Developers Take on Charitable Challenge with Office Business Applications
Today during his keynote at Software 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described the platform benefits of the 2007 Microsoft Office system and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, and the rapid adoption and deployment of Office Business Applications (OBAs). More and more companies are realizing greater value out of their existing back-end systems, creating new connections between applications.
Some examples of OBAs are the winners of the Develop Without Borders Challenge, which Ballmer announced in his keynote this afternoon. The contest, co-sponsored by Microsoft and HP to reward innovative uses of technology in nonprofit organizations, began as a simple idea to illustrate the power of the 2007 Microsoft Office system as a true development platform for enterprise-grade solutions. Enterprise search, collaboration, document management and other features have transformed the latest version of Microsoft Office into much more than a client application suite, especially when combined with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, one of the fastest growing products in Microsoft’s history.
“We thought it would be more meaningful to enlist developers to go out into the community and work with nonprofit organizations, to determine what kind of business problems they’re facing that can be addressed by Microsoft Office,” says Jay Paulus, director of the Office Platform Marketing team. “A lot of charitable organizations face the same business, collaboration and document management problems that for-profit organizations do, but they typically don’t have the access to technology to solve the problems.”
Over a thousand developers registered for information on the contest, and Microsoft and HP received submissions from 112 countries. As part of the submission, developers had to include a situation analysis describing the charity they wished to support, its business challenges, the technologies they wished to use, and how the solution would solve the business challenge.
A group of semifinalists were selected based on how compelling the business problem and proposed solution were, who then presented to a panel of 2007 Microsoft Office system experts and HP hardware pros.
“The submission review process was really inspirational,” says Paulus. “Six of us gathered in a conference room for two days while the semifinalists presented their solution ideas via the Web. We were all really impressed with the quality of the submissions and the amount of passion out there. It’s great to know that our industry is filled with such smart and compassionate people. It made us really proud to be a part of it.”
Midnight Basketball Program Helps At-Risk Youth
One of the grand prize winners was a program in Australia that holds basketball games, clinics and life-skills workshops.
Midnight Basketball Australia Ltd. (MBA) provides an alternative activity during “high crime” periods such as nights and weekends. The group works with local community youth agencies, police, juvenile justice departments, sponsors, councils, housing organizations and other groups to coordinate local basketball competitions designed to keep at-risk youth off the streets.
“Setting up and running a Midnight Basketball tournament is a complex task with multiple stakeholders and participants, requiring collaboration and interaction at various stages,” says Jonathan Wolfe, a volunteer board member and director of MBA. “Our solution serves tournament managers, volunteers, workshop presenters, teams, coaches and everyone else involved in running a tournament.”
Designed on a volunteer basis by members of the Commonwealth Bank’s IT department based in Sydney, Australia, the solution will provide a Web-based interface for the collaboration and management of tournaments. This will enable everyone who works on MBA to have a forum to share content and schedules for life-skills workshops that kids must attend if they want to be eligible to play.
The solution will help coordinate tournaments around Australia. This includes the recruitment of volunteers and players, and facilitates knowledge sharing between user groups. It will also support back-end processes such as budget management, materials and communication across the tournament and the nationwide MBA program. Commonwealth Bank will construct a SharePoint 2007 portal for volunteers, players, coaches and workshop providers, and will use InfoPath to provide registration service online. In addition, MBA will use Groove as a collaboration tool to provide training across rural areas, and Outlook Business Contact Manager to manage contacts.
“We couldn’t roll out a national program without this platform in place,” says Wolfe. “The provision of this infrastructure and service capability will enable us to be significantly more efficient, and allow us to focus on our core aim of delivering a safe community event for youth at risk.”
Information Sharing Made Easy
The other grand prize winner is a global organization — Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI). With international headquarters in Atlanta and Americus, Ga., HFHI includes some 1,600 grassroots-affiliate organizations in the United States, and nearly 2,300 in total worldwide.
Their improved information-sharing solution, dubbed “PartnerNet,” is intended for people in the field building houses in partnership with families in need. Habitat’s hope is that overhead costs saved with the improved solution will create additional resources toward building houses.
“Back in 2000, we launched PartnerNet as our extranet document management system,” says Brett Boatright, Habitat’s Web communications manager. “Since then it has grown to 40,000 users, 14,000 documents, a discussion forum and an extensive photo library.”
This rapid growth and relative lack of process around PartnerNet led quickly to a bloated tool.
“There was a complete separation of the content, no continuity, no connectivity,” Boatright says. “Users had a hard time finding any information specific to them, their area, their expertise. Their requests just ended up drowning in the mire of overpopulated documents and out-of-date information.”
Under these conditions, PartnerNet needed to be improved to maximize its mission to make information sharing easier for workers in the field. AW Systems, a Web application development firm based in New York City that focuses on information architecture and usability, was called in to overhaul PartnerNet.
AW Systems worked with HFHI in 2003 when they helped the organization redesign its public-facing site, http://www.habitat.org/, and were therefore the logical choice to undertake the challenge of overhauling PartnerNet.
“The logical way to make the information well organized and consumable was to create individual sites for each program and department that needed one,” says Allan Wellenstein, president of AW Systems. “Some of these sites are global while others are regionally focused. We then created a mechanism that tied all these sites together into a holistic navigation system, and created tools to allow an individual to surface the small subset of this massive universe of information that they needed to do their jobs.”
AW Systems chose Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 because it provided a great deal of the functionality their solution required out-of-the-box. Additionally, the fact that it was built on top of the ASP.NET 2.0 framework meant that anything SharePoint didn’t do out of the box, they were able to customize.
“SharePoint Server 2007 makes it easy for us to add pages, lists and document libraries to customize the experience for the specific needs of each program or department, while doing it in a manner that maintains a consistent user experience across the entire space,” says Wellenstein.
The Habitat solution was launched as a beta following the launch of SharePoint Server 2007 this spring.
“Habitat’s PartnerNet site now has expanded capabilities and greater usability,” says Boatright. “Content can be uploaded and maintained in an efficient manner and users can consistently find what they’re looking for.”
High Quality, Rapid Response in Humanitarian Aid
First place winner International Medical Corps (IMC) is a global humanitarian aid organization. Since its inception in 1984, IMC’s mission has been consistent — to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital healthcare services that focus on training.
The California-based agency employs doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, as well as logisticians, water and sanitation engineers, and finance and other administrators in 21 countries and regions. Currently, there are more than 5,000 people working for IMC worldwide, but that number grows when need arises, as it did during the 2004 South Asia tsunami, or the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
“As a humanitarian aid organization that responds to disasters, it is essential that we are able to deploy qualified personnel to the field as quickly as possible,” says Bill Hyde, director of Operations and Knowledge Management for IMC. “While we have successfully responded to emergencies through the years, we recognized the need for a streamlined process that would enable our international recruiters to identify potential staff and share information internally in a more efficient way.”
IMC’s solution caught the contest sponsors’ attention because of how it could make a difference for IMC, and by extension, directly affect the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Similar to an intranet site, California-based Solien Technology is building IMC a SharePoint Server 2007 portal accessible to recruiters and hiring managers, which will enable them to easily share information about potential candidates so they can turn on a dime to meet medical needs. The solution takes a manual process that was being handled through e-mail and automates it through the use of InfoPath forms and workflow. The recruiting process can now be initiated online, at any time of day and is accessible from the field. The new portal uses document libraries to make the info available online, in a centralized location, throughout the recruiting process.
“Hiring international staff for an organization as large and diverse as IMC can be complicated,” says Hyde. “We are very careful to make sure that all the proper forms are filled out and that donor requirements are being met before sending someone to the field, whether it be a staff member or a volunteer. Because we’re a global organization, people work across all different time zones, and much of our work is done via e-mail. This system will create a central repository of information, allowing access in real time, including everything from interview notes to travel documents to background checks.”
The beta site for IMC’s portal will be up for testing later this month. IMC anticipates that its new system will dramatically improve efficiency in recruiting and hiring people when responding to disasters, as well as addressing ongoing needs.
“Nonprofits like IMC frequently get funding for field programs, but rarely for technological infrastructure,” says Hyde. “Microsoft and HP, through the Develop Without Borders program, has given us a wonderful opportunity to build our information technology, which in turn will help us deliver the high-quality, rapid response in humanitarian crises that IMC has become known for.”
Helping Disadvantaged Communities in Brazil
The Brazilian organization Fundamed has a similar mission to IMC, but is national in scope. Fundamed helps coordinate medical missions, including dentistry, surgery and anesthesiology, and has facilitated more than 80 missions—helping 5,000 patients and serving more than 50,000 with dental assistance, most of whom are children and adolescents.
“With this solution, we will be able to organize more medical missions to help disadvantaged communities in Brazil,” says Paulo Seidl, director of Fundamed.
The main goal of the solution is to increase the communication of Fundamed with medical volunteers who come to Brazil. Fundamed’s portal solution will provide tools to increase Seidl’s capacity to manage volunteers — enabling him and other Fundamed managers to organize a virtual group of volunteers, elect team leaders, manage tasks, schedules and contacts, conduct Web meetings and more.
The development brainpower behind the Fundamed solution is a trainee in the IT department of a local investment bank. Keidy Sakamoto spends his days developing systems for the financial market with C#, .NET and SQL Server, volunteering for Fundamed in his spare time as the organization’s IT coordinator. He began the portal project upon discovering the Develop Without Borders contest.
Sakamoto is quick to point out that the solution he helped create with support from Microsoft can be used as an example to other organizations in other countries.
“This solution can be easily adapted to another kind of volunteer program,” he says. “This challenge was interesting for me, because it shows that Microsoft products fit all kind of solutions — whether that’s solving a problem for a huge commercial organization, or for a charity that wants to help improve people’s lives.”
Since 1983, Microsoft and its employees have given more than US$2.5 billion in cash, services and software to nonprofits around the world through localized, company-sponsored giving and volunteer campaigns.
While Microsoft and HP have no current plans for another contest for nonprofits in the immediate future, it’s something both sponsors are considering given the amazing worldwide response they received from this first-ever contest.
“The developer response we received from this contest was incredible,” said Kanwal Sharma, HP Marketing & Business Development WorldWide. “All the winners created innovative solution ideas that are impressive from both a technological and organizational perspective.”
The contest reaffirms how developers in general are finding ways to connect their technical abilities with their desire to help others.
“I never thought about helping a charity using software solutions before this contest,” Sakamoto says. “If developers around the world would use their free time to create these kinds of solutions, we could have a better world.”
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