The price of ignorance: $5000?

Last night I met with a local non-profit that has a problem with technology – but it’s not a technology problem.

A quick overview: this non-profit is the first line of defense for people with problems – any kind of problems. They take phone calls from people with problems: issues with relationships, addictions, careers, you name it. They don’t counsel; their focus is on referring people who need help to the help that’s already available in the community.

Their needs:
Their referral “database” includes about 1200 organizations and individuals. They need ways to easily collect this information, search it, and make it available to various volunteers, and, perhaps, other organizations.

Properly stated, their needs are incredibly simple:

  • organize,
  • access, and
  • share limited amounts of data

To achieve this goal, they wrote a grant proposal last year, won $5000 worth of funding, and hired an intern to achieve the goal.

The problem is that now, a year later, they have a bunch of data in an Access database. And that’s about it. Essentially, the intern defined some kind of data schema, created one data entry form, and keyed in all the data. Unfortunately, there’s no simple search capability. No categorization. No interface to the application. And no ability to share the data electronically with volunteers or other non-profits.

So now they’re stuck.

With about $500 left in their budget, they have some data, but no real application. And $500 will buy them about 5 hours of a good developer’s time.

But here’s the sad part.

With everything that’s available today, much of it free, the $5000, the Access database, and the CD-ROM are all incredibly unnecessary. And that’s the cost of ignorance.

I don’t mean ignorance in a negative way – not at all. There are very good people behind this organization. I simply mean it in the most non-pejorative sense: being unaware of information, knowledge.

The problem that they are facing is so incredibly simple, so trivial in today’s environment of amazing, excellent, and FREE software, that it’s just a tragedy that the nonprofit felt they had to raise the money, spent so much time (the entire summer of 2005) getting an intern to play around with Access and key in data, and spin their wheels ever since with an incomplete and virtually unusable “application.”

Just off the top of my head, there are probably 10 different ways they could have solved the problem: fast, free, and more flexibly than any Access-database-on-a-CD-ROM solution. Here are just a few:

1: iRows
While I’ve really enjoyed NumSum, iRows is a web2-ish application that has some features it doesn’t (last time I checked!) Being able to put very nice fine-grained permissions on your sheets and powerful group functions are two that really come to mind.

iRows would allow them to organize their data, make it easily available for quick updating by whoever they choose to allow, wherever they are, and makes it easy to publish to anyone with an internet connection. Also, you can suck the data down in a variety of formats if you need offline capability.

With only 1200 records which would be divided up in perhaps 12 categories, you’d only have 100 records or so per sheets, which is manageable and navigable. And, your data is easily searchable, with tagging, descriptions, and other features. Best of all, it’s free.

2: Writeboard
Can you imagine a simpler solution than Writeboard?

Create 12 writeboards, one for each of your categories. Copy, paste, assign privileges, email everyone you want to have access with a link and a password, and sit back with a sigh of relief.

It’s searchable, shareable, and any of your volunteers can update it whenever they wish. And it too is free.

3: Wiki
Even better than Writeboards, although possibly with an ever-so-slightly steeper learning curve, would be a Wiki. This would be absolutely perfect: storing, sorting, updating, and sharing information is what Wikis were created to do!

And you can get one – you guessed it – for free: PB Wiki. In fact, I’m sure you can get any number for free – certainly if you have your own server – but this is one possibility, and it’s hosted for you.

The beauty of a Wiki – beside the social construction of information – is scalability: it will grow right along with you … from your initial 10-15 pages to a million-plus pages of Wikipedia.

4: A blog – perhaps WordPress
A blog would provide all the capability you would ever need, and there are dozens of companies out there in the big wide internet who will give you one for (drum roll, please) free. is one of the best and most powerful free hosted solutions.

Create a blog category for each of your categories. Write a tiny blog entry for each data node. Define access privileges. Drink your coffee (insert caffeinated beverage of choice).

You could even – with just a tiny bit more technological savvy – installed a structured blogging plug-in that would give you the ability to have a standard data entry and presentation format.

Simple as pie … and radically, completely, free. Free as speech, and free as beer.

The price of ignorance: $50,000?

OK, I could go on and on, but you get the point. If you don’t know what the possibilities are, you can miss out on so much. The cost is not just the money you spend – it’s the time you waste. And depending on who you are and what you’re doing, that could be $5000, $50,000, or $500,000.

It’s just so bloody unnecessary.

How many good organizations and good people are out there right now spending hard-earned money, volunteer time and energy, when they could accomplish their goals so easily and quickly?

We’ve got a ton of amazing hammers and chisels and saws on the internet right now that anyone with just a tiny bit of initiative and technical know-how can access and use. But too few people are aware of them.

W need to keep spreading the word!