App contest submission boilerplate

This project represents a new way of democratizing access to [whatever, especially with a gerund; e.g. “the tools for understanding local educational outcomes”] which is needed by [whomever], and many others.  

Wisdom and discernment

Another excerpt from Gift Hub, “Conducting the Charitable Giving Conversation as a Rational Person Would”:

Little by little tax and legal professionals are coming to see that the wealthy very often want to have impact beyond self and family. How to have a conversation about aspiration and impact? Not easy for those whose training is limited to facts and figures. The skills needed are those of Socratic dialogue and thematic listening. Those who have such skills are generally found in public relations, advertising, proof reading, teaching, social work, fundrasing, or walking the streets looking for a job. We have, as a culture, subordinated wisdom to profit and now our best hope is to teach “discernment” to tax, legal, and financial professionals. The strategic part of philanthropy can be taught by MBAs, and often is. The wisdom part? We are still treating giving as a consumer preference or proclivity. Questions like, “What does the community need? To whom are you responsible? What must we do to be saved? If not now when?” are syptomatic of a mind gone mad. I know it and accept it.

Data divides and umbrellafication

Jesse Lichtenstein in “Transparency for All”, writing for Wired:

The concern that open data may simply empower the empowered is not an argument against open data; it’s an argument against looking at open data as an end in itself. Massive data dumps and even friendly online government portals are insufficient. Ordinary people need to know what information is available, and they need the training to be conversant in it. And if people are to have more than theoretical access to the information, it needs to be easy and cheap to use. That means investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency. If we want truly open government, we still have to do the hard work of addressing basic and stubborn inequalities. However freely it flows, the data alone isn’t enough.

Yes and yes. Most government data is policy-level, which means to understand and act on that data, you not only need to be data literate, but also civically literate to transform knowledge into power. Call me a constructionist, but community organizing creates a stronger sense of agency than statistics.

And “cheap” data inconsiderately presented can be harmful. The worst data abuses come from trying to use policy-level, non-contextualized or incomplete data to inform individual decision-making. For example, I had to add this caveat to the Boston Bike Crash Map after getting several anxiety-producing inquiries:

This data alone is not appropriate for making routing decisions. The presence or absence of incidents in a location should not be used to determine the relative safety of biking there as this data does not include ridership or traffic information; i.e. a location may contain less incidents because bikers know to avoid it.

For decision making, I’ve come to call this phenomenon the “umbrellafication” of data—after the service that boils the weather forecast down to a simple yes/no answer to “Do you need an umbrella today?” Unfortunately, like trying to portray crime as a spectrum of green to red, issues and datasets that can be easily synthesized and presented are the exception, not the rule.

Uncrime Mapping

I really don’t understand the appeal of crime maps. Trulia, a housing search tool, just launched a crime map, too (via FlowingData, whose commenters are full of criticism). Since Trulia doesn’t have data (now that’s something to map with transformative potential) for Boston, I had to look up my friends’ neighborhood in Chicago. Above is a heatmap I photoshopped showing the uncrime—the area is clearly rife with it.

Below is McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World. Think about it.

Minimal Mass

I was searching for something else in Google Reader, but it seemed timely to resurface this note:

A great example of why I’m skeptical of [app-centric RFPs]. Rather than focusing on critical mass, I’d rather see a requirement of “minimal mass” : Who do you need participating in order to demonstrate a proof of concept of the outcome/social effects? Fund it in Stages:

  1. Fund the outreach organizing of a minimal mass who will serve as focus groups during the development phase
  2. Then fund development of the app buildout

This would help with what I dislike about [app-centric RFPs]: not that they fund bad projects, but that the process is structured to encourage exactly these outcomes: a focus on a novel function/problem rather a novel audience (who then needs that function/solution).

This was inspired by Ryan Sholin announcing the closure of ReportOn:

…a few recommendations for developers of software “for journalists”:

  • Reporters don’t want to talk about unpublished stories in public.
  • Unless they’re looking for sources.
  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.
  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like email or the telephone. Not in your application.
  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you’re building meets  a very journalism-specific need, you’re probably grinding your gears to build something “ for journalists” when they just need  a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.

And I recognize that “critical” mass and “minimal” mass should be equivalent, but somewhere along the way critical mass became related to sustaining the growth of the community, not the benefits membership accorded (probably cause you make weasely appeals to “network effects” just beyond the horizon… and ad impressions)

Data-driven, content-first design

I’m working on an app for the Hacking Education Contest. DonorsChoose works by having teachers submit classroom project/supply needs that people can then donate to pay for through the internet. Right now the only way to “share” those projects is through the usual email, Facebook and Twitter; my idea for am app is to create custom printable 4-up (quartersheet) flyers for handing out, and pull-tab sheets for posting-up. Despite the “power of teh internets”, I think consideration of local resources and capacity is an important value to recognize—and helping teachers and allies advertise their needs (and the positive outcomes they hope to create) more easily within their physical communities would go far towards advancing’s mission.

This project has the typical technical difficulties: my goal is to use the DonorsChoose API to fetch a particular project and then populate an HTML+CSS preview—allowing the teacher to then live-edit the text (both for layout and because writing for a local audience is different than an internet one)—and then use dompdf to convert that HTML+CSS to a printable PDF. The dompdf library is nifty: it supports CSS 2d transformations, custom fonts, images (necessary for QR code hotness), light positioning (no floats, so tables it is), and media-queries  (@media screen and @media print) to fix all the little layout and typography issues in translating from the web to print, as well as dompdf’s own myriad quirks. Basically it’s everything I need to make a not-too-ugly flyer and pull-tab sheet; the image at the top of this post is the ugly proof-of-concept.

But the biggest challenge is designing a layout scheme that is flexible to the wide range of DonorsChoose project content. Designing for an 8.5 x 11” sheet of paper is way different than designing for the web: creating a balanced—or at least aesthetically-acceptable—design is no easy matter when there is no such thing as overflow. I hope to get around some issues by providing a live-preview so that teachers can fix any egregious text over-/under- runs, but the goal is to get teachers to Click-Print-Post as quickly as possible.

Fortunately I have a designer (the awesome  Billy Brown) helping with the layout, but I need to give him some idea of what to expect. Fortunately DonorsChoose made available project data for ~296,000 projects. So I parsed through the lengths for the 4 main pieces of content I want to use in order to get the distribution of lengths. Sure, saying “Design for a title that is 10-50 characters” doesn’t have the highest specificity, but it’s a whole lot more useful than the alternative of blind experimentation. The data below is charts of those lengths—I probably will have to limit my data to just the past year or so since DonorsChoose has changed their requirements/text-fields over time, but its interesting so far to see the full distributions.

Nailed that response

Google just announced a new national technology service corps, in partnership with the HandsOn Network and AmeriCorps*VISTA—not unlike the Digital Arts Service Corps I have managed for the past 4.5 years and will be shutting down this August as our funding expires. Google describes their program thusly:

These AmeriCorps*VISTA members will work full-time for one year developing introductory seminars and involved in-person trainings for smaller nonprofits that are working to lift people out of poverty. The Tech Corps will start in September with a one-week training at our campus in Mountain View, learning about both our nonprofit tools and cloud-based offerings from other technology companies like and LinkedIn. Once they are armed with tech know-how, they’ll spend the rest of the year in three-person teams serving nonprofits in the Bay Area, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Our response:

Google’s commitment is certainly a step in the right direction. However, we wish Google and HandsOn would place the particular needs of organizations at the forefront of their new initiative. Google mentions that its Tech Corps members will be trained in its own nonprofit tools. Although familiarity with these tools may prove helpful to some, the solutions its Corps will be able to offer organizations after this kind of training are still highly prescriptive and techno-centric. Nonprofits need and deserve to have a voice in determining the nature of the project that will presumably transform their organizations. For Corps members, much more important than technology skills are the skills to collaborate with organization staff and work toward a solution. For organizations, a technology solution that is well planned-for and has the support of staff is more valuable than a predetermined set of technology practices. Rather than prescribing specific practices, the Transmission Project serves as adviser during the project design process, so that organizations are prepared to maximize the impact that the addition of a Digital Arts Service Corps member makes.

The above was written by Howie Fisher and the top collage created by Billy Brown—both Digital Arts Service Corps members serving with the Transmission Project whose value far exceeds any training seminars they can deliver.

“Describe the basis for your approach to this project. How did you determine the need for this project now and who was included in its design?”

From the Gilbert Center in an excellent article entitled “ Asking the Wrong Questions: Challenging Technocentrism in Nonprofit Technology Planning”:

In every domain in life, the questions we ask shape the responses we get. Our questions reveal our frame of reference and impose that frame on our answers. As a result, much is revealed by examining the assumptions, the reasoning, and the logic models of our questions.

I believe that most practitioners of nonprofit technology planning are asking the wrong questions. Because their questions are largely about technology, the results of these questions are answers dominated by the logic of technology itself, rather than by the mission or methods of the organization.

Many observers will agree that common complaints about technology projects – resistance to change, long sales cycles, inappropriate technology, unexpected costs, unused tools – are often the inevitable result of this technocentric planning. The only way to unravel this problem is to go to the source and challenge the questions we ask.[…]

What Should Planners Ask? It’s useful to look at other domains for inspiration about what the right questions might be. Although a proper examination would involve a much larger set of domains, for our purposes today, let’s look at eye doctors and shoe sales-people.

Eye doctors don’t determine how to correct your vision by looking at what kind of glasses you have been wearing recently. They evaluate your vision directly and possibly they investigate some lifestyle or workstyle issues, such as the typical distance of objects that you need to see. Even though your current glasses might reveal something about your eyesight, they don’t use that as a form of assessment. Eye doctors rely on questions about eyes and about seeing, not questions about eyeglasses.

Shoes sales folk don’t do an inventory of your shoes in order to sell you a new pair. Even though it’s true that such an inventory might help them sell to you, even people with such a solid sales agenda focus instead on other things. They measure your feet, for example. They investigate your walking habits and contexts. They watch you walk. Shoe sales folks rely on questions about feet, fashion, and walking (or running or standing), not questions about shoes.

From these two examples, we can start to learn what kinds of questions planners should be asking. In both of these cases, the questions that allow the professional to offer the right technology are not technological questions. Instead, they ask questions about behavior and context. The behavioral questions are often goal directed and look at practices which, though they will likely be served by the technology, are not about the technology. The context questions, being both personal and practical, give the professional an understanding of the systems into which the technology will be introduced. Those systems include other technologies, but are in no way limited by them.

What Are Nonprofit Techies Asking?

[…] I started with the TechAtlas Basic Interactive Technology Assessment & Technology Project Recommendations. To their credit, TechAtlas asks you to describe your organization’s mission. They promise to include that mission statements at the top of the documents produced. Unfortunately, there is very little in TechAtlas that actually tries to connect the technology plan to that mission, other than technology vision statement. Instead, the Basic Assessment asks about hardware, networks, virus protection, backups, databases, email, the Web, the Internet, training, and software.

What’s missing? It doesn’t ask about communication practices, business processes, stakeholder relationships, or anything else that might actually lead to meaningful requirements. The questions of the Basic Assessment provide a classic example of the determinism inherent in technocentric inquiry. In essence, each question takes the form of “Are you doing ______ (insert tech we think is good)?” If the answer is no, then the recommendations are more or less “Well, you should!”

The title for this post comes from our RFP for organizations requesting the support of the Digital Arts Service Corps; it is an effective bellwether for overall project success.

Failure on balance

From Chris Rabb’s Invisible Capital:

The often-vaunted entrepreneurial travails of the elite Silicon Valley cohort are emblematic of the kind of entrepreneurial culture that values failure not only as an accepted part of business life, but an expected and highly valued precondition for greater opportunity and professional insight. (Of course, if the financial and professional downsides of shutting down a new venture do not irreparably hurt one’s financial net worth or tamper with one’s safety net or job prospects, it’s far easier to be philosophical about the benefits of “failure.”)

Capturing well-being, not simply access and speed

In January the Associated Press had a widely run article entitled “For minorities, new ‘digital divide’ appears” by Jesse Washington. On the Digital Inclusion Network commenter Jeff Smith wrote of it:

For me, this article perfectly frames a long-standing problem in public policy: understanding access vs. use, and making judgments about those uses.

Following trends in public policy, academic study and government services, most practitioners measure access, delivery speed & delivery accuracy. Usual questions in need of answering are: What percentage of eligible persons have access to this program? How quickly did they receive services and Did the right person(s) get the proper amounts according to his/her eligibility?

A perfect example comes from the perfect example comes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps. For years, government simply made food stamps available to those who were eligible and knew about it. Then a concerted effort was made to increase the amount of people who knew about the program. Metrics being monitored were about access, delivery speed and delivery accuracy. It’s not that these metrics do not make sense, but they’re inadequate to understand efficacy. Until recently, very little has gone into designing a SNAP system that can measure a person’s well-being after having used food stamps. This problem spans many human services programs, but a lot of work is going into better-understanding how aid is used.

Turning to mobile phone access versus use, my own research indicates that access only tells a fraction of the story. In a 2005 study, Leonard Waverman, Fellow at the London Business School and Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, found that, “A developing country which had an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 would have enjoyed per capita GDP growth that was 0.59 percent higher than an otherwise identical country.” After updating that study with data spanning to 2008, I found that increasing mobile phones by 10 per 100 people had a far smaller affect on per capita GDP growth (around four times less impact that the 2005 study indicated). This was in line with intuition. Dramatic increases of mobile phone use in the world’s poorest nations (The Gambia saw 0 per 100 in 2000; by 2008, the country had over 70 mobile phones per 100 people) did very little to translate to actual gains in per capita GDP growth in those nations.

Does this mean that cell phones in poor countries have had no effect on making lives better or enhancing economic growth? No. But it means that simply giving access to technology will yield similarly simplistic results. In fact, a study about fish markets in India is a great example of how cell phones have had significant dividends for communities (users and non-users alike). See study pdf at:

As more people look to delineate access and use, as Pew and others are trying to do, especially among different socio-economic classes or races, policy questions must try to capture some measures of well-being - not simply access and speed.