Friday, September 17, 2010

Under the Volcano: Social Actions and Canada's Digital Future

Today's columnist is Stephen Huddart from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Stephen writes:

Last April, on his way back to Canada from the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford, Peter Deitz ran into a roadblock in the form of Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano that halted flights over Europe. As a result, he spent a few days cooling his heels in London. He wasn't going anywhere and neither, he realized, was his plan to turn Social Actions into an independent and sustainable social enterprise.

As detailed in the July 2009 issue of the OSBR, Social Actions hosts an open source database that aggregates opportunities for people to make a difference on social and environmental issues. It draws content from over 60 online sources, including Canada Helps and Kiva. Its application programming interface (API) enables third-party developers to build web and mobile applications, such as the Related Ways to Take Action WordPress Plugin

Since its launch in 2007, Social Actions has achieved an impressive string of accomplishments. In 2008, it was a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge and won the Case Foundation's Donate Now Challenge. In 2009, it collaborated with NetSquared to host the Change the Web Challenge, a global competition that attracted over 30 new fully developed open source applications for improving the philanthropic content of the internet. Monthly "click-throughs" to actions are running around 20,000 and there are 100+ members in the Social Actions developer community.

However, despite the acclaim and the growing number of users, Social Actions didn't have a business plan. Over lunch recently, Peter reflected that, "for the first eighteen months, I avoided the whole idea of this being a business. If I were doing it again, I'd sort out the business model early on." In January, he and close collaborator, Michigan-based Christine Egger, realized that to keep going, they needed a reliable source of sustaining revenue.

Opportunity, or at least a way forward, came in the form of a personal encounter with author Nilofer Merchant, who gave Peter a copy of her book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy. Peter reviewed it in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and then he and Christine set about applying its framework to open sourcing an integrated funding strategy for Social Actions. They created a wiki to document the process, and discussed it on BlogTalkRadio.

Then the volcano spoke. While stranded in London, Peter realized that building a stand-alone institution was going to be a lot more difficult, and probably less impactful, than finding a permanent home for Social Actions within another organization.

A mentor, Allen Gunn of Aspiration Tech, advised Peter not to abandon the core values of Social Actions while looking for its new home. In Peter's words: "Gunner told me that he'd seen too many people walk away from their dream projects only to regret it. He also said that I should remember that, in the open source world, when everything is running smoothly, there are fewer opportunities for others to get involved. He helped me see the challenges of a transition as yet another chance for Social Actions to fulfill its mission of making the web more philanthropic."

A call for proposals was issued, and expressions of interest came in from major media companies, philanthropic institutions, and organizations already represented on the Social Actions platform. A shortlist of three finalists has emerged, and an announcement will be made soon. None of them is Canadian.

The story of Social Actions has some important lessons for those concerned with open source and the community sector in Canada. The sector is undergoing transformation on a global scale, and digital platforms are an important part of this. "A robust philanthropic web is certainly emerging and a variety of initiatives – both independent as well as embedded in larger organizational homes – are making important contributions to that ecosystem," Christine wrote to me, "At the same time, we're clearly not yet at the point where this web fully surrounds and supports social change projects regardless of where they're housed. But we’re getting there and Social Actions – from its new vantage point – will continue to be an important part of that evolution."

As we await the federal government's soon-to-be-announced digital economy strategy, let's hope that it supports investments in innovative open source projects, like Social Actions, that enable the web to further the public good.

No comments: