One of the coolest things about WordPress is the ability to create themes. It makes the seemingly simple blogging software into a (somewhat) full fledged content management system; so much so that when I start a project for a new website I ask, “why not use WordPress?” Publishing new content in the form of posts or pages is so easy, it’s nearly pain-free!
Why? Because now someone anywhere in the world can call my cellphone for trés cheap. If I don’t pick up, they’re forwarded to my cellphone’s voicemail.
This, my friend, is feature of sheer brilliance. I love you Skype!
To enable this functionality, you’ve got to have the absurdly cheap Skype Out. Once you’ve signed up:
- Open Skype
- Go to “File -> Preferences”
- Click on the “Calls” tab
- Activate the “Call Forwarding” box and enter your phone number with country code
It’s that simple! As an added bonus, when you’re not around a computer, it looks like you’re online anyway; you don’t have to be signed into Skype for someone half the way around the world to talk to you!
This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles on applying the concept of “open-source” to a non-profit organization.
A month or so ago, I was hit with the notion that the open-source movement might be applicable to systems beyond software. What I quickly realised, much like when I “invented” the word guesstimate, is that someone had probably already thought of this idea. Undaunted, I began to brainstorm on how I might apply it to an organization I’m working with called Whitman Direct Action, primarily because I feel the concept behind the organization itself is revolutionary and could prove to be a useful model for other colleges and universities to build upon.
For those who are not well-versed in open-source’s history, the philosophy could be argued to have gone pop culture with Linux, a free-to-use and distribute operating system licensed under the GNU Public License. The idea of free software had existed long before Linus Torvald started working on his operating system but, from my uneducated viewpoint, that’s when it began to go mainstream. At present, Linux has become the dominant operating system for many of the internet’s web servers, and a popular distro called Ubuntu is rapidly gaining popularity as a free and open alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary Windows operating system. Unless the trend changes, and again from my viewpoint, open-source architecture will continue moving broadening its marketshare because of the speed at which intellectual property now moves across the internet, as well as the apparent mutual advantages to people who collaborate on open-source projects.
This change in scenery is also apparent with the rapid rise of Wikipedia, a system that encourages adapting and building upon intellectual material. Wikipedia, for those who have been living under a rock for the past few years, is “the free dictionary” where anyone can edit and improve upon its articles. It relies on the collective intelligence of the masses, something normally believed to be inferior to a professional editor. However, a recent study found the Encyclopaedia Britannica had just a small percentage less errors per article than the seven year-old Wikipedia. Considering Wikipedia now has 8.29 million articles in 253 languages compared to the Britannica’s 29 print volumes, it’s no stretch to say the writing is on the wall.
Open-source is a tricky concept to explain to people who have little to no experience with programming. For those beginners, the term “source” refers to the structure of commands which lie behind any digitally created object and “open” implies that the code is free to use and distribute. Take, for instance, the construction of an automobile. Most cars and trucks have, among other things, an engine, a drivetrain, and a way to control the vehicle, sometimes called the wheel, gas pedal, and brake. Those systems are parallel conceptually to code in the digital world because they are the means to an end. They determine the overall output of the product. When you apply open-source to a car or truck, this means that the parts, or information to create the parts, is to be freely used and distributed. If person B wants to improve upon person A’s automobile, they would be free to copy and adapt person A’s orginal designs. Of course, persons C and A could then have access to the adaptations as well. In fact, a system like the one illustrated is beginning to take place in China. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything documents how businessmen in China have opted to open-source the designs of their motorcycles to cut down on the costs associated with developing intellectual property. Working together is now becoming a very smart business decision.
In another example, this piece of writing is being published by the open-source blogging software WordPress, and some of its research has been done on Wikipedia. The list goes on.
Jumping the fence from open-sourcing intellectual property such as code and blueprints to the functional structure of an organization has only recently become possible; thanks for the ability to do this goes to the spreading ubiquity of the internet, and the brilliant tools some companies are building on top of it. An open-source organization is one which seeks to become completely transparent to the public, meaning that any or all of its processes are easily visible and adaptable.
With Whitman Direct Action, or at least initially, we hope to:
- Podcast all and any of our staff meetings or phone calls
- Transform the departamental update emails into blog posts, and encourage interstaff discussion in the form of comments
- Make our financial strategies and budget freely available online
- License applicable content through Creative Commons
- Actively seek feedback from the community on any aspect of our organization, and make that conversation open to anyone
The driving philosophy, of course, is to make our organization “open-source” in the same sense of any software code: free to use, distribute, or modify.
I received an email earlier today from my friend DJ Strouse regarding what I felt about Mint, a newly launched personal finance organizer, and I thought: why not blog it?
Overall, it’s a wonderful idea for a niche whose surface has yet to be even scratched. Personal finance is an area I feel I’m extremely disorganized in and Mint does an excellent job of presenting, in web 2.0 fashion, my income and spending trends. I especially like the ability to receive alerts if I’m spending too much, or one of my accounts gets too low. Set-up correctly, this has the potential to be a very valuable tool in itself and could possibly make personal finance a brain-dead task.
The ability to track purposes with both categories and tags follows along with the web 2.0 vein, and shows that the company is forward thinking in its organizational philosophies. The user-interface for changing categories, however, could be drastically improved. If a purchase from a company is miscategorized, the user has to select all of the purchases on the list one by one in order to do a batch update. The smarter way to do this would be along the lines of gMail’s “filter” feature. I want the ability to apply my setting to previous purchases, not just future ones!
Presenting ways to save with sponsored companies is a brilliant, and often under-utilized, business model. It is smart and sustainable primarily because, ideally, both the consumer and the company win. Although I’m somewhat wary of switching credit cards when I don’t want to, I’m pretty sure Citigroup’s claim that they can save me $560 is a valid one.
Furthermore, the web-app appears to be (or at least according to my uneducated audit) very secure. From their security policy:
- We require only a valid email address for login registration for the service. Notice that our signup page never asks for your name, address, or SSN.
- Your personal information is never sold to third parties. You will not end up on someone else’s email list.
- You can delete your account at any time.
- All data storage is encrypted. Not only are our hard-drives encrypted, our servers are in a secure facility protected by biometrics palm scanners and 24/7 security guards.
- We hack our own site. Mint runs thousands of tests on its own software to ensure security. We scan our ports, test for SQL injection, and protect against cross-site scripting. We also update and patch our software all the time.
With all of that being said though, it doesn’t work at all with my financial information. I got the service to recognize my credit card account, but the account shows up twice and I can’t figure out how to stop it from doing that. Duplicate charges are no fun weeding out. On top of that, Mint isn’t even able to access my bank account and presents all sorts of crazy errors.
Mint, the recently-public personal finance manager, is a wonderful idea conceptually, but it will probably be a couple of months before I can recommend anyone dedicating the time to making it actually work.
I love how there is almost always a free version of the software you’re expected to pay for.
A few days back, after I formatted my harddrive, I made the mistake of installing all the default software the Apple includes (whoops!). AppZapper came to my mind as a good piece of software to remove all of the files associated with iDVD and GarageBand, but five uses was a couple too short to do all of the removing I had wanted to do. Oh the frustration! I really didn’t want to pay 15 dollars in order to delete applications; that doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Google and a Lifehacker article saved the day by introducing me to AppDelete, a completely free application that does the exact same thing as AppZapper (minus the sound-effects). After 10 seconds of downloading, I was back on track deleting away.
A site that I coded by hand last Saturday is now up and running at www.whitmandirectaction.org; check it out and let me know what you think!
It was a pain and a half to create, undergoing at least 3 complete re-writes, because I went at it not knowing what I wanted to create (nor did I have a color scheme). Every site I looked at for inspiration added more ideas to the mix, the CSS would then break, and I would have to do it all over again. Note to self: have a sketched understanding of what you want to build before you go about building it.
The idea for a broad blue banner came from the startpage for Google Analytics and I modeled the concept of a clean FAQ off of Parakey’s splashpage. Those FAQs, at least at this point, are in need of a complete re-write because I was completely bombed out at the end of the Saturday. If you have any questions about wDA, or want to learn more about my idea of an open-source organization, feel free to contact me.
It’s danielbachhuber.com and will be powered off of WordPress. Developments will be made to it when I have time to do so check back often! This includes photos, blog posts, and side projects. In the meantime, though, why don’t you check out the Whitman Pioneer? It’s a project I’m working on actively, and I would love any feedback you can give me!