Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:

If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)

There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.

I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.

The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.

I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.

Here's a group list of resources online for teachers

At St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s today, I’m talking with an extraordinary group of teachers at a NYSAIS workshop. The topic is using technology in teaching. We’re going to build a list of resources we’ve talked about today for posterity. Who’s first?

- Eduforge.org

A meta resource for technology and education, including sharing of information and tools and the like

- Digg.com

An RSS aggregator with a social component

- Rojo.com

Another RSS aggregator

- Delicious

A tagging service and search engine

- Moodle

A course management system or content management system, which is open source

- Second Life

A virtual world in which some classes are taught

- Wikia

A wiki service, related to Wikipedia

- JotSpot

Another wiki service

- Creative Commons search

A means of finding works online that you can re-use in the classroom, or that your students could use

- TechnologyBites

A new blog on tech and teaching

- H20
A best-of-breed, free/open source rotisserie discussion system

- H20 Playlists

A place to share reading lists, course syllabuses, and the like, with support for cool things like OPML

The Globe on Becca Nesson, Rodica Buzescu in Second Life

The Boston Globe’s Irene Sege, who has been hanging around the real and virtual Berkman Center these past few months, has a thoughtful piece on Second Life in education and politics.  It features Rebecca Nesson and her work in Cyberone, a class she’s co-teaching with her dad (eon, Dean of Cyberspace) and her collaborator Rodica Buzescu, who now also works work Millions of Us.  John Lester and Ethan Zuckerman, also our friends, get a word in, too.

A few new firsts at the Berkman Center

Charlie Nesson and his daughter Rebecca Nesson are hosting the Tuesday lunchtime session at the Berkman Center today.

- One first is that this is the first video webcast lunch event. We’ve regularly webcast these lunches audio-only. This week, with the help of Indigo Tabor, we are offering a live feed with video as well as audio. (The real-time webcast is 12:00 – 1:30 p.m. EDT today, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006.) So, too, is it being offered in Second Life, where 24 people are tuning in at the moment from Berkman Island, we’re told.

- The other first (actually, I’m certain there are more than two, since Becca and Charlie are involved) is that the class that they are talking about, Cyberone: Law in the Court of Public Opinion, is being taught IN Second Life, a first for Harvard Law School and Harvard Extension School, anyway. If you haven’t seen the promo video for it yet, it’s a must.

It remains to be seen if these firsts will stick. It remains to be seen if these firsts will lead to other good things, as the establishment of Creative Commons by Prof. Lessig or the first podcast series hosted here by a combination of Dave Winer, Chris Lydon, and Bob Doyle. But it’s fun to be sure. Charlie and Becca keep the Berkman Center young and just a bit hip, and the likes of Rodica, Dean, Gene, and John Lester from Linden Labs keep giving things like these experiments life.

(John Bracken called this first first, way before me, and added more about a Berkeley example.)