do you think?

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I've been tagged!

Still catching up on reading all my blogging chums last month's posts after my big trip, and I just noticed that I've been tagged by Michelle Murraine of Zen and the Art of Non-Profit Technology in a game of revealing five things most people don't know about me / and then I've got to tag five others - who hopefully have not been already caught up in this excercise.

1) I've been practicing zazen (zen meditation) since I was in my twenties.
2) The two things I miss most about my month in Africa are the call to prayer, and being awakened by roosters every morning.
3) I've never seen a single episode of any TV show considered a reality show!
4) Between the two of us, my wife and I have four fiddles, four drums, a banjo, a guitar, a mandolin, and a uke, not to mention various whistles, shakers, harmonicas and jew's harps.
5) For several years I was a bagel baker in a commercial bakery

So whom should I tag? It seems many many of the people in the nptech community have been hit by this one already... I'll try to find five who may not know I read their blogs - people I've never linked to or contacted directly...

Siel, the Green LA Girl
Andrea Rusin, from A Small Group of Thoughtful, Concerned Citizens.
Rachel Barenblatt, of The Velvateen Rabbi
Ed Batista
Emeka Okafor, of Timbuktu Chronicles


Friday, January 12, 2007

GeekCorps Mali

It was my last afternoon in Mali, as I started psychic re-entry process into my normal existence, that I remembered that in real life, hey, I'm a geek. So I dropped by the offices of GeekCorps Mali, which as it turned out was just around the corner from where I was staying at Rebecca and Fode's house in the Quartier Hippodrome. And project director Matt Berg took time to show me around their labs and talk to me about their work.

GeekCorps Mali (GCM) is a USAID-funded project whose mission is to provide appropriate technology, technology transfer, and technical assistance in Mali. Matt showed me some of their innovations in the "appropriate technology" arena and they knocked my socks off. Like Bottlenet - a Wifi antenna built out of low-cost, locally available components and assembled in one of Mali's ubiquitous 1.5 liter mineral water bottles.

When we visited some villages in the Malian countryside I was surprised that children always asked us for our empy water bottles, till I saw them in use at local wells, where girls were refilling them from the pump. In the village of Amani in Dogon Country some Fulani women sold us a few liters of fresh cow's milk in a couple of these water bottles. (wow - was that good - and really helped to settle my stomache, which was somewhat agitated after days of pouring hot Malian pepper sauce on everything I ate.) Then I saw them being used with their bottoms cut off as funnels and as spigots on wells. But using them as a wave guide takes it to an entirely new level.

Another problem we witnessed first hand in Timbuktu is the near impossibility of keeping the Sahelian dust and sand out of computers. Geekcorps has addressed this by designing the Desert PC, a completely sealed system unit employing a low-power CPU and a heat-sink system that in effect uses a built in "radiator" rather than a fan to cool the device. Largely based on Geekcorps award-winning desgin, Via Technologies, whose components Geekcorps used in their prototype, is now selling the PC1 for use in desert conditions.

Matt also stressed that on all their projects GCM uses Malian volunteers - so that the tech skills employed will be transfered to folks living in the country. The big success story in this area is a young man named Moussa Keita, who has gone on from his volunteer work with GCM to found his own web development company, Zirasun.

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