Mar/Apr 2009

Ask the Expert: What are the Benefits of Open Software and How Can Nonprofits Take Advantage of this Technology?

by Dave Hart, Chief Technology Officer, Convio

In order to answer this question sufficiently, the term “open” should first be defined. According to a July/August 2008 Connection article by Michelle Murrain, principal at MetaCentric Technology Advising, and a member of the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative, “open” can refer to either Open Source and/or Open Data Access. Open Source is software in which the source code is freely available, so you can understand how it works, and modify it. Open Data Access usually takes the form of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to allow the transfer of data between two separate systems.

An API is a protocol built into an application that defines how other applications can communicate with it, and what information can be exchanged. Nonprofits can use APIs to retrieve constituent and campaign data to display in custom-built applications, such as a registration form, donation form or special event page, and then to continually update that information. Use of these APIs can provide the end-user with a unique, personalized experience while still capturing important constituent data in a back-end database.

The primary benefits to nonprofits using open APIs are:

  • Create a uniquely branded user interface for your constituents
  • Integrate multiple web properties into a seamless experience
  • Create new interaction types by combining multiple interactions together

Convio uses the term “Extension” for another form of Open Data Access. An Extension is where a web application takes advantage of an API offered by another website and exposes it as an application feature. This enables access to these APIs for non-programmers through simple configuration options or HTML/JavaScript coding. Some of the most popular sites (i.e. Google, YouTube, Flickr, Yahoo, Facebook, Plaxo) provide APIs to extend the use of their platform across the web.

Nonprofits can make a big impact with Extensions by pushing content to popular social networking sites like Facebook and Flickr to expand their brand presence. By creating content-rich canvas pages in Facebook, and making the latest team event fundraising photos available on Flickr, nonprofits can expand their reach through these online networks to increase awareness and engage individuals to support their cause. Extensions also enable nonprofits to easily pull in compelling content from other places to use on their website. A great example is taking a YouTube video relevant to an organization’s mission and using it on the organization's homepage or in a blog article.

In order to take advantage of open software you should consider the following:

  • Select a vendor that has the functionality that supports an open environment
  • Ensure that documentation is publicly available online to anyone
  • Find a vendor that fosters a collaborative community environment where organizations can share their use of APIs, discuss best practices, and exchange code examples

Open is part of an important shift taking place across the software industry, giving organizations the freedom to choose the best solution for their needs without being constrained by the limitations of conventional systems. Vendors that are opening their platforms are providing nonprofits with the flexibility to integrate with other web applications, and allow for the exchange of offline and online campaign data in real-time. With this ability, organizations can improve campaign response rates through personalized, relevant communications.

Learn more at http://open.convio.com/  

Ask the Expert: What are the Benefits of Open Software and How Can Nonprofits Take Advantage of this Technology? | Convio