August, 2011

  • Letting Go: Leveraging Office365 towards a Serverless NGO

    Thomas Bell, Director, Integrated Technology Initiative, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public

    There is a room at the Ashoka offices in Arlington, Virginia, a room that would be familiar to many IT managers, filled with servers - racks and racks of servers. These servers produce lots and lots of heat, so in addition to the servers we also have air conditioners that we run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to keep these racks and racks of servers cool. Since these servers provide mission critical services to our international operations, such as email, file storage, backup, and the like, they require constant attention to ensure the hardware and software is functioning properly. To this end, we engage a team of people dedicated to spending at least some of their time tending to these racks and racks of servers to keep them running, accessible, and secure. Now, imagine this same pattern being repeated at thousands of NGOs around the world: certainly not the most efficient use of resources.

    Information technology is capable of transforming the NGO sector’s ability to efficiently and effectively serve their constituencies. From back office systems (e.g., email, CRM, finance/accounting) to mission-focused solutions (e.g., m-health, e-government, disaster response), information technology has enabled NGOs to leverage often meager resources to provide services and reach communities in ways that would have been impossible without an information technology solution. Having said that, the model in which each NGO must create and maintain the infrastructure to support its use of information technology - its own serverfarm and datacenter - is coming to a close. Advances in server capacity, every expanding connectivity, and developments in the Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) ecosystems are opening the possibility for NGO IT departments to get out of the business of managing servers and focusing more of their attention directly on the business of changing the world.

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    With the support of our friends at Microsoft and NetHope (www.nethope.org), Ashoka has undertaken a project to let go of our existing Exchange servers and migrate onto Microsoft’s recently released Office365 platform in support of our roughly 300 staff operating in over 20 countries around the world. This is no small task, mind you. Ashoka prides itself on encouraging entrepreneurship both within and outside the organization and, as a result, our technology infrastructure has evolved in a highly ‘organic’ way that has required a significant amount of housecleaning in order to take advantage of the opportunities the Office365 platform exposes. But at the end of the day this migration will enable us to remove several of our existing servers from production along with the related backup, networking, power, and maintenance infrastructure taking us one step closer to the aspirational ‘serverless’ NGO goal.

    At Ashoka, we believe that there is an emerging system change taking place in the IT field that has the potential to dramatically change the way NGOs access IT solutions both for their back office and programmatic focuses. To be sure, it is still early days in the maturation of the SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS ecosystems and, as such, there are new challenges and risks associated with their use that must be prudently considered. Yet, at the end of the day, we believe that our time and energy are better spent on building the social and technical infrastructure that enables the emergence of the ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ world than on managing servers and software updates. We are exceptionally happy to be partnering with Microsoft and NetHope to demonstrate how these emerging systems can transform the NGO sector use of information technology and, ultimately, enhance impact.

  • Fiery dragons and social entrepreneurs tackle asthma

    Kodu Cup grand prize winner Hannah Wyman, 10, meets with winning Imagine Cup team, Team Dragon, at the Student Showcase event at Lincoln Center on July 13, 2011.

    If you ever get the chance to meet the young Hannah Wyman of Leominster, Massachusetts, you’ll be struck by her shining upbeat personality and her big smile. What you would also quickly realize is that this ten year old is wise beyond her years.  

    I had the opportunity to meet Hannah at last month’s Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in New York City where she was attending the global event as part of her grand prize for winning Microsoft’s Kodu Cup, a video game development competition launched earlier this year.  

     

    The Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals is the culmination of a year long competition where over 300,000 students from every corner of the world compete to use technology to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. The 400 top students gathered in New York to compete for the top awards and as you can imagine the event has an incredible atmosphere.  But where many people might be distracted by the noise, the color or the bright lights, not to mention the game stations, or the site of popular actress Eva Longoria (pictured left Eva Longoria-Photo by Michael Simon) walking through the halls, Hannah was focused on on learning more about one team in particular that had developed an engaging game with the purpose of encouraging children to better manage their asthma- Team Dragon from Rice University, Texas.

    “I have asthma,” Hannah told me “so I am excited to learn about Team Dragon’s project.” Hannah’s mom, Amy Wyman was also intrigued to learn about the asthma focused game; “Hannah often needs to visit her doctor multiple times a week to manage her asthma.”

    Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children. According to a 2009 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 7.1 million children in the United States – or 9.6% of all kids - suffer from asthma.  

    As Hannah, her mom and I approached Team Dragon at the Imagine Cup showcase exhibition, the team shared the workings of their game to the assembled audience with Hannah front and center, listening closely.  As part of their project, the team discovered that the most important aspect of asthma treatment is daily measurement of lung capacity.  However, unfortunately, daily readings can become tiresome for young children, so only about 50 percent maintain this routine.

    Team Dragon created this mobile and gaming solution to make daily asthma testing feel less like a chore and more like an entertaining virtual adventure, thereby improving the chances that children will track their lung function daily.  Integrated into the game is the world’s first open-source spirometer, a device to monitor lung capacity, which allows children to play as Azmo the Dragon, destroying castles with fiery breath by blowing into the spirometer.  The game takes a baseline of the user’s lung function and tracks it over time, making it easier to tell when an asthma attack could be impending.  Through regular monitoring, it’s easier to avoid a scary experience. Team Dragon took home a third place award in mobile game design for their mobile video game, Azmo the Dragon.

    Check out Hannah’s visit with Team Dragon:

    Hannah is a shining example of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and how kids have the ability to not just play games, but to create them for a purpose. Maybe one day we will see Hannah compete in the Imagine Cup and perhaps she’ll grow up to become a  social entrepreneur helping the global population with her innovative ideas.

    So what do you think? Should we cultivate more student social entrepreneurs? Let us know what you think in the comments or show your support by tweeting or posting to your Facebook or LinkedIn accounts.

  • Unlocking potential in Peru with gain in technology skills

    Nancy Ferradas, Microsoft Peru

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    Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope) is a nonprofit in Peru that operates in eight locations around the country, including Ayacucho, Lima, San Juan de Lurigancho, San Martin, Huanuco and Apurimac, to provide support and assistance to girls facing difficult domestic conditions, including giving them access to technology skills to help them continue their education and find employment.

    They do incredible work. For example, in the region of Huanuco, 80% of the population lives in poverty. Every year, 4,700 cases of domestic violence are reported – 75% of victims are young women – although a great many cases are not reported due to fear of retaliation. Paz y Esperanza’s Casa del Buen Trato Hovde house fosters girls that have been victims of physical or psychological abuse at their own homes. Many of the girls look for shelter after leaving school or their families, and find in Hovde Foster House an opportunity to continue studying and start healing.

    Paz y Esperanza is using donated technology, including Microsoft Office, SQL Server, and Windows Server to gives these girls the opportunity to develop computer skills and get ready for a job, awakening their optimism and enthusiasm for learning again. Some of the girls have never used a computer before, so they discover a way to connect with the world and to access information, resources and job tools.

    clip_image001“Microsoft´s software donation is making it possible for girls and women from Huanuco´s Casa del Buen Trato to find new opportunities through technology, allowing them to build a future of hope and teach others what they have learned,” said Claudia García from the Huanuco office of Peace and Hope.

    “After facing a difficult family situation, I was welcomed at Casa del Buen Trato Hovde. Not only did they give me hope, but they helped me to achieve my dreams. They have a Computer Center and I was able to learn about technology day by day. Thanks to that technology and my teachers from Casa del Buen Trato, I successfully ended my Executive Secretary & Computer Studies with good grades, and I improved my computer skills. Now I have the opportunity to get a better job and keep studying,” said one 16-year old girl served by Casa del Buen Trato Hovde.

    Paz y Esperanza now has many former students working as office assistants or who have started their own businesses, contributing to the local economy and social welfare in Huanuco, and showing the community that women have the potential to transform their lives.

    “Access to Microsoft´s software donation program has been very important and useful for Peace and Hope because the new software is allowing us to improve our IT system´s stability and performance in all our offices, and also is letting us strengthen the services we give to communities in need”, said Germán Vargas, Director of Peace and Hope National Office.

     

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    More nonprofit technology resources:

    Microsoft has a global software donations program that brings the benefits of affordable software to nonprofits around the world. Does your favorite nonprofit know about the program? Find out more here.

  • Ukrainian Mothers Tap Technology to Brighten their Children’s Futures

    By Kirill Staroverov, a student Intern at Microsoft Ukraine

    April 26th, 1986 was a dark day in the history of Ukraine. The destruction of the fourth power unit on Chernobyl atomic power station was the biggest ecological disaster known in human history. Radioactive pollution spread out across modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Even today, scientists, ecologists and doctors are still dealing with consequences of this disaster.

    A group of mothers were concerned about their children’s futures. They wanted their kids to live in safe, pollution free, eco-friendly environment, so they decided to take action. In 1991, just after Ukraine gained its independence, the Ukrainian National Environmental nonprofit, MAMA-86, was established to protect future generations’ right to a clean environment.

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    ©Transportation of obsolete pesticides by prepared team of "cleaners”, Lubyanka, Kiev region, Ukraine -- Yury Onisimov/UNENGO "МАМА-86”

    Today, MAMA-86 has become one of the biggest ecological organizations in Ukraine . It has 17 branches and around 200 members all over Ukraine. They have dedicated their work to three major areas: Promoting ecology-centric policies and practices for the sustainable development of Ukraine, improving people’s access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and reducing the risk of chemicals’ impact to human health and the environment.

    The MAMA-86 network, in cooperation with numerous partners, holds public consultations and hearings, roundtables and conferences, trainings and workshops all over Ukraine on the pressing issues of environmental protection and sustainable development.

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    ©Express test of water supply, Sadky, Kiev region, Ukraine -- Yury Onisimov/UNENGO "МАМА-86”

    But the organization has faced a lot of difficulties with coordination of their projects. Because they operate nationwide, they have to send a lot of data to every single participant using post and e-mail. They worried that data would get lost in the numerous correspondences. They wanted to use technology to address the problem and to help different members work simultaneously to increase awareness of their projects to the public. To help them achieve this, they requested a software donation from Microsoft.

    Now, MAMA-86 is running their operation using Microsoft Small Business Server. They have an internal web site where they can store their information and keep their data up-to-date and accessible. They are also planning to launch a new web site where everyone can find information concerning the environmental situation in Ukraine, participate in discussions, and attend workshops. Small Business Server helps everyone working in MAMA-86 share their contacts and calendar, collaborate on projects simultaneously, and work together on their newspaper using SharePoint technology.

    “What you are going to do next?” I asked their IT Director, Yuriy Onisimov.

    He replied, “We saw opportunities to grow, but we couldn’t do it. All the time we faced problems with our internal communication. We had to delay our projects again and again… and now we have the capacity to increase the awareness of ecology problems in Ukraine. We became more effective and efficient”.

    For more information about MAMA-86, visit www.mama-86.org.ua

    Let your favorite nonprofit know how to request a software donation from Microsoft, or have them visit www.microsoft.com/nonprofit to learn more.

  • Working with corporate alumni for greater community impact

    Like many companies, Microsoft is proud of the close and productive relationship we have with our alumni and the opportunities we have to work together.  This is particularly true when it comes to our local community here in Washington State where we have a large number of employees and a large alumni community.  Both groups already have a positive local community presence in their own right, but by coming together we can have an even greater impact.

    This has been one of the key opportunities that has guided our partnership with the Microsoft Alumni Foundation (MSAF) and together we’re announcing a new initiative to support the United Way King County’s Day of Caring on September 16th 2011. For each Microsoft alumnus who participates in a Day of Caring project alongside current Microsoft employees, Microsoft will donate $100 to the Microsoft Alumni Foundation up to a total of $50,000.  The alumni will then choose which local nonprofit organizations in King County receive that funding.

    As Marylou Brannan, executive director at MSAF observed: “Many of us (alumni) formed our commitment to philanthropy while we were at the company, and have now gone on to focus even more time and energy in that direction since leaving the company.  One of the Microsoft Alumni Foundation’s jobs is to help create and promote opportunities like this, to get even more of our alumni rallied and to deepen the impact in our communities. This Microsoft matching provides a great stimulus to support those efforts.”

    We are hoping this will provide additional incentive  for our alumni, who are already very active in the community, to get involved with our work around the Day of Caring.

    We’ll keep you updated!

    Interested Microsoft alumni can get more information and sign-up  through  the Microsoft Alumni Foundation website.

    Help spread the word to Microsoft Alumni by tweeting this article out, posting to Facebook, and LinkedIn

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