There’s been a bit of a discussion on open standards web services APIs for nonprofits over at Deborah Finn’s Information Systems Forum. If you’re a nonprofit tech worker and you haven’t signed up to it. Do it now. You won’t be sorry.
Apparently, I’ve taken part in an old discussion about how nonprofits can extract data they’ve entered into hosted ASPs (or I guess any vendor that ends up storing your data in an inaccessible format or location). I decided to post (dated April 9, 2006) the following:
I have started to go through my list of prospective and existing vendors to advocate for open standards for data exchange. Generally, I’m advocating for a “pull” model for data on a real-time basis out of the ASP’s silo. It’s not a particularly sexy way to do data interchange but is a fairly safe and innocuous way to begin the dialogue….
I’m hoping that all the other tech workers who have final authority to recommend a tech purchase on this list will post their efforts to advocate for open standards and to encourage them to show up at NTEN NTC. I’m not a total fanboy of NTEN NTC but it could be a good way to demonstrate to these vendors the purchasing power of our sector and to give a better platform for speaking out about open standards issues….
So that’s the dream, no? An open standard web services API removes the need to have clunky .csv files dumped from your application (cough) Raiser’s Edge (cough) and empowers the nonprofit because the data can be re-exported back into another system without the need for vendor intervention. You don’t have to buy a copy of Crystal Reports or Access to process your data just because the vendor says it’s in a particular format. In short, your data is yours again and you’re no longer at the vendor’s mercy should you decide to move to another vendor. After all, it IS your data, your org created that data in the first place and at the very least, should be able to access the data that was entered in by your staff. That’s the immediate short-term benefit.
Long term, we’re talking about that meme again, Nonprofit 2.0. The ability to recombine data with another application will create new opportunities for nonprofits. Re-empowerment of the nonprofit worker and resulting transformation into a knowledge worker, data re-presented as knowledge – these are all themes for Nonprofit 2.0. The benefits are much more tangible to IT directors who have to work with data all the time but not so tangible to nonprofit management. Making this need visceral is going to have to be the job of every nonprofit IT director out there.
So here’s an action plan:
1. Before you buy hosted ASP services, DEMAND an open services API. This may mean customizing their app and helping them build a web service. Take a look at Google’s or Yahoo’s APIs and see how they can fit your app. For the most part, ask for a REST request that returns a single XML document. Try not to get too complicated in the first pass. Just a simple read-only XML of your most basic client data may actually suffice. Be a pragmatist and remember that the code to write Web services is usually shorter in length and easier to write than writing the presentation layer that originally encapsulated the data. Remember that the Web service you help build may be one that other IT directors might want to use so don’t try to build request APIs that are specific to your nonprofit org only.
2. If you already have hosted ASPs, ask for an open services API to be part of the next release. If they start to balk at it, you’ll probably have to wait until the market is sufficiently savvy enough for competitors to pop up in their space with web services. No worries, if enough IT directors do step 1, step 2 will be easy for everyone else.
3. Come back to this blog or to the Information Systems Forum and tell everyone else what you did. I’ll start making a list of ASPs that service the nonprofit sector that support open APIs. I’m already working with a new vendor — Paxxel.com and they’re interested in doing the same. As soon as I write a spec ( which I’ll duly post here on the blog), you’ll get a sense of the actual work involved in laying the technical groundwork of Nonprofit 2.0.