March 26, 2014

Reflections on 14NTC: Technology Experimentation and the Ad Hoc Open Source Society

In my experience, the Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) was a safe space where ideas and information were freely shared – the hallmark of an effective community. It felt like conversations were trailed by floating Creative Commons licenses as people happily contributed perspectives while testing their own ideas and creating their own variations. This exchange of ideas and sense of connection is key to developing any project, where we’re all working together as one community, striving for the greater good.

Tracking conversion from these informational exchanges is never instant; it may take years before the results manifest, perhaps even after we’ve moved on to a different role at a different organization. The value is in that precious spark, sense of possibility, and support from a network of peers, and of someone else saying, “have you tried this?” or “this worked for me.”

Technological experimentation is often costly, and most nonprofits simply don’t have wiggle room in their budget. Yet, at the NTC I experienced a happy hum of percolating possibilities and developing designs, the fruits of collaborations and conversations that made new technologies feel eminently affordable. I suspect this was because this was essentially a commons that we stewarded together: an open source society whose ad hoc members shared a sensibility.

Open source is both an approach to hardware/software development, and also a philosophy close to the heart of many nonprofit missions. As the Open Source Initiative puts it:

“The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.”

These ends are achieved by working together and collaborating for the common good, each person using one’s own skills as part of a team. I see this as a powerful way for nonprofits to work collectively to promote both positive technological development and productive community collaborations.

I work in community media where we are tasked with helping people realize their dreams in an audiovisual medium, and then broadcasting those dreams on multiple media platforms. We are facilitators who provide the most appropriate, affordable, and accessible tools.

Different media centers have vastly different ideas about what those tools should be and how they are deployed, taught, accessed and cared for, but there is also much commonality because of shared experience and shared knowledge across the community of centers.

Working in collaboration with other passionate stakeholders, centers have helped create bespoke webtools, expanding on existing open source initiatives (CiviCRM and Drupal), an open source edit server, and an online tool for giving local registered voters a voice. Each project has lead to innumerable, positive new community connections, and each has cost a fraction of the amount that developing these ideas would have incurred in isolation as individual endeavors.

Each of these projects started as “what if” conversations that bridged geographic and suppositional boundaries. We tried to find new ways to work and looked for new places to resolve these situations. If you have a floundering project, I suggest searching for a peer community or perhaps starting up a local tech meetup. Some of these are based around particular technologies, while others are more open venues for experimentation, such as these:

  • CoderDojo: “The open source, volunteer led, global movement of free coding clubs for young people.”
  • Hackathon: “Each hackathon begins with short presentations by educators and non-profit representatives, then participants break up into teams to plan, design and build a website or application in less than eight hours.”
  • Makerspace: “Makerspaces are community centers with tools… All are united in the purpose of providing access to equipment, community, and education, and all are unique in exactly how they are arranged to fit the purposes of the community they serve.”

We might ask experts, or even keen amateurs, to donate their time to help our missions at these events, rather than donate money. It may well be that no singular thing is generated, no game changing new device is created, but groups of people are energized, motivated, and left excited by the possibilities of what’s to come.

Collaborating with other nonprofits is tricky, but when it works it’s a remarkable experience, because it means creating and sharing with a new community, which is in itself a technological adventure.

Craig Sinclair
Connector of people and technologies, as a project manager, editor, designer, academic, and technical writer. I'm an enthuser and advocate for open source, free speech and Balearic music.