I’m not a professional techie, so I was honored to be asked for my thoughts on “clouds” and the social sector by the tech-smarties over at NTEN. Here’s the piece they recently ran - alongside insights from folks at Microsoft  and NetSquared - real techies. And while you’re over there, check out their report on the Data Ecosystem. Good stuff (free to NTEN members, $50 for nonmembers) Or read Danah Boyd on data and the mess of publicity and privacy (which I found through NTEN). You can also check out NTEN’s annual conference site. The conference is underway now - April 8- 10.

Photo from VisualPanic, Flickr, Creative Commons

Once upon a time, just a little more than a century ago, every factory that wanted to run its systems on electricity had to build its own electrical generating system. Thomas Edison and a few other entrepreneurs put an end to this by building an electrical grid - so factory owners could focus on making shirts or chairs or widgets and not on running their own electrical plants.

Cloud computing offers us all the same freedom for our information infrastructure (“Infostructure”). Most of us now host all of our applications and our data and our email systems documents/spreadsheets, etc. on our own servers or desktops. In addition to running a youth organization or a job training program or an environmental advocacy campaign, you are also running an information and technology system on which you do your work.  With cloud computing, you access your software applications over the Internet using a web browser. Chances are you probably already do this with Yahoo Mail or Google Docs or Flickr or Salesforce or Twitter or Facebook.

Some of the benefits of cloud computing are obvious - many of the programs noted above are free (that’s good), version upgrades are instantaneous and don’t require you to contact an IT department and you can access your files from any computer. 

Some of the downsides are also fairly clear—you may lose connectivity (and not be able to get to your stuff), the hosting company could go out of business (and you won’t be able to get to your stuff), and you need to really think through the security options and offerings provided (so that someone you don’t want to get to your stuff gets to your stuff). Hosted applications and platforms also require equitable access pathways, so while low cost hardware is available, it is broadband and mobile divides that are important.

Cloud computing on a broad scale will also fundamentally change how we work, where we work, and with whom we work. More importantly, over time we will see that the expectations that the cloud engenders have changed how we define what is worth working on. CrisisCamps are one example of how cloud computing lets us reimagine a problem and thus develop new solutions. 

CrisisCamps took off after the earthquake in Haiti. CrisisCamps are independent, disbursed, volunteer efforts to develop lightweight technology solutions to help with disaster relief. CrisisCamps first emerged from a meeting in DC in 2009 in which several dozen local engineers, nonprofit executives, disaster coordinators, and public sector executives got together to brainstorm better, faster disaster coordination possibilities. From this frame and initial thinking (which was captured on www.crisiscommons.org) a network of eager volunteers was ready to be mobilized after the earthquake hit.

In cities across America, Canada, Europe, the UK and South America,  local networks of techies, marketers, project managers, storytellers,  and others got together, identified problems and projects, shared those ideas across the network with other camps, assigned teams, built prototypes, shared and tested and launched several applications. These included an English-Creole dictionary phone app, tools for tagging photographs of displaced people, texting tools that could be coordinated with the Ushahidi text alert system, and several tagging and updating efforts of satellite imagery and maps. 

Project teams shared their progress with each other through a wiki,  volunteers were recruited through twitter and texts, and tools could be worked on by a project team in one place and then “handed off” virtually to teams in other regions. The basic protocols and roles of successful camps were documented in real time and shared in the cloud. Volunteers in one region could follow the twitter stream or hashtags from other groups and iterate off their progress almost as if they were all in one room.

By using cloud-based tools, these disbursed teams were working remotely and together on one shared system. There was one database of projects,  one set of guidelines for project management and shared progress-tracking system across boundaries, time zones, and domains of expertise. The work of the CrisisCamps was indeed both global and local —and the cloud infrastructure made it possible.

CrisisCamps is not a rogue example. At the 2009 NTEN conference session on cloud computing, we heard examples of shared evaluation tools,  databases of indicators that are being shared across networks of organizations, and cloud-hosted client intake forms that allow addiction programs to store their intake documents and aggregated reporting data in one place. This doesn’t just cut down on “form filling.” Frontline social workers are finding that this repository of data has put them in touch with colleagues’ expertise and helped them improve their work.

Even as we wrestle with questions about migrating data and applications from our servers to the cloud, the cloud is the norm for our mobile computing selves. The proliferation of smart phones and the apps they run means that we are working in the cloud more than we may even realize. The combination of these forces—the reach of the cloud and the “anywhere access” of mobile phones—takes us beyond boundary-shifting work spaces to fundamentally rethinking where solutions might come from. We will see more innovation along the lines of The Extraordinaries, which puts the power of volunteering into the hands of mobile phone users and reconfigures the relationships between organizations and individuals.

As we build the assumptions of the cloud and mobile apps into our work processes, we will find that we see problems differently and shape solutions in new ways. As the CrisisCamps example shows, disbursed teams of volunteers can be engaged, coordinated and productive over time zones, national borders, and several weeks of work. At the moment we are in transition from hosted applications to mobile access to the cloud.  As such, what we are seeing are early experiments in new ways of working. We can’t predict which experiments will work, but we can look to the new behaviors, new problem boundaries, and new sources of expertise that define these experiments, for therein we will find our path to the future.


*Infostructure = information + infrastructure. Since writing Disrupting Philanthropy and making the point that data are the new platform for change, I’ve learned a lot from a number of experts about the importance not just of open data but of open data structuring. I may have just coined this new term, infostructure, or I may be late to the game on this portmanteau, but I like it.