RSS, tags & social bookmarking: building blocks for nonprofit collaboration

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I'm currently at NTen's Nonprofit Technology Conference in Seattle, where I was part of a panel yesterday on "Blogging, Tagging, Flickring for the cause: New tools and new strategies." Along with Victor d'Allant of Social Edge and Ruby Sinreich, I gave a kind of crash course/overview of how nonprofits can use the latest generation of Internet tools to work more effectively.

I've tidied up my presentation notes and I'm posting them here in the hope that they could be a useful reference for the folks in the room -- who asked some great questions! -- or for those who couldn't make it.

RSS, tags & social bookmarking: building blocks for nonprofit collaboration


I want to introduce you to three tools that are basic building blocks for a lot of the most exciting nonprofit technology projects -- as well as for a lot of commercial web sites. These are all covered in the Web 2.0 glossary handout.

These are:

RSS (really simple syndication):
A format for storing online information in a way that makes that information readable by lots of different kinds of software. Many blogs and web sites feature RSS feeds: a constantly updated version of the site's latest content, in a form that can be read by a newsreader or aggregator (a program for reading lots of blogs in one place). (For more information see

tags
: Keywords that describe the content of a web site, bookmark, photo or blog post. You can assign multiple tags to the same online resource, and different people can assign different tags to the same resource. Tag-enabled web services include social bookmarking sites (like del.icio.us), photo sharing sites (like Flickr) and blog tracking sites (like technorati). Tags provide a useful way of organizing, retrieving and discovering information.

social bookmarking
: The collaborative equivalent of storing favorites or bookmarks within a web browser, social bookmarking services (like del.icio.us or Furl) let people store their favourite web sites online. Social bookmarking services also let people share their favourite web sites with other people, making them a great way to discover new sites or colleagues who share your interests.

Why should you care about these building blocks?

We'll talk about a few different reasons, but I'm going to focus on one: all three of these tools unlock momentous possibilities for collaboration, both within your organization AND across different organizations. I want to show you a couple of quick examples of how these technologies can combine to help different nonprofits work together effectively.

Example 1: nptech tag

Question: Who here is responsible for solving tech problems, finding new tech tools, or planning tech strategy in your organization? And who here, when you're working on a tech problem, sometimes has the sneaking feeling that somewhere out there is another person just like you, in another nonprofit not too different from yours, who has already been down this road and figured out this problem for you?

NPTech is a very simple way of finding that solution -- that solution somebody else has already discovered. NPtech is a tag that a bunch of people who work in nonprofit technology decided that they'd start using for any web resource, blog post or photo that had to do with nonprofit technology.

Some of those people use del.icio.us -- a social bookmarking service -- to save their web page favourites. If they're saving a web link that's related to nonprofit tech, they use the nptech tag as one of the tags for that link. As a result, there's a del.icio.us nptech page that is a great collection of resources anyone can access.

Some of those people blog, so when they write a blog post related to nonprofit tech, they tag their post "nptech", or pop that blog post into an "nptech" category they've created on their blog. As a result, there's a technorati page that includes all kinds of blog posts about nonprofit technolgy -- as well as weblinks from del.icio.us and photos from flickr.

And thanks to RSS, you don't have to visit technorati or del.icio.us everyday in order to stay on top of all these great resources. If you subscribe to the RSS feed for the nptech page on technorati or del.icio.us, these resources will show up in whatever you use to read RSS feeds -- it could be a simple as your google homepage.

The great lessons of the nptech project are:

1) these tools can make online collaboration CHEAP and EASY

2) you don't need to get everyone to agree on how to play nicely together -- if you have some people who you want to share resources with, just pick a tag and start using it. Others will join in if it's useful.

Now let me give you a more ambitious example:

Example 2: telecentre.org

(full disclosure: I worked on this project)

Telecentre.org is a venture of Canada's International Development Agency that is also receiving support from Microsoft and the Swiss government. Telecentres are community technology centres -- in many developing nations or in rural areas, this is often the only way people have Internet access, and may also be how they get access to phone service, too -- and training in how to use all these technologies. Local telecentres are supported by various regional networks around the world -- like CTCNet in the USA. But until now there's been no formal way for a network of telecentres in Africa to share resources with a network of telecentres in Latin America. Telecentre.org aims to change that by providing lots of training and networking opportunities -- and an online network to support learning and exchange among telecentre networks.

Any telecentre network in the world can create its own web site as part of the telecentre network.

And any telecentre training event can create a web site, too. All these individual web sites are tied together via RSS and tags.

So for example, when telecentre.org conducted a major gathering of telecentre people at the World Summit on the Information Society, they set up a separate site at wsis.telecentre.org.

The main telecentre site then subscribed to the RSS feed from the WSIS site, and republished selected content onto the main site. This site was tagged "WSIS" so it would be easy to organize and find on the main site, too.

The great lessons of this project are:

1) RSS can provide an easy, low-effort way to tie diverse organizations' web sites into a loose network, in which each site selects the highlights from other organizations' sites that are most relevant to their own members, and remixes them into a fresh take.

2) As RSS makes it easy to add more and more content to your web site, you have to think about how to organize all this shared content so it's useful and accessible. Tagging can provide an easy, low-effort way to organize content on your own site, into loose categories.

I hope BOTH these examples will inspire you to take a fresh look at opportunities for informal or formal collaboration with other nonprofit organizations. It's just become a whole lot easier.

Comments

Susan Sanders says

April 3, 2006 - 10:25am
I attended your workshop (Blogging, Tagging, Flickring for the cause: New tools and new strategies)at the NTen conference. At the end, I asked this question - should blogging should really be a top priority for all non profit organizations? I clearly see the potential impact, especially when managed well, that blogging and RSS may have in terms of communicating with supporters and constituents.

However, so many of the organization I work with are struggling with much more basic communications and technology issues and I'd hate to introduce another layer of technology before those issues are resolved. Plus, from what research I've reviewed, awareness and usage among internet users is relatively low.

Like any other communication and marketing channel, organizations should examine whether or not blogging makes sense for their particular message and audience, and determine if they have the resources to manage it effectively. For a techie, blogging seems like a fairly simple concept. For an ED of a small, rural charitible nonprofit, the task may seem overwhelming. Also, the overall communication and marketing strategy should be well defined so that blogging becomes and integral element of the overall strategy not just a layer tacked on because everyone else is doing it.

Any insights you can share about who and how organizations have had siginificant impact with blogging and RSS, especially smaller organizations, would be welcomed - and perhaps some examples when it didn't make sense too.

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