Sunday, September 16, 2012

For Efficient But Effective Nonprofit Programs, Service, and Administration Like Fundraising - GIS Is A Tremendous Tool... And It's Free...

Technological innovations are continually offering nonprofits, whether they know about them or not, advanced, simpler to use, faster solutions for their unique needs.  For example, this past Thursday I attended nonprofit tech software and solution providers, TechSoup's webinar, "Mapping Your Impact" for nonprofits which was in part hosted by Geographic Information System (GIS) software and hardware industry leader's ESRI . ESRI's Nonprofit Organization Program account executive, David Gadsden, spoke.

Geographic Information Systems or GIS is computer software that allows a user to "...visualize, question, analyze, interpret, and understand data to reveal relationships, patterns, and trends." ( http://www.esri.com/what-is-gis/index.html )  You can imagine, if you have not used GIS for your nonprofit how it could be a powerful tool to plan, know in real time, and assess so much, including providing solutions to disseminate information and referrals, or to, in real time, currently and efficiently inform: programs' planning and evaluations, strategic planning, fundraising, beneficiaries' needs assessments, accounting or budgeting transparency for donor reporting and relationships, services management, even volunteer management, and more.  Data sets (depending on the user's needs and goals) are layered over maps and tied into real time data and allows for database connections, too.  As with any software system the results are a matter of "garbage in garbage out" or not - but assuming that an organization has on- the-ball volunteers and staff (who are well trained and continually supported by superiors as continuing education or modernizing tech infrastructure are needed) the quality of the nonprofit's data entry is likely not an issue.

Andrew Schroeder, the Director of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief International spoke during the webinar about how his nonprofit uses GIS, and specifically ESRI's Arc GIS product to: discover the specific needs that exists, in real time, in the places around the globe that Direct Relief Int'l provides emergency assistance; to survey program partners and beneficiaries to inform Direct Relief Int'l's programs designs; asset tracking; for rapid assessment in emergencies; programs' and services' effectiveness assessment; to track where service partners (i.e. FEMA, American Red Cross, local, state, and other federal agencies, etc.)  are during emergencies (in real time and live on actual maps including, for instance, where emergency evacuation routes are and whether their clinics are located on then evacuation routes); and discerning what assets the partners have on the ground (to avoid redundancy and to be efficient while being effective, overall).  Specific to fundraising, he mentioned in his presentation that Direct Relief Int'l also uses GIS to provide budgeting/spending transparency to their donors and potential donors in both reporting/donor relationship development and solicitations (in real time, visually).

ESRI's Nonprofit Organization Program currently offers a free GIS software program called ArcGIS Online that anyone can use for free.  It provides two gigabytes of storage per user; hundreds of hundreds of maps that your organization's information can be laid over as you need, including maps containing the most recent demographics information from the most recent federal census, for example (if you click on the ArcGIS Online link, above, and look at the "Featured Maps" at the bottom of the web page, you'll see even more of what maps or data sets are available); cloud computing and storage (so your organization does not need to find space on its server, for example, to store maps which can be large data files); and free tutorials and demonstrations to explain both how to use the free GIS and also how to do any number of technical operations you may choose to add information to your maps.  All of this is the free version of ESRI's GIS (and they are always adding new maps and data sets).

The caveat of using the free GIS is that it will have ESRI's branding on maps (which is a tiny price to pay).  If an organization wishes, though, to have the paid package (or variations or combinations of their offerings as needed) including applying one's organization's own branding on maps, etc. and extended storage beyond two gigabytes, among other benefits and support - you can currently purchase GIS software and/or hardware for nonprofits through ESRI, directly, and the nonprofit discount is 50% the retail price for their offerings and solutions.

Technically, today, GIS involves less hardware (compared to even the recent past) because so much data (i.e. nonprofit clientele information, donor information, and required maps) can be stored in the cloud, rather than on a network server.  ESRI is proactively planning for its cloud storage (as it's more and more commonly used in all industries) so it offers cloud computing and storage solutions in its total GIS service offerings, as of just the past couple of years.  It considers this entire package, enterprise GIS as it offers not just cloud storage computing and solutions but too, online, desktop, server, mobile, developer, and other solutions.

Gadsden, for example, shared in the webinar his recent experience of working with one of ESRI's nonprofit clients in Africa where they were ground-truthing (verifying) the nonprofit's client's needs have been met and feeding the data, as they walked around the village and spoke to people, in real time, up to the organization's database (in the cloud - even though the organization's offices are in the United States) using cell phones and an iPad (because they could access the Internet from the village as they walked around).  The data they collected then immediately renders in the organization's client database (as they chose to do) and also, in real time, on the organization's map of Africa.  Both of these tied into the client's GIS.

ESRI, Gadsden explained in the webinar, is in the process of working with TechSoup to provide ESRI's full GIS solutions (part of the enterprise offerings listed above or the total package, as needed) to nonprofits at a discount.  This arrangement has not yet (as of this date) been finalized but is expected to be available through TechSoup in the near future.  Check with TechSoup to see if they are now offering ESRI's products, if you are interested in more information.  For now, ESRI offers nonprofits GIS solutions at half off the retail prices.

If you would like to hear and see the webinar I attended (and see, too, the Power Point presentation that was given with it) for free, click on Webinar Archive: Mapping Your Impact   It is an hour long and a great introduction to what GIS can do for nonprofit organizations, specifically.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Always love seeing things that are either free and/or beneficial to non-profits, such as nonprofit software. Thanks for sharing!
-Jon