Running parallel with IdeaEncore, and sorting out information categories
On Friday, I had a phone conversation with the co-founders of IdeaEncore, Scott Bechtler-Levin and Florence Green. It seems like IdeaEncore and the Nonprofit Management Resources project are running parallel in both their missions and their web functionality, so it was a really good time to compare notes – especially since an IdeaEncore feed is one of the three ways that NPMR’s content partners can choose to make their information available for search and aggregation. (The others are through an RSS feed from the partner’s web site or through a spreadsheet periodically submitted to us.)
In addition to talking about the possibilities for harmonic convergence between IdeaEncore and NPMR, we discussed the big picture. Scott is a member of the informal brain trust that I convene on online tools that assist nonprofits and philanthropies in capacity mapping and resource matching, and we are both looking ahead to the open-door affinity group meeting that has been scheduled for our brain trust at the upcoming Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington, DC. We are quite interested in seeing the folks who are involved in developing various online tools sit down and talk seriously about making them interoperable, or consolidating them, or at least creating a common login.
One the most valuable things that emerged out of our phone conversation on Friday (for me, at least) was a clearer understanding of how to categorize the online tools. Here are the three categories that emerged:
- Immediate information. You run a search, and the answer to your question is delivered to you online, then and there. There’s no upper limit on how many people can search, find, and use that information, and the content doesn’t change rapidly. An example might be that you search for best practices in supervision for nonprofit managers, and find a video on this topic from Third Sector New England. Tools that deliver immediate information include IdeaEncore, Nonprofit Management Resources, the Boston Indicators Project, and Answr.
- Dynamic information. You run a search, and it yields up results from a database that is regularly updated. What is delivered to you is not a single item, but a dynaset. Even if you save the search, you may get slightly different results next month, as more records are added. There is not upper limit on how many people can search, find, and use that information. An example might be that you search for the number of nonprofit organizations in a specific municipality offer arts programs to elders. Tools that deliver dynamic information include the Massachusetts Philanthropic Directory, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Database, Idealist’s organizational database, Guidestar, Social Source Commons, the Merrimack Valley Hub, Great Nonprofits, Capaciteria, and InterEthos.
- Ephemeral information. You run a search, and it yields up results from a database, but the information is likely to become obsolete quickly. What is delivered to you is a dynaset of opportunities that have deadlines (such as a pledge) or resources that are finite (such as a set of surplus file cabinets). There is usually a limit on how many people can make use of the opportunity, and what is delivered to you through the online tool is not the resource itself, but the information about its availability. Examples of such opportunities might be jobs, petitions, volunteer openings, events, gifts in kind, or surplus office space. Tools that deliver ephemeral information include Social Actions, Craigslist, Idealist’s job database, Freecycle, Sparked, Groundcrew, Kiva, VolunteerMatch, NPO-Connect, and Community Corps.
That’s as far as we got in our phone conversation, and I think it’s pretty far, although perhaps a specialist in information theory would scoff at how long it took me to understand the distinction between online delivery of something that could be used by as many folks as the traffic would bear, and something that is consumable only a finite number of times. Likewise, the difference between delivering the item itself and delivering information about how to get access to the item was slow to dawn on me. Lucky for me, a conversation with Scott and Flo helped me see the need to make these distinctions.
Building on what emerged in our conversation, I think I would add a couple of other categories of online tools that assist nonprofits and philanthropies in capacity mapping and resource matching:
- Communitarian tools. These may or may not deliver exactly the kind of information, service, or tangible resource that you need, but they offer entry points to communities that share goals, build social capital, and meet needs. Examples include Neighbors For Neighbors, eHope, and Change.Org.
- Data management tools. These are platforms that make it possible to build online tools that yield information about where the needs are on one hand, and where the resources, assets, opportunities, and capacities are on the other. An example is the Open Indicators Consortium’s WEAVE platform.
I would certainly welcome feedback from others – especially those whose online tools I’ve mentioned here – about my preliminary sorting.