Monday, March 03, 2014

ManyLabs: one example of a digital nonprofit

As most of you know, I've been studying and writing about digital civil society for almost a year now (we launched the Lab in September 2013 and published several items before then). 

A few weeks ago at a foundation-sponsored community event in San Francisco I met Peter Sand of ManyLabs. This is a small (two person) nonprofit, focused on making open source hardware and software available to anyone who wants to learn robotics, arduino, or advance their math and science skills. It provides materials and an online space for sharing school and community-based learning activities to teachers, students, and "citizen scientists." They're also building out a place to openly share data collected by citizen scientists. 

ManyLabs immediately struck me as an interesting example of a digital civil society organization. Its mission is to help people learn more about math and science through open source tools. It can (and has) reached hundreds of teachers and students via its primary venue - a website. It's run on  crowdfunded seed money (raised on Kickstarter), earned sales revenue, and coding consulting it provides to educational groups. ManyLabs' community includes other nonprofits and schools, but also education technology companies, the maker community, github users, teachers, informal networks such as Nerds for Nature, and DIY engineering types.

On one hand, ManyLabs is like many organizations before it - it's a mission-driven startup, two guys in an office, sharing their love of science, engineering, data, and nature with schoolteachers. They face the same challenges of any other such nonprofit - finding funding to add teaching expertise to their staff, tackling their long "wishlist," even doing a better job of tracking their own data (an ironic truth for every digital data based organization I've ever spoken to, and one by no means limited to mission-driven organizations.)

On the other hand, ManyLabs is building itself out entirely digitally. Its dissemination and growth strategy is through the mechanics and community of open source software and hardware. It focuses on early adopter teachers and parents. Its materials are designed to be used in a distributed, stand-alone manner. Success stories from users, user to user, will be the outreach strategy (if the two engineers running it get to that point). It recognizes that the students may be leading the teachers on some of this material (using sensors to collect data, robotics) and treats them (and community members and parents) as equal advocates. It's neither top down nor bottom up, it's somewhat horizontal - supporting advocates and early adopters in school/afterschool/communities, attending to core curriculum and State standards, and seeking ways to connect its materials and lessons to other data/science/STEM focused community education groups and MeetUps. It identifies with other open source networks, such as FarmHack, as much as with formal STEM groups.* The organizational "defaults" are share, improve, share again. It will probably in permanent "beta" mode. It attends to users' privacy concerns and owns as little as possible because its success depends on its network. 

Unlike "analog organizations," measuring ManyLabs' success will require thinking about networks. It has already contributed to a repository of open source sensor-based science projects. It has already helped teachers and students. It's part of a loose mesh of people, projects and networks focused on science, data, learning, and doing that extends around the globe, weaves in and out of medical research, environmentalism, various areas of science, community groups, and schools. Yes, it has its own board and budget and organizational identity but ManyLabs is contributing to, extending, and depending on a network that goes beyond individual organizations. Marina Gorbis hit on some of these ideas in her book The Nature of the Future - the sense that people are organizing themselves in new ways to address social problems. 

The event at which I met Peter was meant, in part, to help connect organizations and efforts like his to each other. This is a good thing. Established organizations - schools, science museums, foundations, tech companies - also need to know about these small, distributed, efforts - and how to find and support them.

*In this sense it reminds me of the informal computer groups of the 1970s (such as the Homebrew Computer Club which birthed Apple, which of course went on to provide computers to schools.


Tamara G. Suttle said...

A "digital civil society organization!" I love this concept! Thanks, Lucy for sharing it!

I was actually dropping in to let you know how much I appreciate your work here at Philanthropy 2173. As a token of that appreciation, I have nominated your blog for The Leibster Award. It's not the most prestigious recognition that you have or will receive, I'm sure, but it is my way of introducing my readers to Philanthropy 2173 and the wealth of information that you provide.

Unknown said...

thank you for your informative articles,I have started a skill share project in my village and as it is online much easier to be transparent.I have a lot to learn of how these things work but already after a few days have 26 villagers signed up.
I really appreciate the work you do and think that platforms like indigogo should come with a warning!Am wishing I had never used it but to late.I am sharing your articles with lots of people as over here in rural Scotland there is a lot of poverty and nonprofit is pretty new,i had real trouble explaining that NO MONEY is involved in skill sharing. Thank you again.