An Interview with Allen Gunn of Social Source Commons

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In continuation of our series of interviews with the Featured Projects that went to the NetSquared Conference (N2Y2), today's interview is with Allen Gunn, the Executive Director of Aspiration, a nonprofit that connects other nonprofits to software solutions that help them more effectively meet their missions of positive global change. Aspiration's Social Source Commons was one of the Featured Projects.

You can listen to the interview and hear their 5-minute pitch at the NetSquared Conference on the NetSquared Podcast.

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Allen Gunn: I'm Allen Gunn, Executive Director at Aspiration in San Francisco. Aspiration works to make it easier for nonprofits to effectively use software in their mission, by both training and also working with developers to get better software created.

Britt Bravo: What is the Social Source Commons, and how does it work?

AG: The Social Source Commons, at its essence, is an inventory of all nonprofit relevant software. It aims to map out "what's out there" as nonprofits look to fill their software needs. It is, over time, aiming to be a much larger collaborative platform that also has the ability to aggregate relevant information about specific software tools and about categories of software tools.

Currently, there's almost 1,900 software tools documented in the database, and we're seeing the site growing really steadily, as more users come online and share the tools that they're using.

Our longer-term goal is to set the site up so that, as new content comes online at TechSoup or comes online at Idealware or any of a number of other excellent, nonprofit technology content publishers, we on the Social Source Commons side can aggregate that, to make it easier for individuals who are, for instance, keeping an eye on Drupal, or keeping an eye on a category of tools, to see the range of things that are being written and published about that tool or those tool categories.

And longer-term, we hope to make it so that users can more directly collaborate with one another. The platform currently doesn't really support peer-to-peer question and answer kind of functionality, but that is certainly something that we hope to do in the coming months, as well as make it easier for people to build up frequently asked questions and other sort of knowledge assets.

The platform is certainly envisioned, long-term, to try and capture that which those in the nonprofit sector know, so that we are not constantly reinventing or rediscovering these learnings that so many individual nonprofits are forced to do under the current model, where there are excellent resources, but they're not well-connected, and as a result, you don't always know what's out there.

BB: Where did the idea for the Social Source Commons come from?

AG: The idea for the Social Source Commons came from several different places. Originally, the core vision was put forth by both Jonathan Peizer and Ethan Zuckerman, in separate documents, where they talked about the need for a social source forge, which is to say a repository for open source software that was relevant or focused on the nonprofit and non-governmental sectors.

As we looked at the project and tried to characterize what would be most useful, we spoke with dozens, if not hundreds, of technologists, both in the US and internationally, who were working in this sector, and got the feedback that a repository was less of what was needed, and an inventory was really the burning need.

Something that put open source options side-by-side with proprietary options and tried to put them in some kind of context: the context of who is using what, what is a given tool good for, and, over time, what new tools are coming online and becoming available for the nonprofit sector.

And so, we spent, I would say, a year and a half researching the project and really trying to tease out the mandate of exactly how such a project could serve both the US nonprofit sector and also the global non-governmental sector.

And at the midpoint of 2005, in about July of 2005, we started coding, and have since then done a number of user engagement events and processes, to really make sure we're creating a tool that the eRiders and the IT people at nonprofits really do need and will use, by virtue of the fact that it allows them to find tools or track tools that are mission critical in their work.

BB: Can you give an example or tell a story of how the Social Source Commons has created positive change?

AG: We certainly get told, on a number of occasions, by our users, that they really are finding tools they did not know existed. One of the most recent feedbacks I got that was fun was somebody went looking for web collaboration tools and did not realize how many solid, open source web collaboration platforms were out there.

And so, they were able, just by doing a search on "open source collaboration tools" to find a number of tools that they were then able to sort of investigate. I'm not sure which one they selected, but I believe one of the ones they discovered ended up being their final selection.

One of the other things that we've done recently, in partnership with Camille at Upwardly Global, is we've put together a toolbox, a collection of tools about geographic information systems.

And so, there's now a fairly comprehensive list of GIS software that's relevant to nonprofit needs, along with documentation about online communities and online resources so that if you want to educate yourself on the potential for using maps and other geographic visualization in your programmatic work, how to sort of get started, where you can turn to for help, and what else is out there.

I think that's the longer-term vision, is to create more of these toolboxes, which, each one, owing to RSS, works somewhat like a radio station. As new tools or content comes into the toolbox, anyone watching that toolbox in their RSS reader can get notified about those new resources being available. I think, as we build up more of those, in areas like e-advocacy, we'll certainly continue to improve our geographic information systems stuff.

And I think another focus for us is going to be translation and localization tools. We're trying to build these hubs that could, over time, become collaborative centers, for people who want to track categories of software, because the dialog that we really want to drive long-term is about gaps. What's missing, and how can we be facilitative in helping to get missing tools created?

BB: What's the next step for the Social Source Commons? What are some of its goals and challenges?

AG: Well, I think the ongoing goal is to increase the value proposition for the users. Is this platform really delivering rich value to them? And I think we are close to a value tipping point, but we haven't created a site that people come to every day. And I'm not sure that's realistic, but that's certainly our goal, is to make it an interesting enough place that you can be tuning in on a regular basis and getting new information.

I certainly think, with proper fundraising success, we will try to build a channel model on top of the current Social Source Commons, so there will be thematic channels. This is certainly something that Laura Quinn at Idealware has been championing, and we're working with a group of organizations to try and see if we can build out a vision for how that might work.

And I think we also just want to solve some fundamental missing pieces. The platform, for a lot of reasons, doesn't currently email people information, and so that's a gap that we obviously want to fix. Currently, RSS is your primary notification, but most people in the sector are still living on email, so we absolutely want to do that.

And I think, overall, what we really, really want to do is help individuals realize that they can connect, both to other people and to resources that will allow them to be effective where they are. In a perfect future world, we are also able to create better documentation, or augment what's already out there with contextualizing resources that help people really make sense.

And we would certainly do that in partnership with the people that are already doing that. We don't see ourselves writing that content. But TechSoup is doing great stuff. Laura Quinn at Idealware is doing great stuff. There are just a number of people that are writing great content, including bloggers like Beth Kanter or Allan Benamer. There's just a bunch of people that write really good stuff.

And so we're hoping, in some sense, to be the glue that ties all that together, and in doing that, hopefully deliver a richer experience for our users so that they have a dashboard of the nonprofit software that they care about and an ability to track that in a fairly time-effective way.

BB: What was the positive impact for Social Source Commons, going to the NetSquared Conference?

AG: Well, I think, first and foremost, it was a phenomenal opportunity to get in front of several hundred incredibly smart, influential people, tell our story, and get asked a lot of good, challenging questions about what we're doing. So I certainly think, just on the level of being questioned about our sustainability strategy, our technology strategy, and a number of other things, it was a real maturation point for us.

It was a chance for us to realize where we had really gotten somewhere and where we still needed to really focus on improving the platform and the vision. It was also a great chance to find people that we might partner with later on toolboxes or on content. We had a really good time collecting business cards and now following up on that set of opportunities.

I think, overall, the best part about the NetSquared experience was just that, in putting it out there, A, it's clear that there isn't another critter like this around. We are doing a unique thing, and it was nice to see that it was well-received and people understood what we were trying to do. It was also humbling, but extremely powerful, to realize exactly what people were looking for that we don't currently have.

And I think the format that NetSquared was in really allowed that focus to be on the project for an almost disproportionate amount of time, which was obviously to our benefit. And to the extent that we did get a better idea about sustainability strategies, just by being grilled by the sustainability panel, I think that's always a good thing.

Because you were asking earlier about some of our long-term challenges, I want to find a way to help Social Source Commons pay its own bills, and that's an unsolved problem.

We've been very fortunate to have very, very generous supporters up to this point, and moving forward, we would really like to find a way to generate an income on the platform, whether it's by consulting some of the content there or actually building in models for people to actually pay for certain features on the site, we're definitely trying to be as forward-looking as we can in making that a possibility.

BB: How can listeners help move the Social Source Commons work forward?

AG: Oh, very simple. Get an account on Social Source Commons, tell us about the tools that you're using, and let us know how this site could be a better dashboard for your nonprofit software needs.

We are extremely responsive to user feedback. As I said, we run a couple of events a year where we actually engage our users, over the course of a weekend or a three-day weekend, and try to get people to tell us what they like and what they don't like. And so, using the platform, telling us what's missing, and just giving us our marching orders would be extremely appreciated.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about Social Source Commons and its work?

AG: Well, I'd make a couple general comments. Social Source Commons, as we seek to figure out how to help other people create better software tools for the sector, we are documenting, as we go, the process of creating what will be an open source platform for meeting a nonprofit need.

And so we're trying to be very intentional about documenting, all the way back to the inception of the project, what we've done, in terms of requirements gathering, engaging the potential users, doing these focus sessions and these design events, so that, over time, we can really tell the story of the process that got this critter created.

We have not written that document yet, but we're hoping long-term to really be able to speak from our own experiences about what are best practices for creating open source tools in the sector; not because we're experts, but because, in doing it and in doing it with awareness, we learn, both from our mistakes and from our successes, those things that we would recommend to others.

In addition, Social Source Commons could be called, "yet another grand experiment in open content." We have modeled Social Source Commons on some of the editorial conventions of a Wikipedia type of site. Any user can edit any data on the site. And in addition, because of the tagging model that we support, users have that democratic control of categorization and grouping of tools and tool sets.

And so, I think, as we get more data in the database and get more users to tell us how useful the platform is, I'm very interested to see how far we can take this grand, open content vision of peer knowledge sharing in the sector.

At the present time, we currently manage about 75 to 80 percent of the content on the site, and user content, non-Aspiration users do, on any given month, between 15 and 25 percent of the data. And that's not bad, but obviously we'd like to take that number higher. It would be a happy day that we see something like a Wikipedia style percentage, where the vast majority of contributors are free agents in the community.

And it's on us; it's on Aspiration, to create enough of a value proposition that makes it so that those people, by investing their energy and sharing their knowledge, get back an equal amount of benefit and value for their time. And I think we're part way there, but we're not all of the way there.

So that is sort of our ongoing dance with destiny is trying to figure out how this platform can really reciprocate on people's contributions, because at the point that we've gotten people motivated to share their knowledge, we're addressing a fundamental challenge in the nonprofit sector, which is capacity building through peer knowledge sharing.

As it currently stands, you have these bottleneck "experts" who are booked three to six months out into the future before they can talk to you about their website or help you with your accounting packages or give you advice on selecting a fundraising tool. And while those will always be needed players, our hope is that, by creating this platform, and by building new collaborative features on top of what's already there, we really do enable more peer knowledge sharing and more lateral capacity building in the sector.

Because, to me, that's radical change in the nonprofit tech space, when we're not queued up, waiting for some small number of so-called experts, and instead, there are a richer set of resources that we can push each other to and route our knowledge through. And if we get to there, well then, I'll be very proud of what Social Source Commons has helped to create.