SMAC – A new technology direction for NGOs

Introduction

Let us examine how NGOs can use the convergence of Social media, Mobile technologies, Analytics tools and Cloud computing – known as the SMAC stack, to become more agile and more focused to the business at hand, more responsive to the needs of poor people and communities, more able to tap potential markets for fund-raising, more able to mobilise civil society, activists and supporters for fighting for causes and to forge a more efficient and effective organisation.

The digital era has seen a boom in the usage of these technologies. NGOs have increasingly started using the social media like Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch with supporters, sponsors, activists and also some of the communities that they support. They have also used many of the collaboration technologies to work together both inside and outside their organisations. Mobile phones are used not only for phone calls but also for handling email and text messages and also for rendering the above social media technologies. Many NGOs have embraced either the private cloud or the public cloud to integrate the systems and applications of the various countries that these NGOs work in. Cloud storage has also allowed NGOs to embrace the concept of “green” by reducing hardware usage. Analytics, though, is one of the areas that NGOs have not exploited fully. However there is great potential here for NGOs to analyse the habits of the supporter world to be able to target messages and many NGOs have made a good start.

         

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We first look at how each of these technologies can be used by NGOs with some examples. Then we can propose a possible SMAC architecture for NGOs. We also look at the steps to be followed to implement the new architecture.

Let us look at each of these areas and see how NGOs have been using them to advantage.

Social Media

The reach of social media is vast. Facebook, for example, has more than a billion users! The social media facilitates direct conversations with people. Rather than understanding an NGO “statically” through their website, people would see merit in knowing how the NGO and its people think “dynamically.” Greenpeace, for example, has used Facebook and other social media to bring awareness of environmental damage, climate change, commercial whaling and anti-nuclear issues among others. Many rights-based NGOs have used Twitter, Facebook and others to bring awareness of rights issues and also to highlight gross instances of rights violations.

Social media also helps spread news. Youngsters don’t read or even browse newspapers these days. They get all their news on Facebook and Twitter.

Many of the younger generation – the potential activists – interact with Facebook and other media “on the go”. The availability of social media on mobile devices is thus one of the key requirements for getting the message across to the main audience.

Analysis of people’s responses to the various campaigns and programs can be a very important tool to understand what people feel about an NGO’s campaigns. It helps the NGOs figure out what campaigns sell and what don’t. After all, a campaign can be successful only if it receives support from people.

As mentioned before, anytime, anywhere availability is quite critical. And this is where cloud computing comes in.

The convergence of these technologies can help build systems that bring together many NGOs together along with activists and civil society to respond to emergencies and to quickly raise funds in times of crises.

Mobile technologies

We are all aware of the explosion and proliferation of mobile technologies. The Economic Times reports that in India (a so-called less-developed country), there were 111 million smartphone connections in the second quarter of 2014! They also report that the number of smartphone connections will grow threefold over the next six years. This great reach of mobile technology allows us to connect to anyone, anywhere and at any time. The availability of 4G and 5G technologies coupled with the smartphone revolution has made the phone in our pocket much, much more than a simple talking or texting device.

NGOs and state actors have used mobile technologies to bring weather warnings to fishermen and market data to farmers. Small level money transfers and banking have been very successful with mobile technologies – witness the success of systems like Mpesa in East Africa. Mobile technologies have been set up to get information from poor communities and people on any emergency situations. Young people have been empowered to be watchdogs and they report on any rights abuses, women’s issues etc. immediately to central locations from where action can be initiated.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook come to life on smartphones. The young generation’s mantra is “If it is not available on smartphones, it is not available, period.” Gone are the days when people would have to rush somewhere to connect up their laptops to get news about the world. They need their news delivered where they are, on their smartphones.

Analysis of locational data of mobile devices help in sometimes making decisions that can make or break the life of poor people and cloud technologies complement high speed mobile technologies in bringing applications and data to places where required. Consistent access to data and information is facilitated through the fact that data and applications are available in a location whose primary business is keeping data and information.

Analytics

Analytics can be applied to business data, demographics data, social data and all sorts of data from which meaningful patterns need to be milked. This is an area that has not been used well by NGOs. The main issue that NGOs seem to have is that they do not have enough quantitative data to lend for analysis. This may be due to the fact that NGOs are traditionally wary of quantitative data. Another main set of data that the NGOs traditionally lack is impact data. How do you know whether a strategy has been successful if you cannot measure its impact? The other key issue is something mentioned before. The reluctance of NGOs to collect quantitative data. They are more comfortable with qualitative data. These are systemic issues that need to be addressed before one can get enough deep data for quantitative analytic analysis. However, many NGOs have started using analytics to advantage these days. And one of the main focuses of Analytics is how to make sense of unstructured data.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing complements social media and mobile technologies in a natural way. Cloud computing delivers shared services which can be used on an as-required, when-required basis. Many NGOs have their IT installations in public, private or hybrid clouds. Moving your data and applications on to a cloud helps us to reduce spending on infrastructure, to focus on our core business since taking care of IT is no longer required (no backup, no worries about crashes etc.), to keep only those IT personnel required for strategic purposes, to achieve predictable budget needs since we only pay as needed, internationalise our workforce and improve flexibility. Services from the cloud comes like a utility (like electricity). We tap in and utilise as needed.

Cloud computing brings in a portable IT environment and thus supports hotelling / hot-desking, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), telecommuting and other user friendly and efficiency-based concepts.

Cloud computing also provides an event driven architecture (EDA) based SOAS (applications as a service) exposing representational state transfer (REST) application programming interfaces (APIs) to user applications. These applications provide transformation of data based on existing states of the system. Users only need programs and applications to interface with these state-transformation applications to get their data changed in the way they want. And, of course, your data is stored in the cloud itself.

Let us take a couple of examples. An NGO’s office gets a phone call from a potential supporter who wants advice on how he can support the cause of poor children in Africa based on the NGO’s appeal on Facebook (S) that the supporter saw on his smartphone (M). Details of this call are entered through a desktop system sitting on an employee’s desk into an application hosted on the cloud (C). These details along with pointers to the NGO’s demographics database are passed onto an Analytics (A) software sitting on the cloud and charges them per transaction. The application does an analysis of the caller based on his demographics and his habits on Facebook and other media. These details are passed on to another application which then would recommend appropriate action like – request the caller that his best option is to join a group of activists, or contribute a certain amount of funds, or write letters to the local MP etc. In this example we can see how the convergence of Social Media, Mobile Technologies, Analytics and Cloud Computing has formed a formidable front in the NGOs implementation of its strategy.

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Another example. A young activist uses his mobile phone (M) to generate a tweet about a rights violation through Twitter (S) (like, say, a report that a poor woman has been arrested by the police and is being held against rules in a men-only police station). This tweet comes as an event to an application that the NGO has written and hosted in the cloud. Locational information of this event is passed on to an Analytics (A) software in the cloud through an API. The Analytics software looks at the event and also at the NGO’s database of communities and gives back some statistical information about the occurrence of such events and perpetrators. This information is then fed into another cloud based system that converts this request into an action request. This request can then be forwarded back to your local offices for appropriate action on the ground.

A SMAC architecture for NGOs

We here propose a workable SMAC architecture for NGOs. This architecture can also work for other types of organisations with suitable modifications.

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The NGO SMAC architecture is mediated by the SMAC bus. The SMAC bus provides the interface and conversion between the various APIs. It also ensures the security requirements of the system. The bus connects to the various APIs exposed by the various applications in the public cloud like Analytics, Unstructured data handling and other applications and various application in the private cloud like organisation specific applications. The bus also handles APIs from the social media. The bus mediates any data access requests to the databases. Various types of input / output data like event data, video, audio and others from user devices like mobiles, laptops, cameras etc. are also mediated by the bus.

Implementing a SMAC architecture in an NGO

A structured approach needs to be followed to implement a SMAC architecture in an NGO organisation. We look at the following steps to ensure proper implementation.

1. The first step is to decide whether a change is needed in NGO’s IT architecture or not. The main approach to deciding this is to figure out if the organisation is doing well with respect to its “competitors.” Is the organisation getting as much funding as a similar organisation? If not so, why not? Are they utilising the right approaches to fund-raising? Are they using social media effectively? Are their staff empowered with the newest technologies so that they can be totally productive?

This is the time to do an IT review. Is the organisation’s IT strategy in line with the organisational strategy? If not, this may be the right time to revamp the IT strategy. The new IT strategy can then be based on a SMAC architecture.

2. The next step is to develop an architecture. To take full advantage of SMAC it is required to use stateless transaction models like Event Driven Architectures. The organisation needs to figure out whether their applications /systems required are amenable to such an approach. If not, some reworking of system models may be required. Similarly do their storage and applications render itself to cloud housing?

Again, it is important to get a SMAC architecture expert to put the systems together into a reasonable and workable architecture. A broad representative architecture is given in this paper in the previous section.

3. Based on the architecture, the next step is to get organisational buy-in. This is why it is imperative that the new IT strategy is in line with the organisational strategy. Also, the key users should feel that their interests are affected in a positive way – that is, things will be for the better.

4. Risks and the mitigation strategies in moving from one architecture to the other then need to be established. Most of the risks associated with SMAC are risks associated with moving to the public cloud. The risks may range from data security / protection issues, information security issues, business continuity issues, licensing issues etc.

5. Then there is the need to establish DevOps* capability (or find vendors with DevOps capability) so that the organisation can steer development in a rapid way. This is important because the architecture insists that there is close interaction between the developers and the IT operations group.

6. Develop a complete change management approach. This is very, very important. The first and foremost thing to do is to ensure that the change is communicated properly to all the people in the organisation. It may be best if the communication came from the CEO rather than from the CIO / IT group. The communication should be open and prepare people on what can be expected. The organisation needs to keep in mind that people normally react negatively to change. This is mainly due to fear of the unknown. The other thing to do is to make sure that any required training plans are in place to deal with the change. There may be a need to (I say this with a lot of trepidation) align performance plan and evaluation parameters and also compensation policies to successful alignment with the change / transition. This is something that needs to be discussed and agreed with HR.

* DevOps – A Software Development Methodology – The SMAC approach, with its focus on mobile technologies, cloud etc. requires that software (application) development needs to take into account the advantages offered by these platforms. DevOps is a software development methodology that emphasises close cooperation between software developers and IT operations people.

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