Another social platform for development cooperation?

I received some interesting reactions on the launch of my idea to start developing a social networking platform for all player in the development sector.

Commenting on the launch of this blog, Brit Bravo suggested to have a look at WiserEarth. This is a directory and networking forum that maps out and connects organisations that are working on social justice, poverty, and environmental issues.

Josien Kapma pointed towards an interesting blog post by David Wilcox where he discusses a number of web initiatives that claim they are the Facebook of the non-profit sector (the most interesting ones perhaps being My Charity Page and UnLtdWorld).

In the comment section of the Social Innovation Camp page where I presented my COOpen.net ideas, Brechtje Walburgh Schmidt suggested to have a look at Kanaal Sociaal Nederland. This is a platform where Dutch non-profits can share information about projects, publications and links with regard to various social needs they are addressing.

By email, I received comments from Dorine Rüter and Johannes Schunter. They both advised me to look at CIARIS, a Learning and Resources Centre on Social Inclusion that aims to strengthen development cooperation practicioners’ capacity to design, plan, manage and evaluate projects and policies to fight social exclusion. To do this, CIARIS collects information and knowledge and connects people.

Dorine Rüter also wrote that although she supports the idea of cooperation and keeping eachother informed in the development sector, her first reaction was: “not another portal!”. She stressed that I had to keep in mind that ICT-illiterate or resistant staff of development organisations may not be willing to invest time in yet another social platform.  

After reviewing all the suggested sites, it’s clear to me that none of them comes close that what I have in mind and what I think is needed for the development cooperation sector. CIARIS is an interesting resource centre and network of people, not a social platform where organisational profiles are linked to one another. Kanaal Sociaal is a knowledge data base and a directory of organisations working on social issues in The Netherlands, but it’s not a social platform using web 2.0 technologies. UnLtdWorld does use web 2.0 technologies and integrates a lot of the applications that I envision for COOpen.net. However, they again focus on individuals.

What I am looking for is a social platform that gives a clear picture of all the connections between the organisations, using the basic applications of a open social network. In Last.fm , everyone can see who are my Friends (the people that I indicated as my connections) and who are my Neighbours (the people that have a connection with my based on the content of our dynamic musical profiles). I think we need the same type of social application in development cooperation. Every organisation could have a dynamic profile (a much more productive version of our individual Facebook profiles) and could show with which other organisations it has linkages. For example an INGO with an office in Honduras has a profile that shows what it’s doing in agriculture. It shows linkages to 20 partner organisations (i.e. farmer associations and community based organisations) in the Northern part of the country, a link to a Fair Trade organisation in Germany, a link to the FAO, a link to consultancy agency that they hired for capacity building, and all their data (together with data from other offices of the INGO in Africa) feeds also into the master profile of INGO.  Each of the partner organisations they work with have a profile as well. That profile should confirm the connection with the mentioned INGO, but may also show lots of other connections they have. All connections have a discription specifying the nature of the collaboration (like in Facebook, where you can edit details about how you know your contact) and this could have linkages to for example shared project pages. All profiles are developing based on (geo)tags that the organisations linked to the training materials, evaluations and publications they uploaded, the themes they work on, geographical areas they work in, the organisations they link to, the articles they’ve bookmarked, etc. The resulting organisational profile pages can function as web 2.0 additions to the websites of organisations, or even replace them.

Such a global, open and dynamic social platform for organisations, generating very valuable “development cooperation data” does not exist at the moment. In my opinion therefore, this is not a proposal for yet another development portal or social network. It’s something completely new, with a totally different functionality than the examples suggested by the people that commented on my blog posts. 

The WiserEarth example suggested by Britt Bravo comes closest to what I have in mind, but still is a long way from what I am proposing. It has an impressive database of 108,000 user-generated organisational profiles and was developed to address a similar need as the one I have advocated in this blog. Most importantly, as part of the WiserEarth application each organisation can add other organisations to its network. Sadly enough, that network feature is not really working. There are only few examples on the WiserEarth site of organisations that have added the organisations they are linked to. Why? Is it because of the reluctance of employees of these organisations to be updating yet another social network. Or does it have to do with a broader reluctance of the development cooperation sector to provide openness.  

Development Cooperation needs a redesign in its architecture and a shift towards networked collaboration. However, it’s clear that it will be a challenge to roll out a global social network where all organisations are providing openness about their work and how they are embedded in local and national networks. That’s why this should not just be driven by the organisations themselves but also be pushed by funding agencies, the general public, and the people who’s needs these organisations are addressing.

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10 responses to “Another social platform for development cooperation?

  1. Hi Arjen,

    I support your arguments about going one step beyond and feeling that what’s already out there is not enough.

    On the other hand, I can also understand the reluctance of the “oh-no-not-yet-another-portal” and the barriers in skills that some (many) people and (especially) organizations still have.

    I know what I’m going to say is not very popular but… what about trying to launch your idea in the framework of ICT4D NGOs only?

    No, not trying to build a two-speed network for NGOs, nor two classes, but just being practical: early adopters will be eager to try new things… and set the path for the ones to come after.

    Just wondering…

  2. Hi there Arjen,
    Thanks for making the effort to explain in detail what you actually envision with COOpen.net.

    I think the ‘why?’question (why aren’t organisations using the networking feature of WiserEarth?) is crucial to your project and how it should commence/be introduced/develop/etcetera.

    The organisation I work for (NGO/consultancy organisation) definately has no problem with sharing who we work for/with, so in our case it would mainly be lack of time to start using this network/tool. Entering data AND maintaining that information should be worth the effort and time. That means we need to be sure that:
    1.) People use this tool so that it makes the organisations using it more visible (including for acquisition purposes, etc.) and
    2.) The information available is accurate so that we ourselves can use it to establish new links with others (i.e. find ‘friends’ and ‘neighbours’).

    It probably is a bit of a chicken-egg situation. We won’t be using the tool unless our main partners/donors are, and they in turn will most likely have a similar idea.

    While I am typing this, I see Ismaels comment appear and I don’t think it’s such a bad idea at all. Getting a group of early adopters might do the trick. Of course, be carefull with the ‘brand’ you’re creating. You don’t want it to be too much ‘ICT’ minded to get the support of the larger development community.

    It could be you also need to convince and team up with those people that are already building/hosting similar tools. Because of the huge supply, the ‘market’ for this kind of thing could just be too crowded.

    Finally, a more practical question. What do you mean with (geo) tagging publications? I.e. how could our organisation, with it’s own website on which our publications are (or should be…) uploaded, ‘tag’ those without too much of an extra effort? Are you talking del.icio.us kind of tagging or something completely different? Hope you can explain.

    Thanks again. I’ll keep an eye on your initiative and hope many others will comment and provide you with suggestions. The change you seek in the development world might have started when you posted your idea.

    Regards,
    Dorine

  3. Looks like a complete blog post… That should make up for me not writing anything on my own blog since months ago!! Now let’s hope it’s of any use to you.

  4. As an editor and outreach co-ordinator on WiserEarth, I read your blog post with interest. Creating collaborations and connections in the currently fragmented world of the development sector is key to avoiding the duplication of efforts and making sure resources go where they are needed – however it’s a big job…and time and resources (and often the motivation) are lacking. WiserEarth.org could be in a position to help. It started off simply as a database attempting to map out the good happening around the world…108,000 organization listings later, it has gradually been developing its networking capabilities (and yes, at the moment, many organizations are still not using these features for exactly the reasons cited above in your blog posting). As a nonprofit project aimed at serving the NGO community, it needs to get better at encouraging the networking aspects of the site. But how to do this? As a community-driven website, we (the editors on the site) are hoping that the answers are out there in the community….so that ‘yet another portal’ will not be needed. With thanks for the important work everyone is doing out there. Camilla

  5. I think your idea is pretty interesting. One of the questions you need to ask however, is whether a social networks with organisational entities as main actors would work as well as a network among individuals. One of the reason for the Web2.0 success is that individuals can act freely, in kind of an anarchiv way, thus harnessing the benefits of quick reaction, adaption and exchange. But if it’s organsations acting in this network, any interaction would be closely tied to the policies and procedures existing in these organisations. Who would be responsible, who owns the content and who can say what in the name of the organsiation through this network? That’s pretty tricky to answer and I think the obstacles for free exchange through such a network would be pretty high.

  6. Thanks for your comments about CIARIS and I think your suggestion of a “clear picture of all the connections between the organisations” is an important one and you are not the only one looking for such a thing. It looks like we are going to take the next development of CIARIS (called “Shirikisha”) in that direction. I’ll keep you posted …

  7. Hi,

    I’m the chief strategist at UnLtdWorld. Thanks for the mention.

    I just wanted to add to your coverage that UnLtdWorld, incorporates a “neighbourhoods” feature, which similarly to Last.fm dynamically connects people around different parametres of similarity.

    Also, in terms of organisations – we recently launched the Research Lab (www.unltdworld.com/lab) which provides a deep breakdown of the network, and will soon release APIs to make these accessible and usable within and beyond UnLtdWorld. An example, could be for organisation to dynamically and more efficiently connect, interact and engage with their audience through an application, or for researchers to use parts of our data within their own projects/sites.

    Organisations can of course also create profiles or groups, yet the focus is on people as at the end of the day people, even if as representatives of an organisation, and not organisations, use social networks.

    Feel free to email me if you have any questions or would like further info: alberto at unltdworld dot com .

  8. It’s a really good idea to have a universal W3 database, and the initial concept doesn’t sound at all expensive. However, I forsee there are a number of political and organisational obstacles.

    Like most coordination mechanisms, there would be no obligation on organisations to participate.
    Therefore there would need to be a demonstrable benefit to participating organisations, or they just wouldn’t bother. This is a constant problem in the humanitarian sector.
    The complexity of organisations and relationships and projects in the non-profit world could be very hard to model

  9. Hi Arjen

    Thanks for the mention. You may be interested in a new project I’m working on to explore the implications of Web 2.0 f for membership organisations http://www.commonspace.org.uk. Also I hope to see you at Social Innovation Camp, where I’ll be exploring Andy Gibson’s ideas for Partner Up http://www.sicamp.org/?page_id=38.

  10. Pingback: Social Platform for Development Cooperation: How does it work? What does it look like? « Orgbook

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