Thursday, February 03, 2005

Technology, Serendipity and Social Change

The common wisdom is that nonprofit executives are overworked, busy with the details of running their organizations and, when they think about technology, they should concentrate on the appopriate uses of it. Often, that translates into thinking about technology infrastructure, a basic web presence and some fundraising and outreach.

I'm starting to think that isn't the right answer.

I'm starting to think that maybe nonprofits should be on technological edges. They should, in fact, purposely position themselves so that they can take advantage of potential for the benefit of social change.

What potential? I have no idea.

I try and parse out my own attraction to bright shiny things in thinking about this. And that's hard. Actually, it's very hard.

By making sure that nonprofits are taking advantage of innovation, they have the opportunity to move technologies and change in specific directions. Certainly, this happened with the Dean Campaign and their use of DeanSpace, now CivicSpace Labs. Technology, and being open to it, helped to take the campaign in ways in would not have gone without it.

I'm not arguing, here, that serendipity is a technology plan. I'm thinking that it is an opportunity that should be considered in addition to proven benefits.

So how can nonprofits position themselves to take advantage of potential:

  • Open APIs. If they develop a web presence that has any application functionalities (this could include a database), they should make sure that they are using a CMS that allows for an openAPI so that it is possible to interact with their content, data and any applications that might be available on their website.
  • XML, RDF, Atom, RSS, Syndication. Any of these batch of words may be used to explain a process by which people can subscribe to a website with an aggregator. It also allows the publication of headlines on others sites. In one way to set content -- and your ideas -- free. You never know how people are going to use stuff.
  • Utilize a Creative Commons license. People using your stuff spreads your ideas and that is a huge part of engaging with all of the different available constituency. And, this is of course a serendipity key, you never know how they are going to use it.
  • Open Source your internal applications. You have a specialized database that you've build to handle case management functions? Open source it. Give it a license that allows it to be used and modified by others and then, just like everything else in this list, set it free. People may build on it in interesting and beneficial ways.
  • Encourage others to experiment with your data. This is, in my opinion, what OCLC is doing with their software contest. Again, they don't know what the results will be but there is a good chance they are going to be interesting.

How else can nonprofits position themselves, technologically speaking, to take advantage of the unexpected, of opportunity?

(in: opportunity, potential, social_change, technology)