August 13, 2013

Finding Our Way With an Interactive Map

You may be familiar with Birthright Israel, the organization that sends young Jewish adults on a free ten-day trip to Israel. Over 279,000 US-based participants have gone on the trip over the past 14 years, and when they get home, many are eager to continue exploring their heritage and community. Our challenge: How do we help these participants turn their trip into a lifelong journey? More specifically, how can we use technology to help guide this journey and connect these individuals to opportunities that they find meaningful and compelling?

Here at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, we have had to become better and smarter about how we use online technology to engage and connect to our audience.

Three years ago, we identified a seemingly untapped opportunity. In the fall, the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (usually called “High Holidays”) roll around, and in hundreds of communities across the US, all kinds of celebrations take place—dinners, prayer services, learning opportunities, social events, and more. Yet, there was no easy way for Birthright Israel alumni and their friends to find out about these opportunities. We wondered: How could make them more accessible?

We recognized the success of crowdsourced mapping technology in its numerous applications across many fields. Because of its effectiveness and ability to share vast information to a wide audience, crowdsourcing to populate maps is now done by government agencies, companies, nonprofits, and other entities. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, volunteers posted tens of thousands of images as part of a mapping project to help FEMA relief efforts.

We decided to use a similar method to produce an interactive holiday events map. From the beginning, we relied on our network—spiritual communities, synagogues, and Jewish organizations—to populate the map with events and experiences that young adults would find relevant and meaningful. Our ability to activate this network is premised upon the personal relationships we have built with Jewish communities across the country, and the countless hours spent on strengthening these relationships. We also found that positioning ourselves as a portal that connects these communities with a new, young and eager audience made the crowdsourcing much easier and more effective.

But over time, we learned that crowdsourcing only gets us part way to where we ultimately need to go – a map that is a valued resource and is actually used by our target audience. Simply populating the map does not ensure this. Rather, it is the map’s functionality and capabilities that really determine whether young Jewish adults will use it to connect to High Holiday experiences. This important learning has informed the map’s evolution and our own understanding what it should be.

In year one, we built the map using a basic, free service. To say it was “interactive” would be an overstatement. We progressed in year two to a WordPress plugin; better, but still with limitations. This year, by using a developer and conducting user tests, we are responding to what we have heard from our audience about how they want this technology to perform.

Now, young adults can search their communities and locate experiences they find meaningful by filtering events according to what matters most to them: LGBT-friendly events, prayer services set to music, and numerous other personal preferences. And of course, thanks to our crowdsourcing work, the map features hundreds of different events and celebrations in dozens of cities across the country.

Along with better search capabilities, we have learned that users want to experience the events featured on the map as part of a peer group. In other words, while the map itself is meant to connect them to a community, they want to also connect with their friends in advance of attending that community event. After all, nobody likes to show up to a party alone.

To meet this demand, we added functionality so that the map’s events are easily converted and shareable on Facebook and Twitter. If someone finds a High Holiday event they like, they can now share it with their networks, and connect with others who want a similar experience.

In this regard, the map’s technology interface is being utilized to make real connections based on common interests. It becomes much more than simply a way to locate events, but instead, a vehicle that helps build relationships between Birthright Israel alumni and their peers, while connecting them to Jewish community at large – one of our core goals here at NEXT.

Undoubtedly, mapping and filtering technology will continue to advance and we will learn more about this initiative’s potential. In three short years, NEXT has already learned important lessons about the value of crowdsourcing to create user-driven content. Equally as important, we recognize the need to conduct user-tests and solicit feedback in order to innovate and make our technology effective for young adults.

By listening to what our audience needs and adapting our offerings, we can better empower young Jewish adults to build and join communities in ways that are meaningful to them. The interactive map is a tool that helps us realize this vision, and one we look forward to further developing and refining in the years to come.

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Morlie Levin
Morlie Levin is the CEO of NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, a member organization of the Nonprofit Technology Network.