This March over 2,100 technology professionals working for and with nonprofits descended on Washington DC for the annual NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference, affectionately known as #14NTC. I'm still working through all my Evernote notes, but here are a few ideas that stood out.
One of this year's hot topics was data visualization, the art and science of representing numbers and facts in a visually appealing and meaningful way. Our brains can identify and undertand visual relationships much faster than textual or numeric data, and dataviz (the only thing tech people love more than buzzwords is buzzword slang) puts this ability to use. By converting facts and figures to charts, maps, and diagrams, dataviz practitioners can quickly tell a much more accurate and compelling story. Charts and graphs have obviously been around forever, but the quick-scan nature of online reading makes them even more important. Additionally, new tools that allow natural interaction (dragging timelines, zooming in on areas of interest, etc) encourage spending time with data in a way that further enhances its impact. At Rock River Star, we've been nerds for maps, math, and data for years, and have recently begun building a practice around data driven storytelling. We'll be launching some cool examples in the coming months.
The data visualization presentation session I attended had some great background information plus some useful tips and tools that anyone can use to enhance their visual representation of data. Check it out!
It's not about the technology!
I heard lots interesting and valuable things at #14NTC, but there was one chorus that some people continue to sing, that I think needs to be revised. One phrase I heard repeated was "Tech isn't what matters. Tech helps you do what matters." I don't think anyone thinks tech is what matters anymore. When an executive director a runs to her staff and asks how they can use Vine, she clearly knows Vine isn't going to feed the children. She wants to know how she can use Vine to feed the children.
I think the "It's not about the technology" chorus can be used to justify a resistance to change, which is ironic, because NTEN'ers frequently identify resistance to change as a problem within their organizations. I think this view comes from having seen organizations jump into the latest new technology, only to waste time and money for little or no results. The last thing an NPtech person wants to be is the one person known for dragging their heels, which could jeopardize their ability to introduce other new technologies.
The truth is, you can be an early adopter without losing sight of what matters, and the best way to do this is to use my final takeaway from the conference, which is...
As someone who spends time in both nonprofit and entrepreneurial circles, it's been interesting to see some convergence of thought in recent years. The two concepts I noticed this year are lean, and fail fast. For NPtech people who've made a career of doing amazing things quickly with no budget, it must be satisfying to see the business world respect that approach now. What began as lean manufacturing (basically, agressive waste reduction) has spread to every area of business and nonprofits as well -- although again, nonprofits have always worked miracles with limited resources.
But new to NP lingo, and judging by some NTC conversations, scary to many, is the idea of failing fast. The notion was popularized by startups operating purely online, and shedding the idea that your product had to be perfect before shipping it. It's expensive and slow to recall a physical product with a bug in it, but comparatively cheap to fix a bug in a website. By eliminating the fear of an expensive fix, startups are free to pilot new ideas, with real customers, and cancel them if they're not received well.
So how does this relate to using Vine to feed the children? I think it's something like this:
2006: Let's run after new technologies and ignore our mission.
2010: Let's focus on our mission and ignore new technologies.
2014: Let's focus on our mission and use new technologies to our advantage. When we pilot a new technology we'll put forth reasonable effort and test as thoroughly as possible, but make a quick decision to drop it or adopt it.
I really appreciate the opportunity NTEN and the annual NTC afford to participate in these sort of meta-conversations about NPtech strategies. I also appreciate the opportunity to meet and connect with new people. This year I was introducted to Shari Cartun who runs an NTEN Community of Practice around Nonprofits & Data. The group holds a monthly conference call to discuss various topics of interest to people working with data, analytics, outcome measurements, and dataviz in the nonprofits world. It's a great group of people with a wide variety of interests and skills. With any luck we'll be able to present a session at #15NTC in Austin, TX!