November 2011

SOPA

Look. I'm going on vacation tomorrow. I have promised myself to keep my stress levels down, so this is as much as you'll hear from me about SOPA - those in favor of being able to randomly block any site have thus far not shown anything beyond a mindless, selfish, shortsighted and childish desire to make the Internet bend to their will. The Internet works because it bends to no one private interest, and serves us all.

They're not even letting opposing viewpoints testify at the Congressional hearing: http://act.demandprogress.org/sign/sopa_testimony/?akid=1018.606560.JTk…. If this is how they think Democracy should work, I'd hate to see how they want to re-create the Internet.

Read more at http://americancensorship.org/

The Art of Failing

I have a critical flaw - not being able to say no to helping out worthwhile projects get their technological house in order.

I've left a trail of wikis, content management system-run sites, and creative cabling across three continents. One such effort was in the pre-iPhone world of the early 2000s with a creative social enterprise that empowered artisans to realize the full market value of their goods (often undercut by middlemen taking advantage of innumeracy, a need for liquidity, or both). These goods are then shipped to the US to sell. The NGO takes a small cut for its operations and the shipping cost, and everyone benefits. Beyond dealing with the unpredictability of the Nicaraguan electrical system, they were efficient in their offline practices, but saw the need for inventory tracking. That seemingly basic task is both a key to empowering online sales and other scaling activities, but is no short order. The system must be able to know what items were stored in what locations in the US and in Nicaragua, and meet the needs for a geographically disperse set of volunteers to sell those items at events. It also has to have a simple and largely foolproof way of adding inventory from the Nica office that can absorb a backlog of work if the power or Internet connection is off.

Web 1.0: Cue Cat No problem - totally doable. For the US side, we work with a Salesforce Foundation volunteer to create an online, cloud-based inventory system where the volunteers can log transactions live on the site using a re-purposed cue:cat barcode scanner -- the cue:cat itself being a dotcom-era QR code wannabe, best summed up by Jeff Salkowski of the Chigao Tribune as "You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can." and by Wired’s Leander Kahney as "a cheapo bar-code scanner that looks like a marital aid."

On the Nica side, the staff can add the inventory on a spreadsheet and batch upload it into SalesForce whenever they have power. This gives them an offline backup, and lets work continue (on a laptop) even if power cuts out. The Excel sheet automatically creates a code that can be barcode-ified for matching by the volunteer sales staff without painstaking scribbling of notes.

We’re in this to save and improve lives, not make a profit. If a plan fails, it’s lives lives - not just bank accounts -- that are not enriched.

Perfect, right? With so much time spent on the “challenging” part of the equation in Nica, not enough thought went into the sales side - often outside, at craft markets, sometimes in the rain. Not happy environments for laptops, rarely enough electricity or battery power to last the day, and never any wifi to actually connect to the Internet to track sales in realtime.

Times have changed, and the plan, like the cue:cat itself, may have a new life in our 3G-saturated world with QR Codes and Square point-of-sale gadgets replacing the bulky laptop, but at the time, it was simply a failure.

What do you do when your project just falls flat? Moving on and hiding it is the wrong answer. The right answer is that you get up in front of a crowd of your peers, donors, and investors (past and potentially future) and spill the beans. In the startup world, some amount of failure is expected, and even welcomed. Learning from failure is, after all, the best education out there. But in the do-gooder space of non-profits and international development organizations, failure is not an option.

The challenge is that we’re in this industry if you will to save and improve lives, not make a profit. If a plan fails, it’s lives lives - not just bank accounts -- that are not enriched.

There are obviously failures in development, as evidenced by the mere fact that we’re five to six decades in to concerted global efforts, and still working on it. More ICT4D projects fail than ever scale beyond the pilot stage. The World Bank bravely released its internal study revealing that while most of its projects succeed overall, in the ICT4D category of projects, only achieve their intended outcomes 30% of the time. Some of those may be wildly successful in unanticipated ways, others just complete flops.

Katrin Verclas has done the community a huge favor in creating and open-sourcing the concept of the FailFaire.

The Failfaire celebrates and de-stigmatizes failure by loosening lips with some alcohol and then throwing people on staqe for a tightly scheduled 5 minute moment of candor. Thanks to the open-source philosophy, these have spread to internal organizational events as well as a few public failfaires, most recently one hosted by Inveneo’s Wayan Vota in DC at the World Bank itself, and another coming up this December in NYC hosted by MobileActive.

The risks of failure in development work are clearly weightier than Q3 profits,which makes the relaxed, raucousness of a failfaire that much more important. For a community that has no normal mechanism for learning across the various implementers, the only way we can advance the whole cause is through these commiserations over good goals, good people, and solid technology completely failing - and learning from them.

This was best encapsulated after the event. One presenter discussed his media-darling pedal-powered phone booth for remote villages, which was a complete failure. Another Failfaire-er approached him afterwards to commiserate on similar problems - their own popular bike-powered computer system actually took almost seven people pedaling to reliably power the system. While bikes garner tons of often-misguided warm feelings and media popularity, they aren’t necessarily silver bullets -- a lesson for the road.

Tags

Open Source Society

Open Source all the things

This is a rough summary of my talk Tuesday night at DCWeek's Hot Tech Trends. Read more about the panel and continue the discussion over at quora

The trend I'm most interested in right now is actually as much offline as it is on. It really hit me a few weeks ago as I was reading through the minutes of an Occupy General Assembly. Here was a huge meeting with multiple viewpoints that was being successfully self-facilitated, prioritizing issues and moving quickly. This was a committee that was being collaborative, open, transparent, and still ... effective.

It really got me thinking on how we are are becoming accustomed to new social constructs in movements, government, and business. These concepts are familiar to anyone who's delved into the nuts and bolts of open source software -- like collaboration, shared or no ownership, team-building, and radical transparency -- but they're popping up everywhere offline.

So, I want to tackle the convergence of these concepts offline with the democratization of tools online

By democratization, I really mean simplicity and open to all. An important pre-condition to this is basic access, but we are increasingly living in an access-rich world, thanks to mobile. This year, Africa surpassed both European and the Americas and is now the second largest market for mobiles - behind only the Asia/Pacific region.

But beyond access, there is a new "digital divide" if you will -- the ability to create and engage in a participatory experience. Things like Twitter and blogging have long been low barriers of entry for getting your voice heard online. The exciting development in this arena is that it is mindbogglingly easy to create complex sites and apps with drupal and wordpress, at least compared to the work this would have taken 10 years ago.

This combination of a simple toolbox and open social constructs is powerful.

The past few years have been accelerating this convergence. Blogs and Wikipedia have permanently altered publishing, Twitter, Facebook and foursquare have opened up your social life, and Yelp and Tripadvisor have changed your customer service interactions with travel and dining destinations.

But more importantly, crowdfunding models like Kiva and Kickstarter are toe-in-water steps towards creating collaborative business models by seeking out customers and supporters in a very early stage and rallying their support around potential projects and products. Co-working spaces provide entry-level incubation for young startups with great perks of cross-startup networking and talent sharing. These fast prototyping models reduce overall risk and create engaged, evangelical customers and partners.

The social change sphere has jumped in to this intersection and is spawning hundereds of really exciting co-creation models. We've seen this in crisis mapping (Snowpocalypse, Haiti, Thailand), protest movements (Moldova, ArabSpring, OWS), open data mashups combining entrepreneurs and civic data (Apps4Democracy, UN Global Pulse), and even countries crowdsourcing their own constitutions (Iceleand and now Morocco)

The availability of these easy to use platforms and expectations of openness and co-creation is forcing new levels of engagement in all sectors. People are no longer OK with occasional, reactive, or superficial engagement.

My first human interaction with a brand shouldn't be after I post a negative tweet - nor should it be a annual 10 page user survey that never changes anything. I want to help build their business and be engaged at a strategic level, even though I'm "just" a consumer

If that sounds a bit insane and totally unscalable, just replace business with government and consumer with citizen and it suddenly sounds less crazy.

Business, non-profits, social enterprises, and governments will all need to open up not only their data or their superficial interactions, but begin to fully collaborate with their communities on their policies and business plans.

This means that 2012 holds a huge potential for global co-creation and new organizational frameworks, and anyone who doesn't begin to engage customers, supporters and citizens in this way is going to be shut out by organizations that aren't merely building their business with their users in mind, but building their business with their users.

With these concepts of shared ownership, highly functional teams, collaboration and transparency, combined with online structures that parallel these same values, we have a world where decentralized, democratized power structures forming across the digital/analog borders. This changes governance, economics, social change and business.

Holy shit, this is going to be a wild, fun ride.

"All the things" courtesy quickmeme with the amazing original comic by Hyperbole and a Half