Amy Sample Ward interviewed ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick about our report on the real-time Web and how real time impacts the world of nonprofit organizations. Sample Ward helps nonprofits, community groups and those in the social change sector use new technologies, and is the co-author of Social by Social, a handbook in using social technologies for social impact.Earlier this month
Her conversation with Kirkpatrick started with the basics of what real time is, and then moved to the big question: How can nonprofits or social impact groups take advantage of the real-time Web?
First, what does the "real-time Web" really mean?
"It means different things to different people, but the most literal meaning is probably this: real-time systems push information from a publisher to a subscriber (be they a human reader or a machine consuming information) as soon as it's available, without the subscriber having to ask if there's anything new.
"Think of how Facebook notifies you that you have new messages without having to refresh the page, or the way your Instant Messaging client shows you new messages as soon as they are sent. The underlying technologies used in those kinds of circumstances are now being integrated into all kinds of other websites because real-time delivery of information changes the user experience radically and offers all kinds of benefits. It's smoother for users, users and systems get to take action immediately on new information and it's much more efficient, meaning that your technology can do more with less computing expense."
When did RWW start focusing on the real-time Web?
"Probably middle of 2008. Like people generally do, we thought about the impact that Twitter and Facebook were making on the web. When we looked deeper though, we quickly found out that there is far, far more going on in the real-time web than those two services."
For the report, you interviewed 50 Web experts - what were some of the surprising things you heard?
"I was surprised to learn how broad this field is. We talked to people working with public records extraction in real time, with designers building lightweight, real-time presentation sharing tools, Google engineers have some incredible ideas about ways they hope that their PubSubHubbub real-time protocol will be used - stuff like real-world sensor networks and contact info syncing. When I started those interviews, I knew there were broad possibilities but I had no idea how broad."
How has the real-time Web already impacted nonprofit organizations or those focused on social impact work?
"One of the organizations I did an interview with was the American Red Cross. As they say, "at the Red Cross, the real-time web saves lives." Real-time information delivery has changed the way that organization works in radical ways. It's amazing. Disaster response work that used to take days now takes minutes, using a combination of Sharepoint, mobile devices and airplane surveillance. The Red Cross also pays very close attention to the rest of the real-time web, though. I was fascinated to find out that the team at HQ is full of fans of the Breaking News Online iPhone app."
What impacts are right around the corner?
Organizations that choose to do so are already able to run circles around the web using these real-time technologies. I expect that some will do so and many will not. It will be like the difference between organizations that developed an effective web or email presence early vs. those that did not.
"If organizations want to be relevant and effective, they will need to incorporate some elements of real-time information delivery into their work flow. Be that pushing real-time updates out to their websites and supporters, consuming updates on breaking news in their sector in real time, or collaborating remotely in real time. Using only the parts of the web that you must refresh for updates, when you remember to do so, be they email or web pages, will soon feel like putting your ear up to a tin can with a string connecting it to some other tin can far away.
"I don't mean to say that everything will be real time and you must always live in that flow, but I do believe it's fast becoming an essential form of engagement. Not just because everyone is doing it, either, but because it's really very useful."
How can nonprofits or social impact groups take advantage of the real-time Web?
"There are as many ways to take advantage of the real time web as there are to use the web in general. Here's one of my favorite stories though. Some time back I was doing a workshop for nonprofit communications people and one of the attendees worked for a women's advocacy organization. As a proof of concept, we took the RSS feed of the New York Times and filtered it for keywords related to her organization's areas of interests, I think we used Yahoo Pipes to filter, it might have been FeedRinse.com, but that's not hard to do in many different ways.
"Then we took the filtered RSS feed and we ran it through an RSS to SMS/IM alert service. I use Notify.me a lot but even faster than that now is an iPhone app called Notifications. Or have your team's geeks check out Superfeedr.com. So the idea was, this person could then watch the NYT feed automatically, get an SMS or IM alert whenever a relevant story was published and then she could call up her local newspaper or other press.
"'I don't know if you've heard about this story breaking on a national level,' she could say, and of course they probably hadn't because they don't have robots watching for these things automatically, 'but if you'd like to cover this topic on a local level, our Executive Director is an excellent source for information.' That journalist will love you for it. Do that enough times and your organization, no matter how small, will have a chance to grow its public profile substantially.
"That's just one idea. There are countless other ways that real-time information delivery can be leveraged by nonprofits. From live video to live updates to live collaboration, more and more experiences online are going on in real time."
Our report, "The Real-Time Web and its Future", includes case studies, profiles, sector overviews and more. Find out more, and download a sneak peak, here.