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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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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Asthma Free School Zones

One really simple way to use less fuel and improve air quality is to avoid using your vehicle's engine - except when driving. Seems simple enough, but our friends at New York's Asthma Free School Zones have been finding it quite a challenge to get this message across. Focusing on the idling of school buses in front of elementary schools, the organization has been able to demonstrate that the air quality at the schools is measurably worse than just a few blocks away. And statistics show a mounting rate of childhood asthma. So remember - idling gets you nowhere. Here's a recent clip about the organization's work from News 12. For more information, you can contact AFSZ at 212-533-6615


Friday, October 19, 2007

Networking and News Sites scramble to keep up with Facebook.

So in this blog and elsewhere there's been a lot of hullabaloo about Facebook lately. If you weren't sure that this was a herald of a real change in how people expect to use the web, take a look at these four announcements from other major web players.

1) Google:
Back last month, TechCrunch reported that google was getting ready for an announcement about an open developer's API that would compete with the attention that the Facebook Platform is getting from developers.
The short version: Google will announce a new set of APIs on November 5 that will allow developers to leverage Google’s social graph data. They’ll start with Orkut and iGoogle (Google’s personalized home page), and expand from there to include Gmail, Google Talk and other Google services over time.
2)LinkedIn, the professional networking site that often seems like little more than a sharable rolodex, has an announcement of its own. BITS reported on October 12th that LinkedIn CEO Dan Nye is "rushing to copy the electronic underpinnings of Facebook’s elegant application programming interface, or A.P.I., that allows outside developers to weave their own programs into its site." But to preserve the all-business-all-the-time feeling of the popular site (current growth is at 1 million new accounts every 25 days) Nye has vowed:
“We have no interest in doing it like Facebook with an open A.P.I. letting people do whatever they want,” Mr. Nye said. “We’re not going to have people sending electronic hamburgers to each other.”
3) MSNBC meanwhile ran a report that it had purchased social news site Newsvine. Newsvine is not as well none as social news innovator Digg, where users rank stories and push them to the "front page". But as MSNBC reported,
the site has generated significant buzz since its launch in March 2006 because of its inventive merger of mainstream reporting from The Associated Press and ESPN; the contributions of individual users, who are paid for their writing; and the social media model of user-driven ranking of the news.
4) MySpace, Facebooks's most direct competitor, has decided that it too needs to be more like it's college-educated sibling. They've recently announced a Myspace platform, with structures and capabilities strikingly like those of it's rival.
The new developer platform... will essentially be a set of APIs and a new markup language that will allow third party developers to create applications that run within MySpace. Developers will be able to include Flash applets, iFrame elements and Javascript snippets in their applications, and access most of the core MySpace resources (profile information, friend list, activity history, etc.). Applications will need to be hosted on MySpace servers.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Measuring the Return from of Social Media.

A few years ago, when web tools were just beginning to allow the interactive environments we're seeing everywhere today, I wrote a piece called Bread and Butter 2.0. In it I juxtaposed the excitement technologists were trying to communicate about web 2.0 features with the more prosaic "bread and butter" technology issues that non-profits were struggling with. But times have changed - and more organizations are learning that social media can help deliver those bread and butter goals of building and maintaining a base of donors, volunteers, and supporters. And importantly, the return on investment in these technologies can be measured in terms of donations, page views, and names who receive your updates.

For example, the ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) just ran an article called Expand your Audience through Social Media. Largely an interview with Jonathon Colman of The Nature Conservancy, the article focuses on how building trust and presence in online communities can build actual, countable page views on your website: Jonathon describes a campaign where his social networking promotion of a website article earned it 16 thousand views in a single day. Seems pretty bread and butter to me.

Fundraisers are starting to pay attention to social media as well. An article in Fundraising Success describes the efforts of numerous organizations in integrating special media into their marketing and development plan. Life Rolls On Foundation is an L.A. based charity that serves people with spinal chord injuries. Their efforts focused around starting a MySpace page and delivering news, updates, donation requests, and invitations to events to their MySpace community. By now, that community totals over 11,000 friends! This is a list few development directors would turn up their noses at.

Involvement in these new media should not be seen as a hazy excursion into a new-age realm of vaguely possible intangible benefits. Social media involvement can be a core part of your marketing and development efforts. And you should expect to use simple metrics to assess their success - donations, subscribers, page views. You may discover these new tools are pretty bread and butter after all.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Facebook Developers Garage

Last week I attended the Facebook Developers Garage in DC. I'd pictured it as a room with a bunch of developers at tables, laptops open, showing off the ways they'd managed to build useful tools using the Facebook Platform or API. Instead, it was largely a presentation by folks from the Facebook Platform team - Ami Vora and Ezra Callahan. The evening made clear the excitement, both inside and outside Facebook, that the open platform is generating, as well as the general confusion about what would constitute a truly useful Facebook app and how a developer would monetize it.

Facebook's rate of growth alone make developers want to be associated with it. Currently at about 45 million users, the service is adding about 250,000 users each day. Half of all Facebook users visit the site every day. And despite Facebook's origins as a university-based site, these new users are predominantly older. To attract the developer community, the vc's associated with Facebook have created fbFund, which makes small seed grants ($25K-$250K) to help development groups get a project launched.

Success with the Facebook framework brings its own challenges. TJ Murphy of Freewebs spoke about the experience he had with the Warbook game he wrote. It rapidly picked up 87,000 users, half of whom played ever day. Third party developers are required to host their own apps. So TJ found himself scrambling to scale up: currently the game is hosted at Amazon.

It's the chance of getting in front of audiences this size that is attractive to organizations trying to build their brand. How to do it is the open question. Most third party apps to date have been social entertainments: tools to share music, or book reviews, for example, or utilities to enhance the poking and posting functions of the site. Some of these are quite nice: I really enjoy Christain Montoya's Social Tags application.

But when a member of the audience took the mike to ask how many of the developers in the room were thinking of using the platform to develop a customized presence for individual client organizations who wanted to leverage the popularity and stickiness of the site, I saw no hands but mine. And the people I chatted with at the event seemed to be primarily developers... I met only one representative of a non-profit who was there to explore the possibility of extending the presence of his org via Facebook.

Despite the confusion at this early point, I think it is clear that social networking is going to play an increasing role in non-profit strategies in the near future - and that Facebook, with its developers platform and huge user base, will be a focus of this networking.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

To err is human.

Michelle Murraine, of The Zen of Non-Profit Technology, is hosting the non-profit blog carnival this week and wrote to remind me of the topic. It's a good one:
We all make mistakes in our work with clients. What mistakes have you learned the most from? How do you deal with making mistakes?
We develop application software for non-profit clients. In our work, there are three basic kinds of mistakes we can make. And being human, of course we've made all four. We can make a technical errors: a bug in a program, or a server that is incorrectly configured. Or we can give a client bad technology advice -- for example researching and recommending a third party product that proves to be inadequate to the task.

Errors of these two types this are bound to happen now and then in technology consulting. When everyone involved knows from the very beginning of the engagement that errors can and will occur -- and that errors will be fixed -- these technical errors really present no problem to the long-range consulting relationship.

A written procedure that discusses how such problems are to be reported and how errors will be corrected can go a long way toward building customer trust that the vendor or consultant is poised to fix anything that goes wrong in a complex project. And at times when error discovery might be particularly worrying to the client - during a training, or right at launch - describing problem detection and correction as an integral part of the process will lower client anxiety if a problem is found.

Finally, totally honesty on the part of the vendor or consultant is essential.
By doing so you are not only helping to fix the immediate problem, but setting a tone that will improve the entire relationship. Remember, the next mistake might be made by the client. And you certainly want to create a context where they feel free to admit their mistake to you.

But far more serious than technical errors are mistakes that arise out of flawed ways of working. Paradoxically, this third type of mistake -- procedural errors - can often come from unrealistic or ill-thought-out efforts at pleasing the client.

Sometimes you may over-promise in order to land a hot new project. Or you may find yourself bending the truth about budgets and schedules to alleviate a long-time client's anxiety. "Its going to be hard to have the website ready to launch by the 15th, but we will try". Or you may be giving in to what we like to call the Hot Dog syndrome, where you are blatantly showing off how quickly and easily you can do something the client has asked for. It's just human nature to find yourself a flirting with a client or co-worker now and then - , but don't issue a SQL Delete at such a moment! I speak from experience.

You can't always tell that you are giving in to these bad instincts when you are in their grip. It just seems that you are trying to do what the client has asked for. So we've learned that it's important to have procedures and practices in place that force your brain into gear. Small consultancies are typically very light on such procedures -- they slow you down and involve more people at every step - but they can save you and your clients a lot of pain.

For example, we have a rule that two people must approve any estimate for software development. Or that before your run a script to do some manipulation to a client's production database, you need to try it on the TEST installation. Or that someone other than the programmer needs to test any customizations before we release them. These structures help guarantee that clients really get the fruit of our experience.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

International Bloggers Day for Burma

Free Burma!

For resources on the struggle against the repressive military government in Burma in the US go t0 the US Campaign for Burma.

Some useful links:

Brian Alexander has an interesting post on the role of mobile phones and web technology in the mobilization of the movement within Burma. Among other things, he points out the YouTube channel of video's from the Burmese struggle.

The Mizzima News is a site specializing in information, photographs, and multimedia coming out of Burma.

To track Burmese bloggers, at home or abroad, keep your eye on Global Voices.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Network Neutrality and AT&T

The fight over Net Neutrality - the idea that Internet providers should remain neutral regarding the information or applications served over their networks, has been dealt an explicit blow in the new AT&T terms of service, as brought to my attention in a Boing-Boing post by Cory Doctorow. Paragraph 5.1 of this document warns that service can be cut "for conduct AT&T believes tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries."
So AT&T customers aren't allowed to write/podcast/vlog critical things about AT&T, its billing-practices, or its cooperation with illegal NSA wiretapping, on pain of having their connections disconnected.
Generally we've thought of this issue in terms of what services and programming would be available over a vendor's pipeline. But when a major corporation like AT&T simply protects its own reputation -- at first glance an irreproachable act -- the freedom to communicate over the net is significantly compromised.

The wikipedia article on Network Neutrality gives a nice introductory survey to this issue.