PEP Workshop:
Dot.Org Incubator

SI 598/698
Professor Paul Resnick

Last updated 09/05/2001 -- PR

This workshop course is intended to involve students in social ventures that conduct some significant part of their activity on-line. A social venture is an organization whose mission is defined by some social outcome (typically political advocacy, production of a public good, or provision of a valuable human service.) A social venture may operate on a for-profit or a not-for-profit basis. In one semester, it is rarely feasible to incubate a new organization from scratch. Instead, student teams will work on projects that are in various stages of incubation.

(In the fall of 2001, we have the opportunity to work on whothat.org, smartgirl.org, and a rating service for evaluating non-profit tech assistance providers.)

Course Objectives

At the end of this course, all students should be familiar with the basic issues of sustainability and success measures for dot.orgs. Depending on which team they participate in, each student will also gain more in-depth experience with one of the following:

Students who sign up for this course are also encouraged to sign up for SI575, the Community Information Corps Seminar, for 1 credit. 575 offers an opportunity for reading, reflection, and social networking that complements the hands-on practical engagement work of this course.

Depending on how successful the class activities are, some students may choose to be involved in the ongoing activity of the dot.org that they have helped to incubate.

Audience

Different teams within the dot.orgs should appeal to students with different backgrounds and career aspirations.

Class Format

The class will meet as a group once each week for an hour for status reports, information sharing, and goal setting for the following week. There is one scheduled 2-hour block for team meetings, and teams will schedule other work time on their own. Room 232D (the Community Information Corps lab) will be available as a work site.

Assignments and Grading

At the end of the semester, every student will be required to write an individual five-page reflection paper summarizing their work and what they learned from it, relating this learning to concepts they encountered in other courses or from individual reading exploration inspired by this course. This will account for 10% of the course grade.

Each week, students will have to turn in a work log, indicating hours worked, tasks completed, and a work plan, indicating tasks they are working on for the following week. These will account for 20% of the course grade. There is a template for the work log. You will post your weekly reports to a shared weblog so that everyone on the team can track your progress. You should also use the weblog during the week to make a note of what you're doing, especially if it might have any bearing on what other team members are doing. Please err on the side of making your work visible-- you'll be surprised at how much this will help the team coordinate its activity.

Other assignments, accounting for 70% of the course grade, will vary depending on the team each student joins.

The overall work of each team will be assigned a letter grade. Each student will also be asked to fill out a self-assessment and assessment of his or her team members. These assessments may result in some shifting of credit within a team (i.e., if all team members agree that someone is a slacker or a star performer, that person would get a lower or higher grade than the rest of the team.)

Readings

There will be few, if any, assigned readings for the entire class. Students will be expected to find and use information relevant to their tasks and to refer to this information in their end-of-semester reflection papers.

Prerequisites and Co-requisites

For all students electing 698, 501 and permission of the instructor are required. For all students electing 598, permission of the instructor is required. More specific requirements for different roles follow.

Students joining a web development team should have prior experience developing database-driven web sites, or should have completed coursework at the level of SI612. SI658 (Information Architecture) would also be a helpful course to take concurrently.

Students joining a user experience (testing and iterative design) team should have completed SI501 and SI622 or equivalent. SI682 (User Interface Design) would also be helpful background but could be taken concurrently.

Students joining a hosting and moderation team need not have completed any pre-requisites. However, the following courses would be helpful background: SI503; SI504; the e-Community course (to be taught for the first time in winter 2002).

Students joining an organization development team should have completed SI504 or have completed a course in management (ideally, non-profit management) at the school of business, social work, or public policy, or have prior experience in non-profit management. Prior coursework in economics, and especially information economics (e.g., SI646) would also provide helpful background.

Students who have completed SI coursework indicated as a pre-requisite for the role they intend to assume should sign up for the advanced version (69x); others should sign up for 59x.

The UM Non-profit and Public Management Center page (http://www.umich.edu/~nonproft/) lists many courses that might be useful complements to this one. In particular, check out:

Intellectual Property

We will be working as a team trying to develop real services and it is hoped that these services will be spun off as dot-orgs or taken over by other organizations at the end of the semester. It is not clear, at the beginning of the semester, how we as a group will want to license or distribute our work at the end of the semester. Students retain copyright over works that they create as part of classes at the University of Michigan. So as not to give any individual the ability to prevent others from offering useful services that we collectively develop, all students and the professor will initially be asked to sign the following agreement:

I hereby agree that all students enrolled in SI598/698 (the Dot.Org Incubator) in the fall semester of 2001, and Professor Paul Resnick, shall have all rights under copyright law, on a non-exclusive basis, with regard to any code, software, documentation, or other copyrightable works I create in connection with course SI598/698, fall 2001.

In particular, note that this agreement would allow two students to both take all of the materials created from the class and start competing ventures. We are, however, free to negotiate and sign anything that everyone agrees to, at any time. One of the class activities will be to examine alternative licensing models, including various open source licenses as well as more restrictive commercial licenses. The initial agreement above will only be in force if the members of the class are not able to come to unanimous agreement about how to handle copyrightable materials created as part of class activities.

Development Environment

For prototyping and service development, we will be using the server archimedes.si.umich.edu. This is an insecure machine, and is used by students in SI612 as well as our class. You should expect occasional service outages or other problems. Always keep backups of your work somewhere else besides on archimedes. Don't keep sensitive data on archimedes. 

Do take precautions to avoid creating service outages yourself. The security settings give every student full privileges in configuring the machine. This comes in handy for installing software, etc. If you're not sure what you're doing, however, please don't do administrator level things.

In class, we will tell you the id and password to use

To get started developing on archimedes, follow the instructions that Professor Terry Weymouth prepared for 612 last year. They may be a little out of date, so you might want to try this for the first time with another student who has experience using archimedes.

What are we incubating in Fall 2001?

WhotThat.org

Whothat.org will be a web-based service intended to increase the number of neighborhoods, groups, and associations that make membership directories and distribute them to their members. For the past 2+ years, I have worked with various students to develop this idea. Directories have been made so far for neighborhood blocks around Southeast Michigan, a group of community health workers in Detroit, neighborhood activists in South Bend, IN, and two student and faculty groups at the University of Michigan. We have learned a lot about the process, including tips on how to conduct interviews and take photographs. We have also become convinced that making directories can be valuable in building social capital for small groups.

The goal now is to develop technical and social supports that encourage people to make their own directories. The web site will handle the technical details (users enter data through convenient forms; the site will handle formatting and arrange for printing). Beyond that, it will walk users through crucial design choices, such as what information to elicit from each member. It will also provide social support, by connecting directory makers with each other. Finally, by lining up advertisers or other sponsors, we hope to make this a free service. In the Winter of 2001, a site design and initial implementation will be completed. The goal during the workshop will be to go live with the service and to develop plans for its future sustainability.

You can see more information about the history of the Whos That? project, including information about the social capital research goals, at www.whothat.org.

Previous students, some of whom will be in the course, have developed a scenarios of use document for the service and diagrams of paths through the service (render in VISIO). We also have a diagram of the technical architecture of the environment, at least as we will be developing the service this fall. An eventual deployed system might alter this architecture, for cost or security or load balancing purposes.

In addition to developing the service, we will need to make plans for commercial hosting of the service, create a "business" plan that includes cost and revenue projections, and actually develop some of the outside revenue sources, through grantwriting or recruiting of corporate sponsors.

SmartGirl.org

The University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender recently took over a previously commercial web site, smartgirl.com, renaming it smartgirl.org. The site offers information, product reviews, opinion surveys, and discussion areas by and for girls.

Our opportunity is to develop tools and procedures for UM undergraduates to serve as webmentors to the site's visitors. These webmentors would partly serve as moderators (inviting certain kinds of participants and participation rather than just filtering out postings) and partly coach site visitors on how to write product reviews or opinion survey questions in a way that will appeal to the rest of the audience.

In order not to be too in-the-clouds with planning for webmentoring, those involved in the planning process will try their hand at actually doing some webmentoring. The goal, however, will be to go beyond providing this service directly. The goal will be to document procedures, and develop tools if necessary, so that this webmentoring can become part of the curriculum of UM undergraduate classes in women's studies or sociology or writing.

We will be working directly with Tiffany Mara (tmarra@umich.edu), the staff person responsible for SmartGirl. Occasionally, the team may meet with Professor Abigail Stewart at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, or with other UM faculty developing curriculum around SmartGirl. 

Assistance Provider Rating Service

Non-profit organizations hire consultants and other assistance providers to help with tasks such technology planning, network administration, web development, and database development. Often they lack the in-house expertise to evaluate which providers are best. The purpose of this service is to share experiences among non-profits, amplifying the effects of word of mouth.

The basic idea is that after each contract is completed, the NP org would use a web form to rate the provider, perhaps along several dimensions. Before deciding who to contract with, organizations would consult the feedback provided by others. This service, once incubated, would probably be run by the new NPower Michigan, which is being organized by the Mott Foundation, and funded in part by Microsoft.

Kate Lockwood did an internship at the Mott Foundation this summer in which she surveyed other efforts to provide directories of technical assistance providers and functioning reputation systems in other arenas. She also sketched out a preliminary design for the service.

In addition to developing a prototype of the service, it will be important this semester to populate the database of service providers for southeast Michigan, so that the service has sufficient critical mass to be of use to non-profit organizations. If we work on this project, we will also need to create scenario documents and diagrams as well as an architecture design, like those created already for whothat.org. Finally, we will need to develop a plan for sustainability that includes revenue and cost projections.