Monday, June 23, 2008

Google docs as online monitoring system

Recently I worked with a South African organisation to set up a monitoring system. The requirements were:
  • Compatible with requirements of several donors
  • Suitable for two project locations and headquarters of the organisation
  • Possibility for monthly management overviews for headquarters and for the Dutch partner organisation
  • Version control
  • Not too expensive
The solution we used, was Google Docs. A spreadsheet developed in Excel and uploaded on Google Docs with the following elements:

  • A worksheet with operational definitions of indicators used
  • A worksheet where overall target and baseline figures were filled
  • A worksheet for location 1, and a similar worksheet for location 2 where project staff will fill monthly realisations for all indicators. They see the target and base line figures as they fill the white cells.
  • A worksheet where monthly totals for the two locations are being calculated, compared with targets.
  • A worksheet where 6-monthly totals are automatically being calculated and compared with 6-monthly or annual plans.
  • A worksheet with some graphical representations, e.g. some key results expressed as a ratio of targets, compared with the time past. See second picture.

In order to skip some initial hurdles for using the system, I created the Google accounts for each location and had some training sessions with all who had to work with it.

The Dutch partner got viewers' accounts. The result: if data are filled from any one location at the end of the month, South African headquarters and the Dutch project officer can both see the gauges going up.

Version control is integrated in Google Docs, you can download the file back to Excel and upload a new excel version if needed. No more emailing wrong versions and retyping monitoring data. And all for free.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” – Owner’s manifesto

On 22 May 2008 the e-collaboration meeting, Going Open! took place in Amsterdam. Hosted by the Transnational Institute (TNI), the meeting aimed to acquaint participants with “open source” and “open content” principles and case studies, and discuss the pros and cons of “going open”. The meeting was facilitated by Simon Koolwijk (Facilicom Consult), with contributions from Rolf Kleef (Drostan), Anne Sedee (Milieudefensie), Karsten Gerloff (UNU-Merit), Riny Heijendael (Milieukontakt International), David Jacovkis (Free Knowledge Institute) and Peter Ballantyne (euforic).

Following a brief, lively introduction by Rolf, Anne explained some basic concepts behind open source. She suggested we think of three layers:

  • Services (applications, web browsers)
  • Standards (e.g., HTML)
  • Devices & Software (hardware)

Open standards are a key part of modern society. For example, no one owns the specifications for a shipping container, such as you see stacked high in the Rotterdam harbour. They are “open” for anyone to use. Similarly, the Internet has open standards – a common language without which it would not exist in the form we know today. Given that the computer is the printing press of the 21st century – the tool we use to create, publish and distribute almost all information – the hardware and services we use on it have great importance. They are a form of knowledge and “when you give knowledge away, it multiples!” However, closed licenses for software are most common, which means you can access only the computer language/code; with open source software, you also get the source code. A “copyleft” license allows you to study, modify and share the source code. Economic benefits including stimulation of local business, positive impact on prices and knowledge transfer. However, many obstacles exists such as existing contracts & vendor lock-in, lack of an open alternative (e.g., with Skype) and ease of access to pirated versions of popular software like Microsoft Office. Despite the challenges, she encouraged us to remember that software’s functions are not the only consideration. Open solutions and user rights are a natural choice for non-profit organisations, she said.

Two group workshops followed, with Karsten leading a discussion on free software as a tool for social and economic development and Riny giving a “crash course” on open formats. See the Monday 23 May post by Joitske for a sound bite on the former.

David’s contribution on Open Education Resources began with the question: Can ideas have an owner? He explained the difference between copyright (all rights reserved) and copyleft (all rights reversed). Copyleft:

  • Guarantees the freedom to use, copy, modify, redistribute;
  • Transmits those freedoms to copies and derivative works;
  • Does not imply renouncing authorship attribution; and
  • Cannot be closed – once a material distributed with a free license, it’s open!

Using a free license encourages collaboration and feedback, helps disseminate your work, and adds it to a pool of existing free resources. There are many types of free license, which can be applied to a range of materials including software, technical designs, learning materials and artistic works. In most European countries, if you publish something without explicitly licensing it, all your rights are reserved. Otherwise, you can explicitly state what kind of license you are using, with a link to the copyleft license you have chosen. Be aware that in other countries, your work goes into the public domain if not otherwise specified! David particularly encouraged the production of Free Learning Materials, which optimises resources and efforts, provides independence from publishers and promotes truly global sharing of good practices. He closed with the following advice: choose a free license, build on what’s already out there, don’t “freeze” your work in an unfriendly format like PDF, and choose a suitable tool/platform.

The last portion of the meeting was a second set of group workshops. One was a debate game on open source led by Simon Koolwijk. In the other, Peter Ballantyne led a discussion on “Making Knowledge Open & Accessible”. He hypothesised that development information and knowledge that wants to travel and migrate needs open borders (or ways to cross closed ones). This means removing “border controls”, strengthening a system of “ passports” (open formats and licences) and “ visas” (open tools, standards, systems), and fostering a change of mindset whereby people are more motivated by the benefits of sharing than by fear of plagiarism, for example. He asserted that Web 2.0 is not only a collection of tools, but also a perspective recognising other people’s knowledge and helping it migrate to new places where it will be used in new ways.

What did we learn? Participants said:

  • Definition of open source clearer.
  • Obtained new, economic and security arguments for open source.
  • Better sense of balance between ideological and practical debates.
  • Learned of new organisations during the various presentations.

Useful links:

Planning ahead

The day ended with some discussion of the next e-collaboration meeting – anticipated for October at MDF – and more generally about the future of the group. Possible topics for the next meeting included computers for development, e-Governance, awareness raising on Web 2.0 tools and peer review of members’ organisational tools. Some participants recalled that the original purpose of the group was to share practical experiences with other colleagues using e-tools for collaboration. People queried whether the group needs a mission statement, concrete objectives and additional financial support for 2009.