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News :: Education : Media : Organizing : Technology
Making Technology Relevant to Nonprofit and Social Change Groups
19 Jun 2006
On June 17, 2006 the Boston based Organizer's Collaborative (OC) held their 7th annual Grassroots use of Technology Conference ( at UMass Boston's bayside campus. The Organizer's Collaborative is an organization of over 500 individual members and member orgs that are working together to advance the use of technology for social change. OC believes that all non-profits and community groups, regardless of size or income, should have access to up-to-date technology that enhances their ability to carry out their mission.
The Organizer's Collaboratice works towards a future where all groups can easily connect, manage information, and harness technology resources to meet their community needs. The Grassroots use of Technology conference brought together non-profit organizations and individuals to learn about new technologies and innovative strides in use of technology in recent years. It provided consultants, "accidental techies", and end-users with the opportunity to collaborate on strategies for using that technology. Yesterday's conference attracted almost 200 participants from the Northeast and across the country from a variety of organizations and backgrounds, and had presenters from both large established non-profits such as Oxfam America and smaller start-up groups such as the locally based Katrina outreach program known as the Citizen Action Team.

The conference included three break-out workshop sessions, a keynote address and a plenary where participants were encouraged to provide the Organizer's Collaborative with feedback, followed by a 50/50 fundraising dinner. Workshops were varied, some included hand-outs or digital presentations, break-out groups with peers and Q&A sessions with the presenters, and the range of courses offered included both technical and non-technical courses. A few of the workshops offered were: Effective Websites for Community Groups, What To Do with All that Data in the Database, Getting your message out in the Age of Spam, Rapid Application Development for Databases, Leveraging your Members for Political Change, and Technology Decision Making for the Non-Technical Executive.

The Keynote address was given by the Citizen Action Team (, a small group of Boston area activists who worked long hours to create a rapid response database to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Organizers Collaborative awarded the Citizen Action Team with their first annual "Innovative Use of Technology" award to celebrate the achievement of their nonprofit for using technology to make a difference in the lives of those they serve while also honoring their use of technology to significantly enhance their ability to carry out their mission. The Citizen Action Team used modern web applications to manage information about volunteers, on-location needs, and donated supplies for victims and those providing aid to victims of Katrina. With their innovative and project specific crafted technology, their group was able to organize thousands of people within the first few days of the catastrophe to deliver semi-truck loads of supplies and goods to the relief effort across the Gulf Coast. Using the Ruby on Rails ( web development tool, Citizen Action Team's database wizard Chris Williams created a low-graphics and information rich online database that helped people pinpoint immediate needs when and where it was needed. Citizen Action Team’s project manager Terra Friedrichs described the use of technology from an administrator's perspective as helping to alleviate the massive piles of paperwork that had existed in their relief efforts prior to the development of their database. Likewise, master organizer Christy Barbee explained the instant gratification in their outreach efforts when individuals and organizations across the country were able to access the public database and find immediate ways to help victims. This type of outreach through technology is exactly the type of community building tour that the Organizer's Collaborative hopes to encourage and inspire through their programs.

The annual Grassroots use of Technology conference is a great opportunity to learn about recent innovations in technology, especially computer technology, as well as a great place to network with other organizations and individuals who are facing similar tech-needs situations or who are working towards common goals of social change. While at the Conference I encountered people working with local Community Technology Centers, Boston-based Homeless awareness activists, Mass Equality organizers, as well as an individual from a large “think tank” Philadelphia-based organization that helps create reports and databases that help inform public policy. Casual conversation ranged from intensely tech0savvy questions and answers, to more philosophical topics such as the need for grassroots organizing and the use of technology for social change.

By the end of the Conference, UMass employees were coming to classrooms to close-up the school where people were <i>still</i> in animated discussion about the topics presented in their specific groups. Equipment was being locked up or stored and people were still talking in hallways or foyers following up on the connections that they had made with individuals during the conference, or were further questioning the presenters for more detailed commentary on their courses. Overall, the conference was successful in bringing over 185 individuals together to learn about and share their experiences using technology for social change. The Organizer's Collaborative has much to offer groups and individuals interested in technology for social change, they have a very affordable membership fee, and they are located here in the Boston area... Check out their website or drop them an e-mail to find out more about their services or how you can get involved:
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