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Netsquared Conference 2007
Micki Krimmel, 4 Jun 07
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Last week, I attended Netsquared’s second annual conference in San Jose, CA. While the event suffered some organizational issues, it was an inspiring experience that provided real value to the start-up organizations featured there. Netsquared is a TechSoup project aimed at connecting nonprofit organizations with Web 2.0 technologies to “collaborate, share information and mobilize support.”

Jon Lebkowsky first introduced Netsquared here on Worldchanging when they launched in December 2005. He noted the potential for the organization to…

…bring many more nonprofits to technologies that will increase their capabilities, and their ability to drive their own innovations, significantly.

He also forecasted the possibility of the “Web 2.0” moniker creating another bubble and lessening the substantive value of “remix cultures, long tails, software as a service, collective intelligence, tipping points, and, of course, the vast active living intelligent blogosphere” in affecting social change. I have certainly been feeling that lately. I miss the Web 2.0 of two years ago when the industry was exuberant about creating a better world through a better web. These days, the technology press and web conferences are all abuzz about VC funding and acquisitions. So for me, the Netsquared Conference (N2Y2) was a welcome return to the idealism of social web tools for social change.

The conference was unlike most in that it was structured as a competition between the 21 featured start-up projects for $100k in grant money provided by the event sponsors. The format of the event borrowed more from demo-heavy new technology forums than most community-oriented conferences. The projects in attendance were chosen by the community on the Netsquared website prior to the event. Each project team had 5 minutes to do a presentation on their product. Then we broke down into review sessions in three tracks – social impact, economic sustainability and tech innovation. Because N2Y2 was an invitation-only event, the attendees were all experienced with online advocacy in some way and would therefore (the idea goes) be able to engage with the project leaders to help them bring their organizations to the next level.

And you know, it really seemed to work. The demo format struck me as a bit odd for comparing nonprofit ventures but the organizers did such a great job with the attendee list that it really felt like each review session was a mini think tank designed to help all the projects succeed. It was far less competitive than the structure might suggest. Project leaders shared ideas and talked about ways to work together. The presentations were less about showboating hot new products and more about requesting assistance from peers.

And frankly, many of the projects were quite impressive. They ranged from open source tools and training for nonprofits to interactive maps for disaster relief to internal communication systems for organization members and constituents to social networks for activists. I won’t detail the full list here but you can check out the projects on the Net2 site. Perhaps we’ll explore some of them more deeply here on WC in the future.

The top three projects as voted by the attendees were:

1. Maplight.org: A Light on Money and Politics ($25k grant)

MAPLight.org illuminates the connection between money and politics. We connect campaign contributions and votes for U.S. Congress, providing groundbreaking transparency so that bloggers, journalists, and citizens can hold legislators accountable.

Maplight.org shows campaign contributions and votes for any bill or issue updated in real time. They currently cover the CA Legislature and US Congress and are quickly working to add more states. Coming soon: Census information, personal legislation tracking service to monitor issues that matter to you and widgets to enable wide sharing of information across blogs and other websites. David Pogue recently highlighted Maplight for the NY Times including a review of some things Maplight needs to improve. Well, now they have an additional $25k to work with.

2. Miro: Open Source, Open Standards Video ($15k grant)

Miro is soon to be the new name for The Democracy Player. Built by the Participatory Culture Foundation, Miro is a desktop application that allows you to search, watch and subscribe to videos on the internet.

[We] believe that at least a part of the internet should remain largely noncommercial. That’s why we are dedicated to spreading free and open video on the web. We are creating tools for broader, deeper engagement with internet television. We're working to ensure that the new mass medium of internet TV will remain as open and independent as blogging and podcasting.

From my personal experience with the player, it suffers from some usability issues (all videos must be downloaded to your machine for viewing) and limited content. Miro will need to hit critical mass with online video creators before casual viewers will go to the trouble of downloading the client. Still, their mission is great and hugely important to the future of online media. Plus, they’re just nice guys.

3. The Freecycle Network

Freecycle connects members of local communities to give and receive free stuff. Instead of throwing out that old couch, you can find someone who needs it. It’s such a simple, great idea that not only reduces waste but also creates connections between neighbors.

The Freecycle Network was launched with one email about 3 1/2 years ago and is now active in over 75 countries with millions of grassroots members and thousands of volunteers moderating local groups. We are keeping over 300 tons a day out of landfills as a result which amounts to four times the height of Mt. Everest in the past year alone when stacked in garbage trucks.

Freecycle recently secured 501c3 status and is currently working on a new website to better manage interactions between users and to expand to communities across the globe.

The remaining $50k in grant money was split evenly between the rest of the projects in attendance. While it’s great that every project left with something, I wonder about the effectiveness of this award approach. Is it more useful to award $2,778 grants to 18 start-ups or to provide more substantial funding to just a few?

Not unlike most web conferences, some of the best work at N2Y2 was done in the hallways or between sessions. Social change advocates from all over the world met and collaborated. Netsquared also provided ways to participate online including chat sessions with advocates who could not be in attendance. Worldchanging’s Dawn Danby and Jon Lebkowsky dropped in for a discussion on how online tools can help organizations achieve their environment-related goals. Read the transcript here.

Part of Netsquared’s mission is to continue these conversations beyond the conference. They encourage community activity on their website year-round so activist and technologists can share stories and collaborate. Netsquared will also continue to advocate for the 21 projects featured at the conference. I asked one of the organizers, Marnie Webb via email, what Worldchanging readers could do to get involved.

Marnie Webb:

Thanks for asking. There are 3 things we'd love to see folks doing:

If you have a skill that help one of the 21 projects move forward, connect and contribute. You can find out what's needed here.

If you have a service or product that can be offered to all of the participating projects, contact Billy Bicket and let him know what you'd like to do.

If you want to have this conversation, face to face in your community, join or start a Net Tuesday. You can find out more about them here.

Photo by Ed Schipul.

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