Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Adding real value through ICT

A lot has been written in recent years regarding the importance of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) staff understanding the business in which they work and therefore being able to add real value to the business through their selection and application of technology. Organisations the world around have taken heed of this, particularly after noting the positive results generated for the trailblazers, and have worked to get their ICT staff aligned with the organisation instead of treating them as outsiders. Many specialist sectors tend to be a little behind in these trends, and it seems to me that this is the case in the charitable sector, at least in the UK (exceptions noted!).

So how can ICT staff in charities can add real value? It can take some time for the best of us to identify technologies that will help in a given sector, let alone an individual organisation, but with charities there is a neat starting point - almost all charities depend on specific aspects of culture: the willingness of people to give, to volunteer; to spend some of their own time doing things for the benefit of others. Regardless of what else a charity does, educate, feed, heal, house, clothe, etc., it is essential to their success that the general populace has the desire and interest in giving freely, whether of time, skills, cash or a mix of the three. Anything that promotes this behaviour in our culture encourages charity and therefore helps charities to thrive.

This is the same positive aspect of cultures and individuals that allows open source software to thrive; people give of their time, their skills and/or their cash for the benefit of the greater good. So there is one simple thing that ICT staff in charities can do to add real charitable value; switch their charities to using open source.

Switch the charity to open source not because a given technical solution available at that instant of assessment and acquisition is "the best". Nor because the use of open source allows you to ensure the chosen solution becomes the best (once in use and the success criteria far better understood). Nor because the same technical people interested in open source are more likely to be interested in working in the charitable sector even if that means lower pay. Not even for the other long term cost savings offered by open source. Think, for a moment, about the tendency of charities to be helping the under-privileged in the global society and how an open source solution, having no cost of purchase, is likely to permit adoption by those very same under-privileged people, and how the charity's use of it tends to help to improve the software for all other users; let that influence the decision.

But in the final analysis, switch to open source because it promotes a charitable outlook in the greater society. The ultimate way to add value to your charity through technology. Technically not necessarily simple, but philosophically so, and drawing on ancient philosophies at that. Cultivate the desire to give charity; giving begats giving; do unto others as you would be done by.

To promote your charity, act charitably in your choice of ICT.

(A version of this posting appeared on Oxford Archaeology's blog server in 2007)

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Another historical perspective...

There are so many questions around the existing copyright system; not least is that, whatever the historical justifications, the world has changed a huge amount since the discussions were last had in full. The presumption that, for example, breach of copyright "for profit" should be seen in the same way as when it was "not for profit" was presumably not considered historically, because the costs of reproduction were such that breach was generally for profit.

Of course the initial presumption that producers of content should have special protection over above producers of other things should also be revisited. Why should not doctors be paid for every time you use the leg they repaired? Plumbers each time someone uses the tap they installed?

For those who want to debate the need for change, please go and read this entry to the Future of Copyright contest. Engage in the debate there, engage in it here, I'm happy. But don't get into the position of thinking there's nothing wrong, just because you're used to thinking that. Today's historical perspective:
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.  
Thomas Paine, 1776

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Copyright, content industries and "that's not fair"

In the sense of "and I'm going to tell my mummy government". Robert Heinlein penned the following quotation, as part of his first ever published story:

"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."
Robert A Heinlein, Life-Line, 1939

The copyright reform battle is enshrined in this thinking. On the one side we have people reasonably pointing out that the move to digital from analogue completely changes how content can and is being reproduced, reducing some formerly expensive processes to zero cost; on the other we have the rights holders shouting "no fair" and demanding the law is made tighter, rights extended longer, and that everyone else must be made to expend their resources and all unreasonable efforts to protect their lucrative business model.

But their business model, historically lucrative and rather young, is now outdated. Setting a book for a PDF can be carried out using cost-free software in hours and reproduction is free; people are creating popular music in their bedrooms and distributing it at no cost, and with the rise of Aframe (and presumably soon a Samwers clone ;) ) film production costs are following the huge drop in distribution and reproduction that digital and the Internet had already brought.

Monday, 2 April 2012

A start-up founder should...

A start-up founder should be able to man the support lines, develop strategy, make a sale, prepare financial statements, design a marketing plan, write website content, balance accounts, build a desk, set targets, comfort their staff, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch to investors, programme a computer, cook up a business plan, grow efficiently, fail gallantly. Specialisation is for big corporates.

(with apologies to the ghost of Robert A Heinlein)

Friday, 16 March 2012

BT and the insanity of over-large companies

Here's a thing. Rural broadband. It's bad. It's bad partly because it's a long way along copper lines to the houses from the exchange (although I know people next door to their rural exchange who get suspiciously low speeds). This major element of the problem could be quickly and easily resolved by moving to fibre to the cabinet (FTTC). The cabinet is typically only a few hundred yards from the houses it serves, and fibre optic connections can carry signals over great distances with minimal loss of performance.

But BT, who rural residents are dependent on for infrastructure, don't see rural exchanges as economic to upgrade. The same BT, but in a different department, are tearing their hair out over the cost of maintaining copper infrastructure for these rural exchanges, as copper theft becomes increasingly common and rural locations are relatively low risk targets. Replacing a stolen length of copper serving an entire village is expensive in so many ways; the cable is expensive, the civil engineering that can be required is expensive, the telephony engineers to reconnect all the connections is expensive, the customer support dealing with complaints for the week or so the village is disconnected is expensive; and then there's the societal cost where elderly residents are cut off from the outside world for that long, potentially putting lives at risk.

Is it really so expensive to move rural exchanges to FTTC? That much more expensive than the costs of the copper cable thefts? More expensive than lives? Is it really uneconomic? No, probably not. But the upgrade department budget will be so very, very distant from the repair department budget; there's almost certainly no one with oversight of the two cost centres at a detail level necessary to see the opportunity. So rural residents get hit from both sides, having the lowest level of service while paying the same amount for their connection, while BT pay out for patching symptoms of a problem they could just rid themselves of.

Big companies don't have to be run in this short-sighted, disconnected way. But so many are...