Blogs

Capitalizing on a Wealth of Data: The First Steps

This post was originally published on the Markets for Good blog. 
We all know a wealth of useful data exists online, in various publications, or hidden away in public archives. Initiatives—often local or focused on a particular sector—have emerged over time to collect and report that data and apply the findings to particular areas of interest. But there’s a bigger story this data can tell. What happens in Nebraska or New Mexico might make a difference in Nova Scotia or the Netherlands. 
The problem is, how do you find that information—or even know what exists? And who knows what else we can learn by seeing all of these initiatives side by side?
Last month we told you about an ongoing research project we were conducting with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today we’re pleased to show you what we’ve been working on with the launch of our new microsite, Results Data Initiative: Charting the Known World
We’re especially pleased to unveil the site in partnership with our friends at Markets for Good, who have led a number of efforts to standardize and share data. We designed it to allow people to explore the various initiatives our research uncovered and to see the distribution across different sectors, data storage and sharing activities, attributes such as whether the information is public or represented in a dashboard, and geographic focus. You can also filter and compare the level of public awareness of each initiative among its peers, learn more about each initiative’s mission, and follow links to initiative websites. You can even download the data for your own use. 
Below is a snapshot of how the 309 initiatives we found fit together. To dig deeper, visit the full site at initiatives.marketsforgood.org and take some time to explore. Questions? Email resultsdata@idealware.org.
 
 

 

Best of the Web: February 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.

We Need More Data Talent (Markets for Good)

What organizations can learn from collecting and analyzing data is powerful. But nonprofits cannot offer the salaries or perks to compete with Silicon Valley. Andrew Means of Impact Lab thinks the only way for the nonprofit sector to gain the talent it needs is for organizations to develop it from within.

The Buzz About Tumblr (Mashable and Nonprofit Tech for Good)

There’s been a lot of talk about Tumblr lately. According to Mashable, its new tools and interface make it easier than ever to write and read long-form posts. For organizations considering using Tumblr, or if you just want to see what other nonprofits are doing on the web, check out these must-follow nonprofits collected by Nonprofit Tech for Good.

Would you Donate Data? (Markets for Good)

Your data is valuable. Social media IPOs have certainly proven that. But what can nonprofits do with personal data and what protections should be in place to protect their members and constituents? Anya Skatova and James Goulding of Nottingham University discuss the pros and cons.

Boosting Facebook Success (Idealware, Fast Company, Frogloop)

Facebook can feel like a rabbit hole. You can spend a lot of time posting content and chasing followers only to find yourself in the dark. Here are a few ways to keep your Facebook page delivering results. From Idealware, a blog post that looks at how to maximize your opportunity to be seen without paying for impressions. Fast Company looks at a little-known tool that can teach you a lot about what works on Facebook and what doesn’t. And Frogloop considers whether Facebook is surpassing YouTube in video.

Timing is Everything in Social Media (Social Media Today and Lifehacker)

If a tweet is sent, but no one is online to read it, does it exist? A couple of articles this month can help you make sure your tweets, and other social media, have a chance. Social Media Today shows in an infographic how often you should post content on various social media channels. And Lifehacker recommends—based on user data—the best times to post videos to YouTube.

Meet Ross, the IBM Watson-Powered Lawyer (PSFK)

Legal aid organizations will be interested in learning that a new Watson-powered supercomputer can help them find laws and precedents to use in the defense of their clients. But any sector that is complex and data rich may be able to benefit from a similar innovation.

Lifehacker Faceoff: The Best Password Managers, Compared (Lifehacker)

If you have too many passwords to remember, you may need a password manager. With all your passwords all in one place, all you need to remember is one password to unlock them.

All CRM Systems Still Need a Database Manager (IT for Charities)

Systems such as Salesforce have made many nonprofits more efficient and better at fundraising. But without someone watching over the CRM system, Ivan Wainewright warns that headaches may be ahead.

Technology Planning and Capacity Building (Idealware and Idealware)

As the northeast digs out of yet another storm, Laura Quinn contemplates the importance of planning your technology moves (or risk getting stuck later). And Kyle Andrei passes on what foundations have told him that they’re looking for in a technology grant.

Connecting with the Dots (Source)

Points on a graph or numbers in a chart can feel dehumanizing—both for the people who work with them and those who are presented data as proof of impact. Jake Harris examines the problem and offers his take on how to design empathy into your data.

Nonprofit Communication Trends to Expect in 2015 (Frogloop)

“According to the 2015 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, by NonprofitMarketingGuide.com, nonprofits are becoming more confident and more intentional about reaching out to target audiences, raising money, and retaining donors through engagement.”

Bill Gates Is About To Unveil The Most Powerful Tool In The History of Social Activism (Forbes)

Gates is at work creating a massive database to match up socially conscious individuals to organizations where they can do the most good.

DIY Health Care Through Your Phone (NPR and Engadget)

NPR reports on new apps that give teens easier access to mental health help. And Engadget shows how a dongle created by Columbia University researchers can allow anyone to test for HIV in 15 minutes. These are just two of the latest examples of how apps are bringing expertise and data to everyone, often at a much lower cost than traditional service models.

Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org.


 
 

 

 

Tips and Techniques for Making Good Webinars: Engaging Your Audience

Unlike in a live training, where you have a (mostly) captive audience, it’s easier for participants in a webinar to wander off. Most people who have attended a webinar are guilty of at least checking their email or Facebook during the presentation. It’s very easy to get distracted when you aren’t physically in the same room as the presenter. The key then, is to make webinars that the audience wants to pay attention to. A tall order. 

So, how do you make a more engaging webinar?
  1. Get them interacting. The more your participants participate in a webinar, the more engaged they’ll be. Asking people to share their personal experiences, asking questions, taking polls, or showing a little bit of humor can help “break the ice” so your audience will jump in and stay involved.

  2. Have interesting slides. Powerpoint has gotten a bad reputation over the years, which is understandable to anyone who’s had to sit through countless presentations and lectures with wordy, ugly slides. With a webinar, slides are pretty much your only option, so you have to learn to make them better and more compelling. While you should use a set template for presentations, avoid having every slide look the same. The audience needs a visual cue that the slide has changed so that they know there's something new to pay attention to. Use images generously, but make sure that they support the text, rather than distract from it. A splash of color can brighten your slides as long as they're still readable on all displays (high contrast helps a lot here). Most importantly, use less text. Limit yourself to only one concept or point per slide.

  3. Increase the number of slides. For people accustomed to live presentations, this can be a shock when moving to a webinar. In a live seminar, the audience can rely on your body language and activity to stay engaged, which lets you spend several minutes per slide. But with a webinar, more slides (which, as in #2, should be shorter) are better. The rule Idealware follows is to have a new slide every one to two minutes, which averages out to about 60 slides for a 90-minute webinar. This will probably feel like more slides than you think you should use, but with practice, this faster pace will feel more natural and comfortable.

  4. Break up the class into digestible sections. It can be hard to follow along for an hour and a half and retain all the information. It’s helpful to break up your webinar into sections—about 10 to 15 minutes each—that focus on one concept or topic at a time. In addition to making it easier to follow along, breaking up the session lets you take time for a Q&A session or other interaction in between, giving your audience more opportunities to discuss the content or otherwise participate.

  5. Call for questions often. If a participant comes in with his or her One Big Question, but they have to wait 90 minutes for a Q&A session at the end, they’re spending that time thinking about their question, rather than the lesson. Or, as people have grown accustomed to these long webinars where they must hold their questions until the end, it’s easy for them to drift off or start doing other things—eating lunch, checking email, updating Facebook—instead of paying attention. However, if they know and expect the presenter to be calling on them for questions throughout, they’re more likely to pay attention to what’s being said.

For a more in-depth discussion about how to make your webinars more engaging, consider joining How to Build a Better WebinarA Toolkit For Nonprofits. This four-week course takes place every Tuesday from February 17 to March 10 and each session last 90 minutes. Sign up here to get started developing webinars that your audience will value and remember.

 

 

Tips and Techniques for Making Good Webinars: Transitioning From Live Sessions to Leading Webinars

Running a webinar isn’t like giving a live presentation—it’s an entirely different beast. A speaker who is normally wonderful at leading in-person seminars may struggle to lead a webinar. It takes a lot of practice to transition between the two. Here are a few tips to help you lead better webinars.

  1. Get used to the deafening silence. When you’re presenting in front of a live audience, you’re constantly getting feedback from participants' body language. But in a webinar you only have a screen to work with. The best webinar presenters are able to put aside their need  for visual cues and find other opportunities for engagement.
     
  2. Learn to call for questions more often. Because you can no longer rely on reading the audience’s body language, you have to actively call for feedback. As we've mentioned in previous posts, you need to ask questions more often than you would for a live presentation. In addition to getting feedback from participants, you’ll also be fostering a more engaging and ultimately more valuable discussion in the process.
     
  3. Check for comprehension through the chat feature. In a webinar where 40 or more people can listen in, it’s difficult to let everyone actually speak up. That’s why it’s important to make use of the chat feature. The process of asking a question, then someone deciding to unmute the phone, respond, try to talk at the same time as someone else, then mute again—it can take a lot of time out of your presentation. By having everyone respond in the chat, or through a poll, you can save a lot of time and get feedback from more participants. To make best use of the chat, train yourself to glance at it while presenting and scan for any questions or signs of confusion from the audience.
     
  4. Use your slides to draw people into the conversation. As we talked about in this previous post, the slides you use are an important part of keeping your audience engaged. Slides that are dynamic, are visually interesting, or make people laugh can help keep your audience tuned in. The takeaway here is to make your webinar stand out by showing the audience that you relate to the fact that, yes, webinars are hard to pay attention to because they are not live sessions.
     
  5. The slides need to be the centerpiece. It bears repeating that webinars are not like live trainings. In a live presentation, you, the presenter, are the centerpiece, the focus of everyone’s attention. You’re standing up, talking, moving around, gesturing wildly…well, not wildly, but certainly you’re animated. In a webinar though, people can only hear you. But not everyone is good at learning only by listening. You need to stimulate them at multiple different levels—visually, aurally, and cognitively. Just one approach won’t be effective for every participant. you need to use all three together.
     
  6. You need to find voice cues to replace the visual ones. The cues and expressions you normally rely on your body language and gestures to convey are useless in a webinar. And, if we're being honest, it’s a little disconcerting to hear a disembodied voice speaking to you from your computer. So, try to humanize yourself. This can be as simple as putting up your headshot at the beginning of the presentation so that the audience can put a face to your voice. Ideally though, you want to practice conveying emotions through your voice, rather than through body language. Practice leading a webinar to an empty phone line, record it, and listen to the recording. How can your voice sound more natural? What does excitement sound like? How can you make your questions and prompts more engaging?
Webinars shouldn’t be scary, and everyone takes a while to find his or her voice. With practice and patience, you too can become a master presenter.
 

For an in-depth discussion about how to make your webinars more engaging, consider joining How to Build a Better Webinar: A Toolkit For Nonprofits. This four-week course takes place every Tuesday from February 17 to March 10 and each session last 90 minutes. Sign up here to get started developing webinars that your audience will value and remember.




 

Facebook Success: Tips for Boosting Organic Reach

Many organizations have noticed that their Facebook engagement is declining. Being any type of brand on Facebook is challenging, and it always has been, but for nonprofit organizations that don't have the resources to sponsor posts or advertise on social media, it's especially hard to get noticed. So how do you make the most out of your organization's organic (unpaid) social media posts? 

Here are a few things you can try:

  • Post timing – Facebook Insights provides interesting data about when your fans are online. You can take a look at your own statistics by going to your page’s insights and clicking on the “posts” tab. You might be surprised to find that even though you post when you are at work, most of your fans like to log on just before bed, or vice-versa. Your audience’s time zone can also have a big impact on when they pull up Facebook.  Remember that you can always schedule posts ahead of time if your schedules do not match up.

  • Post frequency – If you are in the habit of posting multiple times per-day (a common thing to do on Twitter, for example), try scaling back to once or twice per day and see if your results improve. A few unique and well thought out posts will almost certainly be better than a string of average posts. If you are only posting once per week, consider developing a content calendar and scheduling more frequent posts. Our workbook, A Practical Guide to Integrated Communications, can help.

  • Photos – Photos don’t have to be memes or infographics to catch people’s eyes as they scroll down their news feed. A simple shot of your office, some volunteers out in the field, or people at your event can increase performance drastically. Thanks to the quality of phone cameras these days, anyone can take social media ready shots at a moment’s notice.

  • Videos – Videos are a bit more time-consuming than photos, but the results are often worth it. Whether you use YouTube or Facebook Videos to post them doesn’t seem to make a tremendous difference in viewership. With Facebook Pages’ new redesign, previous videos and photos show up more prominently, so it may be worth uploading a video just to Facebook to test the results for yourself.

  • News and Timely Posts – You may have noticed a “trending topics” feed on the side of your Facebook page lately. If you can tie one of your posts to these topics, it will be given a slightly higher ranking on your followers’ feeds. Starting a timely discussion around something important to your community is another sure-fire way to get your fans talking to each other, which is the best way of all to increase engagement.

  • Lists and Mysterious Headlines – You may roll your eyes whenever you see an “Upworthy” headline, but they work in getting people to click. Buzzfeed style lists work similarly. They both give the audience enough information to be tantalized, but not enough to actually know what the content is. Naturally, they want to find out, so they click. The only rule with these is to follow through with your promise. If you say that your article is the most “amazing, incredible, jaw dropping revelation ever,” it had better be a pretty astounding discovery or you won’t get those clicks when you try it again.

  • Contests and Freebies – Who doesn’t love free stuff? Consider trying a photo contest to boost your page visits and increase your roster of photos at once. The rules around what types of contests you can run on Facebook are always changing, so do your research before jumping in.

  • Tell your audience to like and share – It might feel weird at first, but ending a post with “please share” really can get you more shares. Again, this is a power you shouldn’t abuse. Save it for your most important posts. If you are trying to boost your number of page likes, consider asking your current fans to spread the word about how great your page is. You can also ask your fans to opt-in to receive notifications every time you post, but only your most hardcore fans are likely to do it.

What have your experiences been? Any tips to add? Let us know in the comments.

For more social media tips, especially if you're a beginner or looking to reboot your social media efforts, join our free webinar: 10 #Social Media Tactics to Do More With Less.

Lessons from Foundations on Technology Capacity Building

Idealware has written extensively about funding technology projects—see A Funders Guide to Supporting Technology and Funding Technology Projects for proof of that. Technology in and of itself won’t save lives or end world hunger, but the right technology can build an organization’s overall effectiveness and efficiency, multiplying the impact of its work.

However, many foundations are still reluctant to support technology projects. We spoke to a few foundations that award grants for technology capacity building to find out what lessons they’ve learned on what makes technology projects succeed or fail. 

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

One family foundation inquired with a current grantee about funding its social media efforts. In addition to a grant, the foundation offered several resources and examples to help the grantee, the producers of a documentary film series, determine what sort of social media capacity-building project would further its mission—to help viewers take action in their communities. The details of the project were left up to the grantee, which was asked to provide up to five ideas it might want to explore. 

However, the grantee never replied to the foundation with its ideas and the social media capacity-building funds ultimately fell through. Perhaps social media wasn’t as important to the organization as the foundation hoped. Or maybe it just wasn’t interested enough in capacity-building to put in the work that the foundation expected of them. The point is, the granting foundation doesn't know why the organization never pursued this opportunity. The grantee never communicated how this idea fell short and what might work better. As a result, it may have missed a big opportunity. 

Make the Most of Feedback  

When a large organization had trouble reporting effectively on key indicators for a policy program, one of its foundation funders grew concerned. The foundation raised the issue with the organization's leadership, which prompted an in-depth tech assessment.

The findings were troubling. IT was failing the organization. In addition to limiting the grantee’s ability to effectively report on metrics for this particular program, the study uncovered IT issues that affected other departments. As a result of the assessment, the organization developed an extensive and detailed tech road map, which included the creation of a new VP of IT. 

While the grantee organization was already well-funded and prepared to carry on with the IT plan independently, the foundation decided to expand its grant to include support for this capacity-building project. This gesture was a powerful statement about the importance of technology systems to relationships between grantors and grantees. Not only was the foundation willing to fund capacity building, it was eager to do so because it meant solving problems that affected the success of both organizations.

Start by Building Capacity Where It’s Needed Most

Sometimes it can be difficult for organizations to identify the real cause of their technology capacity issues. One foundation learned this first-hand when one of its grantees, a citizen science group, had trouble with volunteer recruitment and retention. 

This organization was rebuilding its volunteer recruitment and training program after staff turnover left gaps in its volunteer coordination efforts. At the time, its volunteer outreach and scheduling was done through an older chat group, which was separate from the system used to track volunteers. Instead, it wanted to move those efforts to social media. The organization contacted the foundation for help identifying what platform (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) made the most sense for its needs. 

However, when a representative from the foundation took stock of the organization’s existing technology, the real issue became clear—the old, custom-built database serving as a volunteer management system was clearly not meeting the organization’s needs.

Know Your Limits

While we want to help all organizations build their technology capacity, the fact is that not all technology projects will be successful. Ultimately, foundations need to evaluate how ready a grantee is for capacity building.

A foundation focused on funding environmental and conservation efforts told us about a well-informed, well-prepared proposal sent by a grantee that wanted to use technology for the monitoring and enforcement of a vast protected area. This organization had clearly spent a great deal of thought researching the technology available and had developed strong relationships with community leaders who could help implement the plan.

However, while the expense to develop the plan was reasonable, the cost to implement the technology was much larger—nearly twice the organization's entire budget. The foundation was willing to consider the proposal and took an in-depth look at the long-term sustainability of the organization and its plan, but ultimately had to decide that this organization just wasn’t ready for a project of this cost and scope.

Don’t Get Trapped In Technology Ice Dunes

Associated PressLiving in Portland, Maine, means you spend a lot of time shoveling snow. It’s not a job I look forward to, but I’ve learned to appreciate bundling up and heading out into a quiet morning with a shovel in hand because it gives me time to think.
 
I spent much of yesterday morning digging out from the latest blizzard. And as I excavated around my car it occurred to me how much shoveling snow is like technology planning.
 
While you're shoveling out your driveway, you plan how much room you'll leave for cars. Maybe you're feeling lazy and you shovel out a passageway with just an inch or two to spare. Or maybe it's an easy job and you shovel out a wide berth on both sides.
 
It doesn't feel like an important decision at the time, but this is January. These snow dunes you’ve created or left behind aren’t going anywhere for a while. They may thaw a little, but then they’ll freeze again. Maybe more snow falls and they get bigger. Maybe it rains a little one day and then freezes again turning everything into ice as hard as rock. Within a few days your casually shoveled banks of snow could become nearly impenetrable until spring.
 
There are a lot of technology decisions that we as nonprofits approach just as casually. But those decisions can often be with us for much longer than we thought and create many unforeseen problems. For example, you may decide to throw up a temporary website without a lot of thought about the structure, but then years later you’re still using it—frustrating your constituents, volunteers, and staff. Or, maybe you decide to use a particular piece of software because you need a quick solution, but once your staff is comfortable with it and well-versed in its features, they resist your efforts to upgrade to something better.
 
Change is hard, whether it's chipping through the ice to widen your driveway or trying to improve a system that’s been in place for a while. It's worth giving a little extra thought when you're making those "temporary" decisions to consider whether they're likely to make life a misery for you down the road. You Californians or Mississippians might not have experienced this, but most Mainers know that if you don’t shovel out wide enough in the morning and throw your snow far from the driveway, when you come home at night you can find yourself trapped in the ice you’ve piled up around yourself.

 

Photo credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Out of Range

EDITOR'S NOTE: We're pleased to introduce Dan Rivas, Idealware's new Managing Writer. He kicks off his tenure with this blog post introducing himself. Interested in writing for the Idealware blog? We're interested in hearing from you... 
 

Sometime in the late 80s my dad bought a cordless phone for his small business. I was in the fourth or fifth grade and it must have been summer because I was there when he took it out of the box and watched him walk around the tortilla factory with it pressed against his ear listening to the dial tone. He was good with machines, but none of the machines he built, operated, or repaired were anything like this magical phone.

Later that morning, as I stacked and bagged tortillas, he said, “Let’s go for a ride.” We were always going for rides when I was a kid. My dad was a restless soul and was happiest when he was going somewhere.

He grabbed the phone and we hopped into his van. He started driving and dialed the number to my uncle’s restaurant. At first he must have heard a staticky voice or noise because he said, “Hello? Adolph?” but the line soon went dead and when he tried again he didn’t even get a dial tone. 

If any of us had known what a nonprofit was then, we would have joked that he ran a nonprofit. He didn’t make much money selling his tortillas and he often gave it away as an advance on hours that would never be worked or a loan that would never be repaid because he had a hard time turning anyone down. He couldn’t afford to hire many workers, so he often did most of the work himself. He cooked the corn, ground it into masa, and fed it into machines that cut it into tortillas or chips and cooked it in the massive conveyor ovens. He often made deliveries. When the machines broke, the got out his tools and fixed them. He was also the salesman, the logistics manager, and the human resources director.

And he was the IT guy, which is why when the phone didn’t work my dad turned the van around, went back into the factory, and placed it back on its dock, shrugging good-naturedly to hide his disappointment.

Many nonprofits are run like the small businesses I grew up around. A few passionate people who do a lot of everything are the hearts of these organizations. I see it at Idealware. Laura started Idealware in her attic and has grown it into a small collection of staff and experts who share her tireless passion for helping nonprofits make smart technology decisions. The staff’s versatility and her leadership across a wide range of projects continues to drive Idealware forward to new and better things.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be joining Laura, Chris, and the rest of the Idealware team as the managing writer. It feels familiar to be part of something small and vital. And I’m excited to lend my knowledge and experience to help nonprofits take their missions beyond the range of what they ever thought possible. 

Interested in writing a blog post?

Part of my job at Idealware is to manage and edit this blog and I want to make sure a wide range of voices—of both people and other nonprofits—are represented here. Whether you’re a technology expert or troubleshooting as you go, I’d like to hear your take on the technology that is helping you meet your mission. Send a brief description of your blog post idea to dan@idealware.org. If it seems like a good fit here, we can work together to bring it to life.

 

Best of the Web: January 2015

The Idealware “Best of the Web” is a monthly roundup of the top nonprofit resources from the Idealware blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter feed to help you make the right technology decisions. Please forward it along to anyone you think might benefit from it.

 
The first tweet is most likely to get the highest engagement numbers, but because Twitter moves fast, you could be missing a large segment of your audience. Wisemetrics looks into the data of one million tweets and finds that one-and-done might not be the best strategy.
 
 
Is Facebook worth your time? It depends on your goals, but as Frogloop points out: “Facebook has changed its algorithm so much that Facebook pages now only reach 2% of their followers. That means 98% of the people who "Liked" your FB page don't see the content UNLESS your organization pays Facebook to boost a post, buy a Facebook ad, etc.”
 
 
Here are five of Google's 12 tips for staying safe when using its resources—including search engines, browsers and even mobile devices.
 
 
There’s more to research than Google. From computational data at Wolfram Alpha to online forums where individuals are eager to share their knowledge and opinions, there are a number of ways to find information that Google is not likely to offer in its results. And scroll down for tips on how to figure out whether what you found online is valuable or just another bit of flotsam in the vast sea of junk information.
 
 
You probably wear a lot of hats at your organization. Is triage designer one of them? What about web developer? Maybe you’re having trouble getting your images to look right when you post on social media. If any of these are you, Mashable has a list of image editing tools you should know about.
 
 
According to the 2013 Blackbaud report, 62% of millennials preferred to use their mobile phones for giving. How, where, and when people give may be changing. Nonprofit Quarterly’s recent blog post lists a few tools to take advantage of this trend.
 
 
The past year highlighted the need for better information security at large and small organizations. This inforgraphic from Charity Digital News shows how well many organizations are addressing the threat and offers tips to help you keep your nonprofit secure.
 
 
Is email dead? Not according to a recent Pew Research survey. It found that a large majority of workers consider email essential to their jobs, but very few use social media in their work.
 
 
What’s possible when sharing data or creating infographics? These examples show how interesting and beautiful data can be.
 
 
A designer shows you how to make your story and your content the stars and the design their supporting cast.
 
 
Downloading the right software or using the right tools is not enough to ensure your technology will be successful in solving your challenges. As Peter Campbell from Legal Services Corporation shows, you need a process that makes sure your organization’s needs are being met and a culture that helps everyone feel empowered to adopt technology changes.
 
Would you like to suggest a link for Best of the Web? Email it to info@idealware.org.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Open Data

NOTE: We wrote this post at the invitation of our friends at TechSoup, who originally published it on their blog. Please take a moment to visit their site, which is full of great things of interest to nonprofits.

We talk a lot about data at Idealware, and we're not alone — it's a nonprofit buzzword that's showing no sign of fading. More and more organizations are embracing the idea that collecting and measuring data and acting on what they learn from it can improve their work and better their services.

But surprisingly few nonprofits are talking about open data.

That conversation is happening outside the nonprofit sector, however, and even made the news lately as the British government launched an effort to open tremendous amounts of data to the public — including datasets about everything from property records to water levels — in the hope that sharing the information will facilitate its use in a number of ways.

For example, a smartphone app might use real-time data to alert drivers to empty parking spaces in a town lot, or provide traffic and transit updates to commuters. And last week, the British Environment Agency announced it would share real-time water-level measurements taken every 15 minutes with apps that will use them to warn residents to prepare for floods caused by rising rivers.

Another example includes sharing the location of emergency response equipment such as ambulances and defibrillators — information currently spread across different federal and local agencies — to improve emergency response times.

The government is even planning to appoint a chief data officer to manage the effort, earning praise from the Open Data Institute as the most advanced government in the field of open data. But other countries have mounted similar efforts.

According to the Open Data Institute, open data saved Canada $3.2 billion in charity tax fraud, and, in a more pedestrian example, a woman in Denmark used government datasets to build a website showing all the public toilets across the country.

Here in the U.S., local governments are using open data to improve their services. Five years ago, the city of Portland, Oregon followed the precedent set by San Francisco and Chicago when it opened its data to developers.

To facilitate the use of that data, the city hosted a contest to motivate the development community to make use of more than 100 types of datasets it had released — everything from aerial photographs and business licenses to parking meter information, liquor license applications, and street-sweeping routes. (You can see some of the apps generated by the contest at civicapps.org.)

Businesses have also begun to move toward using open data, as have scientists. According to London'sIndependent newspaper, recent research suggests that open data could save more than $200 million in prescription costs by identifying doctors who prescribe branded drugs when cheaper generic medicines are available.

The benefits seem legion, but nonprofits are lagging behind the trend. A Google search of "nonprofit open data" turns up a number of strong pleas advocating for a wider adoption of open data practices in the sector, but fewer actual examples of organizations opening their data to the public.

In an effort to start the conversation, we wrote an article that provides a simple overview of what open data is, what it means for nonprofits, and the benefits and risks of opening data to a wider audience. It's neither in-depth nor comprehensive, but it's a start. Read it here. More examples and ideas about open data are also coming soon from TechSoup.

Now we're asking you to join the conversation. Do you know good examples of nonprofits using open data or sharing their data with the public? Have you done it yourself? What were your results?

Whether you want to advocate for open data or argue against it, let us know what you think either in the comments, on the Idealware Facebook page, or on Twitter (@idealware) using the hashtag #npopendata.

 

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