Some nuggets from #14ntc in Washington DC

Six NetSquare organisers at Einstein's feet.Advice from Alan Royal about what you can expect to get out of a training event is ringing in my ears as I sit down to write about my four days at the Nonprofit Technology Conference, in Washington DC, 13-15 March 2014.

As an energetic trainer with SeniorNet Welllington and life-long learner, he says that if you get one useful thing out of a workshop then you can be contented. Be delighted if you gain more, but nuggets are enough to make attendance worth it.

It’s this advice I’m thinking about now. Just what did I learn from #14ntc?

As a first timer at a LARGE-scale conference, it was actually possible to be too distracted to actually learn anything. The commotion was nonstop, natural light rare and choices seemingly limitless.

There were over 100 formal sessions to choose from, plus countless other impromptu talks and presentations. In an underground suite of trade halls, there were 147 companies of various sizes and types inviting interaction and a chance to sign-up.

With the 2119 other attendees there was no shortage of folk to chat with. Long lunches (a commendable 90 minutes) were followed later in the day by social functions hosted by one sponsor or another at nearby venues. Sadly, I missed the one at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Finding someone you were specifically looking for was near impossible. For instance, despite asking around I didn’t manage to meet the Australians attending from Perth and Sydney (though I would still like to say hi).

I was attending the conference as a NetSquared regional ambassador, so I gravitated to sessions that supported and promoted community-led, grassroots organising. Making time to connect with the many inspiring people involved was my top priority. Not only was the conversation interesting, but it was reassuring – the core of community organising seems to be the same the world over.

So, what are my top gleanings?

  1. Before publishing a single graph (or diagram), stop to consider if the implicit meaning is obvious. See the excellent, detailed presentation “#14ntcdataviz: DataViz! Tips, Tools, and How-tos for Visualizing Your Data” by Ann K. Emery, Johanna Morariu, and Andrew Means.
  2. Don’t obsess over choosing a Content Management System (CMS) for a website, instead work with someone that does the scoping/ investigation/ design phase right and trust them to recommend the best tools to fit. I really liked a three phase approach to development adopted by Freeform Solutions (Toronto), which focuses first on “establishing project feasibility” which includes coming up with a ball-park idea of what a website will cost.
  3. When doing training, think: Before, During, and After. And if training is something I want to do more regularly, then learn more about learning. See “Learn you will: interactive tech teaching from Jedi masters, plus session outline too!
  4. Investigate a more structured approach to monitoring website uptime, using services such as or Uptime Robot. Also, set up alerts using Google Analytics to receive automatic notifications if visitor patterns suggest nefarious behaviour (eg traffic spikes because of a DOS attach). From the workshop “Welcome to the website emergency room: find and pinpoint problems when everything falls apart”.
  5. Stories, singly or collected, are powerful.
  6. Inspiring stuff is happening on my doorstep: projects, tools and apps being created in the coolest little capital Wellington, Aoteoroa New Zealand, are brilliant contributions to creating social change. These include: loomio – a new way of decision-making, chalkle° learning platform, and nznavigator online tool for organisational development.
  7. Make time, take time, to think differently. Can we please get away from describing things as problem this and problem that? Instead, incorporate into our design, developmental and communications work, insights from frameworks like Appreciative Inquiry that allow us to recognise and value strengths and what might be possible.

This last gleaning is prompted by a keynote presentation from Willa Seldon, a director of the Bridgespan Group, who challenged participants to “give tools to constituents so they can change their own lives”. She pointed to the web as a means of helping us with this.

It’s a challenge worth repeating. We’ve got to get beyond repeating the same old stuff that makes negligible difference to anyones lives. And once again, I notice that the disruptive kernel at the heart of the Internet can in fact help create vibrant, healthy communities where everyone thrives. Everywhere.

While everything I encountered at the conference was not immediately applicable, so falling short of Alan’s test, I got an enormous amount out of being around people for whom the tech is (mainly) subservient to the cause. It makes me optimistic that change is indeed possible.

See my other #14ntc blog posts:

Reflecting on climate change and #nptech
Attending NTC in person, in Washington DC
In other words, linking to the #14ntc
Nonprofit Technology Conference data related report, on Community Research website

My thanks to: for bringing folk together; TechSoup Global for sponsoring my trip to Washington DC; the talented and caring NetSquared crew for being there for their communities; @nzdrug and @goodresearch for being super supportive employers; everyone who I shared a thought, conversation or smile with; and my family, who allowed me to set aside being a 24-7 family guy for a few days.