Paul Roeland is an integrator, organizer, and open source advocate and a keynote speaker at Plone Symposium East 2012. The title of his keynote is: “Better Tools for a Better World; Leveraging Technology to Enable Successful Nonprofit Communities.” It will focus on the role of technology in enabling nonprofit communities to self-organize and to become more effective and accountable.

For more information and to register for Plone Symposium East 2012, go to: http://weblion.psu.edu/symposium.

How did you end up going from being a physicist to working in the nonprofit environmental organization world?

Even while studying geophysics, I was more interested in the potential of earthquake research than yet more oil exploration. So I guess the whole idea of nonprofits was appealing. But it became irresistible when I met other geeks working on similar topics, from the early stages of hacktivism to using proper science to check environmental records of big corporations, not gut feeling. Dishing up a juicy scandal is just so much better with properly checked facts. 😉 In short, I find having people with a scientific background on board is very useful to various nonprofits, but vice-versa, it is also a great feeling to apply your scientific knowledge in positive ways. <insert obligatory Spiderman quote here>

What are some of the benefits that technology offers to nonprofits?

Technology, and especially computer technology, is a great equalizer. It radically reduces the cost and enhances the speed of organizing. This can pit a modest-sized but smart nonprofit against an oil giant or government on almost equal footing. Not only on the communications level, but sometimes even crowdsourcing scientific data. The open-source idea, especially, has a great deal to offer nonprofits. On a technological level, but also on a philosophical and cultural level. Not so much open-source software, but the related fields of open data and open standards can have potentially huge impacts on the world of nonprofits. Data journalism will become a skill set much sought after by nonprofits. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Any nonprofit can just as easily become the object of scrutiny and criticism, and therefore any failures in your own communications and/or research will be mercilessly picked apart. Nobody will believe a nonprofit on their pretty blue eyes anymore, so it puts extra strain on nonprofits to deliver solid reports. Note that I see this as a positive, not a negative, but it is something to reckon with before you start playing with technology.

What are the advantages of using Plone for a nonprofit organization like Clean Clothes or a university?

Plone is robust, secure, and easy for end users. Just the cost you can save on training your end users, because the interface is logical (and available in many languages) outweighs any potential ‘it does not run on $5-a-month-hosting’ arguments. Furthermore, quite a few nonprofits have a surprisingly high need for security and advanced workflows. I’ve seen and used extranets where 12 levels of access and hundreds of groups and local roles were the absolute bare minimum, not some paranoid sysadmin’s fantasy 😉 Now, try doing that in anything else but Plone. I have, and let me tell you that wasn’t pretty… Then, there’s the community. Plone is rather special in the emphasis it places on community. Now, that’s something nonprofits, and universities, can relate to and thrive on. That community is also very friendly. As a nonprofit or academic institution, you can participate in Plone discussions and your questions will usually be seen as valid, interesting and helpful use-cases, not as annoying demands from badly paying customers. There’s a reason why the percentage of nonprofit and academic participants is so high on conferences and events…

Can you give a specific example of how technology helps nonprofits?

Quite a few. In my line of work, the combination of geo-tagging and mapping combined with the ubiquity of low-cost tech like SMS has the potential to transform reporting and exposing, and give a direct voice to millions of sweatshop and electronics workers. Also, the argument that setting up an effective monitoring system on a whole supply chain would be too costly for companies, has become void. That system is in effect already in place; tracking & tracing, insurance, logistics companies do it in a very cost-effective way. So, just add some Open Data bells & whistles, and we’re in business. Reluctance to do so is no longer an economical, but a political argument. Ah, now it gets interesting 😉

What can people expect to take away from your keynote? Anything else you might like to add?

I aim to provide some inspiring examples of how the technology we create as a community is being used in creative ways, and how nonprofits can and should adapt to also contribute their knowledge back. Oh, and waking everybody up with some entertainment for their second day at PSE is probably also in the job description…

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