Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Protecting Community Resource Data


We believe that organizations should be compensated for the creation, organization, maintenance, and updates of community information data, especially in the nonprofit space.

In this nonprofit space, there are no discretionary profits available to allocate toward community information management. Moreover, raising money specifically for data management is much more difficult than raising funds for particular causes. So, organizations that manage information should be careful to avoid undervaluing the results of their hard work by giving away data without any guidance or protection.

This does not mean that data should be kept private and self-contained. In fact, VisionLink was the first to support the idea of a data exchange between I&Rs and 2-1-1s, which became the AIRS XML data exchange standard. We have also created standards for the exchange of information about disaster shelters and about client records. As the builder of CommunityOS, we are keenly focused on the need to move data around easily. The more that community resource information is used, the more good that can result.

All of this information requires a tremendous amount of work to prepare and organize, and therefore should carry value. This value can be recognized in a variety of forms of compensation. Recognition, especially by promoting the source of important data, helps with fundraising and positions the organization in a leadership position. Compensation can also come through trades, where one entity contributes a certain category of data while another takes on the other sectors. Finally, large data collections are worth real money, and financial compensation can help to defray the costs of data management. If we don’t compensate organizations in some way for their data, then we require them to divert funds away from other areas and potentially impact their ability to help their own communities.

If we agree that community information data represents valuable time and energy, we may also agree that these critical collections of data should be protected against screen scraping and other means of unauthorized use.

Enforcing copyright over data collections is possible, but other measures are often more efficient and less costly. We recommend establishing a Terms of Service, or a Terms of Use policy for your information (especially within your search results), so that you can place contractual obligations on those who use your information. Screen scraping, for example, can be a contractual violation. It’s important that you have some claim to your data collection, rather than having these databases used and rebranded by other resellers without permission.

So, let me end where we began. The exchange and free flow of information makes for powerful systems of systems. Even better, with the right kinds of APIs and other technical toolkits at your disposal, you can let brilliant minds take advantage of these databases and build all sorts of applications, making your information broadly available. The first step, though? Establish some protections so that as the value of your hard work becomes more and more apparent, you have legal grounds to protect your databases and to direct how your information is spread far and wide.

Sincerely,
Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO of VisionLink

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Using Geospatial Maps in Time of Disaster

Geospatial mapping is an increasingly hot topic in large-scale natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma Tornadoes. As technology continues to advance, data mapping is moving from being a powerful tool for specific cases to being a new norm in all disaster relief. Collecting and distributing critical information graphically helps both the responders and the millions of victims each year.

VisionLink President & CEO Dr. Douglas Zimmerman discusses these important shifts in disaster mapping and partnership-building in the Mapping Disasters article of Apogeo Spatial Magazine. Zimmerman argues that integrating the work of on-the-ground agencies, delivering information to the right responders, and extending map data from immediate to long-term recovery will bring geospatial solutions even greater impact as a standard tool in disaster relief. Read the full Mapping Disasters to learn more!

Sincerely,
VisionLink

Friday, March 28, 2014

VisionLink Supports the National Academy Foundation’s Work-Based Learning Fellows

Members of the NAF WBL Fellows 2014
The National Academy Foundation (NAF) is a leader in preparing high school students for college and career success. For 30 years, NAF has refined a proven educational model that includes industry-focused curricula, work-based learning experiences, and business partner expertise across the five career themes of Finance, Hospitality & Tourism, Information Technology, Engineering, and Health Sciences.

VisionLink’s Strategic Advantage department supported the kick-off of the 2014 cohort of NAF Work-Based Learning (WBL) Fellows. The NAF WBL Fellows initiative, with academy leaders from North Carolina, Louisiana, New York, Nevada, Texas, and California, fostered sharing of expertise among leaders in order to deepen their practice, and co-create effective WBL tools and strategies to help the larger NAF network ensure that all students are prepared for college and careers.

In addition to this week’s Innovation Lab, the Fellows will have further opportunities to demonstrate effective WBL strategies at NAF’s annual conference, NAF Next, in July and at a fall 2014 Work-Based Learning Institute coordinated and produced by VisionLink’s Lois Ann Porter. The WBL Fellows program facilitates outstanding professional growth for NAF educators and leaders as they work closely with Fellows and partners to analyse, fine-tune, and share proven work-based learning practices.

For more information about NAF, visit naf.org.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A CommunityOS Hidden Gem: The Data Provider Tool

It’s always a delight to run across a product feature that surprises me, even after years of work. The Data Provider Tool is one such hidden gem. The Data Provider Tool allows an administrator to tag a group of resources outside of the normal agencies or portal restriction filters. Internally, we use data providers to organize large imports and feeds of data across multiple customers. Here are three unconventional ways you might use this tool to make resource administration easier.
Flagging groups of data
This tool can be used to tag all the resources from a resource helper tool import. Typically, you might search by date to find these resources again, but searches by date may not always be accurate. Instead, the data provider itself can be a tag, such as “March 2014 Import,” which provides a handy way for an administrator to later pull these resources up in a search to further review or manipulate them.

Locking Resources
All resources under a particular Data Provider can be locked, preventing resource administrators from accidentally editing them. This might be important for internal resources with costs, or for a core set of resources that shouldn’t be changed often. 

Displaying Logos
The Data Provider Tool also allows you to upload a logo that is then displayed on the profile, so all related resources can be visually linked. As a simple example, all your Thanksgiving resources could be highlighted by tagging them with a Turkey icon, helping you keep your related work organized.

Knowledge is power. Contact solutions@visionlink.org to learn more about the CommunityOS features and what they could do for you.

Craig Quincy
VP of Engineering
VisionLink

Monday, March 17, 2014

CommunityOS Software for Nonprofits at The Nonprofit Technology Conference!

VisionLinkers Jamie and Gigi returned last Friday from exhibiting at the Nonprofit Technology Conference held in Washington, DC!  For those of you who haven't heard of the Nonprofit Technology Network's annual conference, it is a gathering of nonprofits from around the globe who meet once a year to talk about the latest and greatest in technology, tools, and software for nonprofits. When asked about the event, Gigi states, "it is always fun seeing how nonprofits are using technology to further their missions - tech really can be a powerful tool for doing anything from raising awareness to providing aid."

While at the conference, Jamie and Gigi informed attendees about our CommunityOS Software for Nonprofits, hosted a VisionLink Scavenger Hunt, and met lots of great people doing lots of great things for their communities. Here are a few pictures from the conference:

Gigi hides a VisionLink Scavenger Hunt clue in a nearby fern.
Jamie points out VisionLink's Name on the Exhibitor List!
VisionLink Scavenger Hunt pieces hidden at the conference.

Thanks to everyone who participated at the conference and to the Nonprofit Technology Network for hosting a great event. Until next time Nonprofit Technology Conference!



VisionLink

Thursday, March 13, 2014

VisionLink’s Strategic Advantage Department Produces Complete College America’s National STEM Careers Academy

"Between 1970 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment in the United States more than doubled, while the completion rate has been virtually unchanged. We’ve made progress in giving students from all backgrounds access to college – but we haven’t finished the all-important job of helping them achieve a degree. Counting the success of all students is an essential first step. And then we must move with urgency to reinvent American higher education to meet the needs of the new majority of students on our campuses, delicately balancing the jobs they need with the education they desire.” CompleteCollege.org

With funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, Complete College America (CCA) is working to dramatically increase the number of college students obtaining high-demand STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). To meet this challenge, CCA is partnering with state departments of education, governors, legislators, and education policy organizations including Education First, USA Funds, and Education Delivery Institute. Looking to significantly impact college completion rates across their network of states, CCA once again called on VisionLink’s Strategic Advantage department to produce their National STEM Careers Academy.

This Academy, the 13th Completion Academy produced for CCA by VisionLink’s Strategic Advantage department over the past five years, included teams from Massachusetts, Idaho, Illinois, Ohio, and the District of Columbia. Producing an Academy involves working with CCA on all aspects of the Academy from initial planning through implementation and evaluation. Practitioners, national experts, and facilitators were trained, coordinated and supported during the Academy by VisionLink’s Lois Ann Porter. 

If you are working with multiple organizations to address a common imperative and achieve significant results, contact VisionLink’s Strategic Advantage department to discuss this successful strategy and how it might address your needs.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Community Solutions: Just What the Doctor Ordered!

Last year, 11,000 hospital and clinic patients received prescriptions for food and heat, along with scripts for their medicines. These patients were treated at health facilities that partner with Health Leads, a nonprofit organization that enables healthcare providers to prescribe basic resources along with medicine or referrals to specialists.  

How does it work? As part of the health screening process, the healthcare teams also screen for basic needs such as food, housing and heat.  If the patient’s basic needs are not being met, they are given a prescription and sent to a Health Leads Advocate who fills the prescription by connecting the patient to the basic resources they need to get and stay healthy. The Advocates are college students who are recruited, trained and placed by Health Leads.  They have access to resources, case management and reporting tools, some of which are integrated with the hospital information systems. 

We know that it takes more to live a long and healthy life than just being blessed with healthy genetics.  We need access to basic resources: food, basic education, safe housing, utilities and comprehensive medical care. Many Americans are forced to choose which resources to live without, leading to even worse health problems that impact all aspects of their lives. For many, an illness leads to a cascading series of events that can include job loss, financial problems, poor childcare, family dysfunction and more serious illnesses.

By ensuring that patients have access to these basic needs, Health Leads provides much better overall patient outcomes, saving the medical system time and resources while providing quality health care. Connecting the work of its Advocates to existing hospital information systems ensures that everyone’s resources are deployed efficiently, keeping all partners on the same page. This meshes with our philosophy of using integrated systems to help nonprofits manage clients, coordinate assets and resources, communicate well with partners and build reports. Integration can lead to this success and, in the case of Health Leads, to healthier patients. I look forward to sharing more examples of innovative programs that tap into I&R services. 

Lori Warrens
Senior Director of Community Solutions

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lori Warrens Talks 2-1-1 on National 2-1-1 Day!

VisionLink's Senior Director of Community Relations, Lori Warrens, was mentioned in the National 2-1-1 press release "United Way Declares February 11 as National 2-1-1 Day" where she shares statistics and other information on the valuable 2-1-1 telephone service. 2-1-1 is a three digit number that connects tens of thousands of people in need to human services every year.

Lori has agreed to share her knowledge with anyone who may have questions about this great service. Please contact her at warrens@visionlink.org to learn more!

Happy National 2-1-1 Day from the VisionLink Team!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Performance Based Funding Institute to Improve Higher Education


Two weeks ago VisionLink's W. Douglas Zimmerman and Lois Ann Porter traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to organize the Performance-Based Funding Institute VisionLink produced for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At the Institute, 9 Community Colleges from Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina gathered to discuss engaging stakeholders around success for all community college students. Over the 2-day event, the groups formulated concrete messaging intended to gain legislator, faculty and media support for their work.

Members from organizations like the National Governor's Association, Community College Research Center at Columbia University, and the National Conference of State Legislatures, served as content experts who guided the team planning using best practices from the field. At the end of the Institute, all 9 community colleges left with a very specific written action plan for engaging stakeholders at both the state and college level.

Here are some photos from the Performance-Based Funding Institute:

Suzanne Walsh, Deputy Director of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation addressing the PBF Institute.
Suzanne Walsh, Deputy Director of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation addressing the PBF Institute.
A Self-Assessment Sheet used by attending community colleges at the PBF Institute.
A Self-Assessment Sheet used by attending community colleges at the PBF Institute.

Ann Duffy, Facilitator, Education First.
Ann Duffy, Facilitator, Education First.
Phil Gonring of Education First, facilitating the Davidson County Community College team at the PBF Institute.
Shaun Yoder of Education First, facilitating the North Carolina state team at the PBF Institute.
Shaun Yoder of Education First, facilitating the North Carolina state team at the PBF Institute.
The Wake Tech Community College team creating an action plan at the PBF Institute.
The Wake Tech Community College team creating an action plan at the PBF Institute.


You can see more photos on the VisionLink Facebook Performance-Based Funding Album. You can also download a Policy Brief created by attendees at a Performance-Based Funding Institute hosted last summer in Miami.

If you are interested in learning more about VisionLink's consulting for national nonprofits, foundations and NGO's, or our effective design and implementation of our hallmark Strategic Planning Institutes, please visit the Strategic Advantage page on our website.

VisionLink

Monday, January 27, 2014

Visual Data for Visual Thinking

Visual thinking has become a way of life and Infographics are the perfect tool for this new trend. They simplify complex information and help nonprofit and government organizations to engage, educate, and inform the public of the great work they do in their communities!

Because our software, the CommunityOS, helps nonprofits and government organizations capture large amounts of complex human service data, we have been quite interested in infographics and have even created a few such as our CommunityOS Customer Snapshot Infographic (shown to the right).

Last week, we attended a Tech4Good forum in Denver, CO to learn even more about infographics. Brian Clark from the Colorado Health Institute provided three key tips that we wanted to share with you!

Identify your goal

We often have loads of information we want to share. It can sometimes be difficult choosing exactly what your organization wants to communicate. Before you start identify a specific goal.

Tell a story

The key to telling a story in your infographic is to present important information in a way that is both interesting and engaging. Do not just throw facts out. Retain audience attention by making the information lively, accessible, understandable, clear, compelling, and useful.

Keep it simple

Cut through the noise and do not overload your audience with data. You can create a simple infographic by doing such things as using minimal colors and making simple charts. Summarize your infographic with an attention grabbing picture in case your audience does not read the bulk of the information.

If your nonprofit or government organization wants to tap into the modern day trend of visual thinking, creating an infographic is a good place to start. There are lots of free infographic creation tools out there so give it a try and start engaging supporters using visual data!

We hope you enjoyed this blog!

Sincerely,
The VisionLink Team

Monday, November 11, 2013

Help Now: Needs are Catastrophic in the Philippines

Five days in and the awful reality is setting in. 

Racing across the nation of some 2,000 inhabited islands, the super typhoon has left behind truly horrific conditions. Financial contributions are needed from each of us.

Our suggestion is to give to organizations with a great deal of experience as they will react quickly, but also manage resources for the very long road ahead. In many communities, the entire infrastructure used to provide food, water, and basic services has been eliminated.

Your contributions will be used most effectively if given to these or similar organizations (each name leads to a donation link and updated news.)

American Red Cross
Philippine Red Cross
World Vision
Oxfam
Catholic Relief Services

This was one of the largest storms to ever form on the planet. The devastation assessments are only beginning to come in. Your donation will be important financially, but it will also signal to world leaders that we care, and that large scale resources should be deployed.

Washington Post
We know from the Boulder Floods in our own home town earlier this year, that reaching out to help truly matters to those in need. Hope you find the donation links above useful.

Douglas Zimmerman
VisionLink, Inc.







Friday, October 18, 2013

The Cloud for Nonprofits

VisionLink attended the Annual Colorado Nonprofit Association Conference last week to meet many of Colorado's wonderful nonprofiteers as well as the companies who support them. As always, we attended a few sessions to learn what was going on in the nonprofit world and to hear about the hottest topics in nonprofit technology. One session we attended was hosted by SolveIT and discussed nonprofits and 'the cloud.' Being a nonprofit technology company, this was one we did not want to miss! We decided to share a few key points from the session:

What is the cloud?
It is a network of servers that allows you to access applications, files, data etc. through an internet connection--anytime, anywhere, from any device.   

What are some examples of services on the cloud? 
  • Photo storage & sharing sites like Dropbox.com
  • E-mail sites like Gmail, Yahoo mail, or hotmail
  • Video Conferencing providers
  • Website hosting sites
  • Social Media

How can the cloud simplify IT?
  • Reduces the need for expensive investments in technology infrastructure 
  • Reduces the need for maintenance
  • Reduces the need for support...if something goes wrong, they can deal with it, not you
  • Eliminates the need for annual software updates
  • Creates a monthly budgetable server cost, as opposed to one large cost at the beginning
  • Promotes business continuity, especially in time of disaster
  • You don't even have to have an office, because everything can be shared virtually
  • All you need is an internet connection

What nonprofits can benefit from the cloud?
  • Smaller nonprofits because there is no need for IT staff
  • Organizations without an office or with offices in multiple locations
  • Larger nonprofits, only if the cloud is cheaper than paying for their own servers and IT staff

When would the cloud not be a good fit for a nonprofit?
  • If you don't have an internet connection
  • When you need to be in complete control of the servers
  • If you have special security/privacy requirements

What was the coolest thing that we learned about the cloud?
Microsoft office 365, a premier business cloud service package, is available to qualifying nonprofits...for FREE! This cloud service gives organizations email services, file sharing, contact and calendar sharing, SharePoint, website hosting, and more. You can click here to learn more about this awesome free service from Microsoft.

VisionLink
www.visionlink.org

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sharing the Experience of Disaster: Colorado Floods

We wake up four days later to both sun and more rain, 18,000 homes lost or damaged and more than 1,000 people unaccounted for. A number of communities are hearing from officials that with winter approaching, major road failures and other infrastructure may not be repaired for some time. 

Our hearts and minds go out to all those now beginning the difficult work of recovery--in this flood--and in the other disasters that occur in this nation and around the world every day. 

In the meantime, we will keep the systems running that we are so honored to provide to the American Red Cross, United Way Worldwide, FEMA, and many 2-1-1 call centers.  We build Community Operating Systems, and we understand community all the better when we need each other the most.


True Flash Floods...
From one of our staff, "I just came from my friend's apartment near 28th where I was helping her salvage some things. In this picture of the bathroom (complete with a bathtub brimming full of mud) you can clearly see how high the water level was.

Rupa said neighbors pounded on her door, telling her to get out, and water started to trickle in. It took her less than a minute to leash her dogs but the water had already become waist high and she couldn't open her door, so her neighbors had to rescue her. 


Then the fire department had to rescue my friend and all the neighbors (and dogs) off a second store balcony using a ladder truck.




Cut Down the Middle
The mayor of Jamestown, (who incidentally was one of our first instructors in the Agile/SCRUM methodology), offers this video update about the  town. Flooding rivers cut their own course, as they see fit, even if that means taking over what used to be main street.  

Click to see a short video of the damage.


Evacuating by Helicopter
Several of us worked at Cal-Wood some years ago. It's a beautiful property west of Boulder host to many retreats, environmental programs, and sixth grade education programs. Nearly 100 kids and adults were cut off by the flood. Parents were probably never so happy as seeing their little ones disembark off those Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters. (KDVR Photo)




Evacuating the Family
One of our staff found themselves cut off from power, phone, internet, and water.

Skipping the private details, his summary says it all, "We're safe, we evacuated, we had to leave the horses behind, we don't know what's next, but we feel lucky to be OK."  He took amazing photos and videos.  Such as this photo, of a river re-engineering the road bed.




Douglas Zimmerman
VisionLink


www.visionlink.org

(Note, you can learn more from our disaster maps at boulderflood2013.communityos.org, register or search for friends and relatives on Safe and Well, or download the Shelter View App, to get up to date information about currently open shelters.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Colorado Flooding - How to Help


Today the status of "disaster area" came home.  Boulder and surrounding counties are federally declared disaster areas, impacted by days of heavy rain turned into flood waters.

Impact areas include in the foothills and plains around Boulder, parts of Denver, Longmont, Greeley, Lyons, Estes Park, Colorado Springs, and many other communities. If you would like to help, financial assistance is the most effective.  Here are some great links:

American Red Cross - Colorado
http://www.redcross.org/co/denver/ways-to-donate

United Way - Colorado Foothills
www.unitedwayfoothills.org/floodrelief

Humane Society - Boulder Chapter
http://www.boulderhumane.org/donate/give-today

For helpful information, you can also go to a situational map the VisionLink staff launched this morning. You can find it at BoulderFlood2013.Communityos.org. On this map you can find photos, real-time tweets, shelter locations, weather, road reports and more. Use the Options tab to control the data displayed on the map.

If you are looking to re-connect friends and family, use the Red Cross Safe & Well system, at safeandwell.org.

If you need to find shelters, download the Shelter View App at the App Store.

Allow me to thank the VisionLink staff.  Even as many of their homes were directly impacted by this disaster, our operations for the Red Cross, FEMA, United Ways, 2-1-1 call centers, Refugee and Elder Care programs and much more continued without interruption.

Douglas Zimmerman
VisionLink
Boulder, Colorado

www.visionlink.org

Friday, August 16, 2013

Lori Warrens Joins VisionLink

We are pleased to announce that Lori Warrens recently joined VisionLink as Senior Director of Community Solutions and we could not be more thrilled! In this position, Lori will guide VisionLink’s international humanitarian efforts — an area of focus in her last position — as well as direct ongoing efforts to further develop industry-leading solutions for 2-1-1 and overall information and referral efforts.

Before becoming a VisionLinker, Lori was COO and CEO of the United Way of Atlanta where she developed the 2-1-1 concept and led the city's planning activities to ensure vulnerable citizens retained access to critical services during the 1996 Summer Olympics. She also served as Executive Director of AIRS, helping to develop the Coordinated Assistance Network (CAN), an unprecedented alliance between the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, AIRS and disaster response organizations to improve access to disaster services.

Most recently, Lori was immersed in solving international humanitarian issues as Executive Director of the Partnership for Quality Medical Donations (PQMD) where she helped organizations convene to improve coordination of some 4 billion dollars of medical donations per year to 150 countries.

Her experience, leadership, and go-getter mindset are sure to be a wonderful addition to our organization. Now that Lori has joined VisionLink, she will help VisionLink take the next leap as the leading I&R and 2-1-1 solution in the country while expanding our impact in other countries.

Please join us in welcoming Lori to the VisionLink family. You can reach her at warrens@visionlink.org or read more about her at www.linkedin.com/in/loriwarrens.

Sincerely,
Doug Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink
www.visionlink.org

Friday, July 19, 2013

Nonprofit Website Usability

This week, I attended a wonderful Denver Tech4Good session on how nonprofits can make their websites more usable and easier to navigate. This is important because the more people are able to use your site, the more they will learn about your cause, donate, and give support.

Below are a few tips and tricks I picked up that may come in handy!

Consider the 5 key factors in "user-ability"
    • Learnability - your website's functioning needs to be predictable and similar to other sites
    • Efficiency - users must be able to navigate easily, without constant changes
    • Memorability - it must be easy to come back months later and still know where information is located on your website
    • Errors - users shouldn't be making many mistakes in finding what they need
    • Satisfaction - your site should have a look and feel that makes it pleasurable to not only visit, but return as well!
User Personas can help you create a User-Centric site
    •  A User Persona is a fictional character with real-world attributes that represent your target audience
    • Create 3-5 user personas, think about their goals, motivations, needs and internet experience
    • Design scenarios in which they would interact with your website (ex: what is their reason for visiting and where would they click?)
    • Considering this information can help you better make decisions to suit visitor needs
Conduct user tests at a public place
    • Go to a local coffee shop and ask to buy someone's coffee in exchange for a user test of your site
    • Ask open ended questions, ones that relate to your organization's website goals (ex: can you tell me what this organization does? Can you find the donate button?)
    • Take notes to remember feedback and make the user feel as though their opinion matters
    • Encourage without agreeing when responding to feedback. Do not say, "Yes!" Instead say, "I see" or "got it."
    • Make it a conversation. Ask why they click, move, or view certain sections
    • Present tasks for them to preform (ex: how might you find our contact information?)
Analyze and FIX what you learn
    • Google Analytics can be used (for FREE) to see how long people stay on your site, what pages they click on, the flow of pages they visit, and where they may be leaving
    • Deeply think about what the user needs to accomplish your website goals and make necessary changes
    • Ask yourself, "are you giving users what they are looking for?" If the answer is no, make changes until you can say, "yes!"
Want to get some ideas for testing your organization's site? Do a user test of the VisionLink website and see how we are utilizing tips from this post to improve our organization's site!

Best,
Georgina Douglas
Marketing Operations Manager
VisionLink

Friday, May 17, 2013

10 Things to Know When Moving To A More 
Capable Software Platform

We have helped move millions of records from one software solution to another.  Here are some lessons learned about selecting a new solution and transferring your existing data to that new platform. Next time you consider moving to a more capable software platform, consider these 10 questions to help ensure that your decision will be the correct one, and your selection will not fail. Click here to download full White Paper.

1. Your Future Operational Model?

 

Software providers can almost always support both large and small operations. The key question is whether you are looking to support a singularly focused or a multi-focused operation. For example, if you are focused on crisis calls and only crisis calls, then the architecture of your new solution only needs to support a single interface with a common workflow for your users and a singularly focused set of reports. 

Alternately, if you can foresee circumstances where you would want to support crisis calls, homeless intake, elderly services, disaster relief, and other family service programs (through your own offices or through partner agencies), then you are looking for a software solution that is designed to support multi-purpose, multi-partner use. In this case you are looking for the software’s capacity to support different interfaces for different customers, client management tools that flex for different purposes, and reports which can be customized to fit fundamentally different needs.

Most importantly, you are looking for a system architecture that allows some partners to work completely privately, some collaboratively, and some fully integrated--and these options need to be concurrently deployable.

2. User Flexible or Provider Flexible?


You know that your needs will change over time. The question is whether or not your software platform can change with you, and if so, at what cost. To be responsive and to keep costs down you should be able to change all of the following without additional spending or programming requirements:
  • “Look and feel” and branding
  • Narrative content and structure
  • Menus and navigation
  • Access rights and permissions
  • Data fields and how they are arranged and organized
  • Reports and data exports
The sentence, “Sure we can do that,” can be broadly defined, thus as you review software options, request to see these features in operation. Be sure to ask how you can customize all of these yourself without the help of the provider’s programmers.

3. Forward Leaning or Laurel Resting?


One of the most difficult yet most important evidence to review is that which demonstrates that the provider has continually updated not only their feature set, but the core architecture of their software over time. The point is to find a provider who has the proven ability to improve and upgrade continually so that your technical platform is both reliable and continually advancing so you will not need to shift to another technical platform for a long time to come.

Look for not just a list of new features, but substantial shifts in core product lines, server architecture, and fundamental rebuilds that demonstrate the firm’s focus on deep level upgrades. Just as a house needs maintenance as time goes by, so does software. Make sure the software is more than new paint and carpet (aka features) covering up old, crumbling foundations.

4. Service Assumptions or Guarantees?


Service Level Agreements are a set of promises your software company makes to you by specifying the levels of performance and customer service which you can expect to be regularly maintained by your software provider. Ask for a copy as part of your vendor review process. If they do not have one immediately handy, move on. If they do, there are three key elements to look for:

  1. First, what is the uptime you can expect? In other words, what percentage of the time will the system be online and ready for use? You need to be assured of at least 99% uptime, 99.9% is better. The devil is in the detail. At 99%, the system can be down 7 hours a month! At 99.9%, the service will be up for all but about 45 minutes a month. Note that we use a monthly metric here at VisionLink. If the measurement is on an annual basis, then long outages are allowable because downtime can sum across many months (e.g. up to 84 hours at one time). Also look for regularly scheduled, or even better pre-schedule maintenance periods. Another item to explore: is the uptime record a matter of luck or good management? For example, VisionLink monitors literally hundreds of parts of our overall system every minute of every day to ensure stable and successful operations.

  2. Second, can the firm demonstrate that they can meet unexpected levels of peak demand? Assurances are nice on paper but can the provider prove they have been through a trial by fire and succeeded? Hurricane Katrina was such an event for VisionLink, as was the more recent tornado through Joplin Missouri, which caused a 400% increase in system demand. Look for long-term evidence that the provider can rise to the occasion so that when a crisis hits your community your core technology will not fail.

  3. Third, check the Service Level Agreement for continuity of operations planning should a crisis befall your provider. Is there code in escrow (ie. an insurance plan giving you a copy of the software in dire situations)? Have they located offices and server facilities away from flood plains? Are their server systems fully redundant from the incoming Internet connections all the way through to their back up generators? Do they have primary and secondary server facilities, and if they do, does the data from the primary service continually update the fallback facility? Within minutes or hours? How much data will you lose switching to the fallback facility? Without these pieces in place, no wealth of features will matter when you cannot conduct your daily operations. 

5. Excellent Training and Support?


Training and support is critically important both during the transition and also over the long term. Look for a provider that has a launch team that is specifically charged with helping you make the move from your previous to your new platform. This team’s job is to take the lessons won by other customers and present you with informed choices that fit your situation, making the shift as smooth as possible.

The provider’s help desk should be highly responsive. Look for assurances that 95%+ of all help desk tickets are responded to within a business day or less.

Training services are typically offered through a package, by the hour, or on a subscription basis.  Packages and hourly rates sound great during the selling cycle, but in reality your staff will change and you may not have discretionary resources to train up new staff as the need arises. A subscription plan will allow your staff to participate in regularly offered trainings as you need them at no additional charge.

Also, ask about users groups and other organized means of engaging customers by which the provider listens to and accepts feedback, direction for future upgrades, and aligns their work with the needs of their users. 

6. An Easy Workflow Conversion?


As you begin to launch your new solution, your day-to-day users will either be excited about a new tool set or cautious about having to learn a new way of getting work done (or most likely, a mix of both). Look for a solution that can be flexible enough that it can mirror at least some of your current workflow to ease everyone into the new system. 

Similarly, you may want to find a solution that can deploy novice and expert workflows simultaneously--meaning that the tools to manage clients or answer calls can be arranged with more or fewer tips and scripts based on the user’s level of experience.

Some key differences will of course exist--this is one of the reasons you wanted to improve your technical platform in the first place. Be specific about those changes with your staff and review the points of similarity, but train to the points of difference.

7. Data Conversion or Reckless Migration?


Data conversion is more complicated than most want to admit. On the other hand, tools now exist to move just about anything to anywhere. Look for a vendor that has more than one way forward to convert your data. Ideally, your solution provider should be able to convert data from your old to new system using standards-based protocols (assuming both your old and new system adhere to a common standard). If this is not the case, your provider could also use some purposely designed conversion tools. Regardless, they should be able to demonstrate experience with custom data exchanges. Again, ask for descriptions of past projects both on a one-time and on-going basis. 

Note that moving from one system to another forces a key decision about your data. It is the hidden secret, or the hidden dependency within the topic of data exchange. If you force the new system to accept all of your old data, you may be unable to use some of the best features of the new system. Or said another way, your new system most likely has created a more effective or efficient way of managing data and if you force the new system to replicate all the data content and structure of your old system, then you may bring many of the problems with your old data into the new system unintentionally.  Sometimes it is better to bring only a basic level of data across and then re-build some of your data to take advantage of your new technology.

8. Proven or Cross-Your-Fingers Security?


Security and permissions controls are another hidden cost of operations. To build and maintain a highly secure software platform requires a great deal of work that is typically unobservable and in many cases not even discussed. 

The reality is that any significant system of servers is under attack all the time, every day. The firm needs to have the resources, experience, and obligations to ensure that it continually advances its security systems to meet increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Ensure that your provider offers levels of encryption used by commercial banks and the military. Check that passwords are not visible even to administrators and that they are encrypted and hashed. 

Given the sophistication of security systems, ask if there is a customer or other third party that has reviewed the firm’s security operations that can act as an endorsement.  For example, nearly half of VisionLink’s technical team is badged by U.S. Homeland Security because of the nature of some of our work, and its software has passed the necessary compliance requirements to help the American Red Cross manage financial assistance debit cards distributed to survivors of disasters.

9. Only Technical or Strategic Support?


While technology is its own science, the art and craft of successful implementation often depends on expert facilitation and guidance. Here is the determining factor: if you are looking for improved technology but your day-to-day operations are not changing as part of the conversion, then your vendor’s consulting and facilitation skills are not critical.

On the other hand, if you foresee changes in your operation, particularly if you are beginning to work with additional funders, other agencies, or other community partners then your software provider’s facilitation skills may be truly instrumental to your success.

For example, VisionLink’s team sponsors Communities of Practice for many users, such as the National Breakthrough Network, which regularly designs and deploys community planning summits, state and national Institutes, and works internationally as well.  Under contract with state governments, foundations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others, the team is nationally recognized for its ability to forge meaningful consensus, to identify benchmarks and key metrics, and to help teams design their own new and sustainable best practices.

When you are acting as the hub of your community, when you are leading change, it is highly useful to bring in outside facilitators who break through barriers, forge agreements, and build a sense of urgency and possibility around what you know needs to be done. Look for providers who help you implement your objectives, rather than come to town with a pre-determined package of solutions.

10. Trusted Advice?


We have found that being a good source of expertise is valuable even if you are not a client of ours. The exchange of ideas is always useful. So feel free to contact us with a question or a challenge; we will be happy to lend an experienced ear to your opportunity.  We all work better when we work together.

Want to share this with a boss, partner, or friend? Click here to download full White Paper.

VisionLink, Inc.
3101 Iris Avenue, Suite 240
Boulder, Colorado

solutions@visionlink.org
www.visionlink.org
877-VSN-LINK

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

NVOAD National Partner of the Year

We are very honored to be named the National Partner of the Year by the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), presented last night at the NVOAD annual conference in Portland, Oregon.

NVOAD is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, membership based organization that serves as the forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response and recovery—to help disaster survivors and their communities.

VisionLink is deploying a national instance of the Community Operating System to support state VOAD portals in every state and territory. 

Through these portals, state teams can better manage information about members and partners, updates about projects and activities, and their work responding to various disasters large and small.  Twenty-six states have already launched their state-based systems.

Thank you NVOAD; we are honored to support your work.

Douglas Zimmerman
VisionLink, Inc.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Celebrating the Community Builders

This may feel like a reach--stay with me. Check out this TED talk presentation of spoken word poetry.

The connection to community building? Check out that first poem. Listen to the three steps. Realize that the tenacity you see here is the same as what drives you--that person who can see a better community, who can see the power of connection, who can see the inefficient gaps between silos that we are working to bridge.

Enjoy, and honor the work you do.

Click on this link. Listen to Sarah Kay's "If I should have a daughter" ... with it's own meaning and more applied to your work.

And don't stop after her first poem.  Keep listening.  Check out the three steps, and her way of walking through life. Not unlike a number of amazing community building leaders we have the honor of working for....


Douglas Zimmerman
VisionLink


Friday, March 15, 2013

Server System Stability

We have been asked recently how VisionLink maintains a stable server platform. Here is a summary of what we do, working from real-time responses to longer-term planning.

(Formatted PDF version of this information)

We know that our customers cannot help their clients effectively if the technology they depend on is not available.  It is not a pleasant experience to be working with a person or family in the middle of a crisis, and not be able to connect them to the assistance they need.  
1. Stable Technology
Our servers often exceed 1.5 million hits per day, and our uptime has averaged better than 99.9% for the past decade, and 99.97% for the past 12 months. We are continuously finding new ways to improve these numbers to maintain an even higher level of stability.
2. Real-Time Monitoring

Our IT team has created monitors for many hundreds of data points across the CommunityOS server and network platform, including thermal sensors, data transfer rates, server request completion rates, storage capacities and much more.  These monitors let our staff respond to issues before service is degraded or interrupted.


3. 24-Hour Response

CommunityOS systems are busy around the clock. In turn, this requires staff who are able and willing to quickly respond regardless of the time of day.  We have paging systems, on-call calendars, and other procedures in place to support round-the-clock support.

4. System Maintenance

Regular maintenance is required to keep the systems operating at peak efficiency.  We typically schedule maintenance windows Wednesday evenings so that we can install fixes, security updates, and enhancements and conduct necessary maintenance. Doing this well requires many, many hours of preparation and testing to ensure that a short maintenance window can be used quickly and safely.

5. Demand Forecasting

We monitor average and peak levels of demand all the time so that we can make good business decisions about when to expand capacity and in what manner. During the Joplin Tornado for example, we experienced demand levels 400% beyond requirements (and have since expanded capacity.)  This is challenging work; the larger the system, the more difficult it is to scale quickly.

6. Redundant Server Facilities

Our server systems are redundant within their own facilities, and then redundant across multiple server site locations. The primary and fall back sites are continuously running, and continuously distributing data among primary and fallback systems.  Equipment fails all the time; the point is to be sure that redundant systems are in place, configured correctly, and ready to take up the load.
7. System Architecture

The most important--and yet most invisible, part of server stability are the decisions made by our IT professionals.  We insist on industry standard solutions so that fixes are easily acquired; we carefully construct internal redundancies from everything from how fiber enters a server facility to the redundant machines, cooling, and power.  At the more technical level, very specific decisions are made which impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the day-to-day operation, but also which impact how easily future changes can be implemented.  It takes years of domain specific technical expertise to make these decisions correctly.

8. Investment in the Infrastructure

Maintaining server systems that are responsive, redundant, and which can be deployed from multiple locations is expensive. VisionLink as a company, and our customers across the nation, recognize the need for this kind of investment. It is about choices: invest in more features or a more stable server platform? The same dollar cannot do both.

9. The Art & Science of Compromise

Truth is, making decisions about server system priorities is part art, and part science. If budgets were unlimited the answers would be easy.  We rely on nearly 15 years of experience, and a highly qualified staff to make critical decisions about how to resource which parts of the server and network infrastructure. We do not always get it right, but running at 99.9% for more than a decade suggests we do so more often than not.

10. Thanks to Staff & Partners
Behind the scenes are professionals running these systems, and making the kinds of decisions which can have critical consequences at any time.  Great people working with great customers makes it possible to deploy stable servers, and to solve problems very quickly when they do arise.  Clearly, however, the time, effort, and money spent up front reduce the likelihood of failure and make recovery that much faster.



Douglas Zimmerman
VisionLink, Inc.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The CommunityOS SNAPSHOT

Here at VisionLink, we are proud to work with so many leading nonprofits that use CommunityOS software to serve their communities and help people in need of assistance. The CommunityOS SNAPSHOT infographic highlights the great work our customers do every day and the millions of people they are able to help each year.

(click on infographic to enlarge)
(click on infographic to enlarge)

Monday, February 11, 2013

2-1-1 Connecting Communities

2-1-1, the phone number used by millions to access information about community services, is celebrated nation-wide today, February 11th.

Right now, many hundreds of call operators across the nation are answering requests for assistance about housing, food, legal issues, family support, health care, jobs and schooling and much more.  It is a smart concept: an easy to remember number, free and confidential, connecting needs and resources effectively and efficiently.

2-1-1 Needs Pie Chart
United Way Worldwide reports that more than 90% of the States are covered by 2-1-1 solutions, and that information specialists responded to more than 16 million calls in 2011, not to mention web site traffic, messaging, and other forms of access.

With 90% of the nation covered, are we done yet?  Not nearly.  Leading 2-1-1s are transforming themselves from simple directories of services into professional managers of community information, providers of decision-making analytics, and proving themselves able to integrate solutions to leverage assets into outcomes. 

Community Information Management: 2-1-1s are transforming from list-keepers to community and state-wide hubs of professionally managed information. What was a source of information, are quickly becoming the trusted and necessary managers of community-wide information used to support inquiries from the public, state and county governments, nonprofits, and more--and able to do so every day, during disasters and emergencies, and for broad and specialized sectors.

Decision-Making Analytics: While calls to 2-1-1 are confidential, analysis of de-personalized data yields important insights about met and unmet problems, trending needs, geographic distance between provider and client, impacts and outcomes, and the return on investments in the social and human services. 2-1-1s are increasingly able to blend the very human aspect of connecting, helping, and serving, with insight and analytics useful to decision-makers and funders.

Integrating Assets Into Outcomes:  The future of 2-1-1 will be defined by increasing integration of both people and technology. Resource directory and caller management software can be seamlessly integrated with telephony solutions. Social media, messaging and mobile platforms are being used to enhance access. Cross-sector data exchanges improve community response during emergencies. Nonprofits sharing 2-1-1 resource information are reducing data management costs, freeing up resources for client services.

The Future of 2-1-1 is not only positive, it is necessary. When the economy drags, there are no resources to waste in the gaps between needing and finding help. When a family is in crisis, reducing the barriers to assistance reduces the pain. And when communities improve the connection between its assets and its needs then it is building resiliance, capacity, and strength for its own future.

Congratulations 2-1-1, we are truly honored to support your work.

Douglas Zimmerman
President & CEO
VisionLink, Inc.














Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King Day 2013

As we do several times a year, we pass along this essay from Stan Stahl. His well crafted aspirations remind us of the positive and amazing progress this nation can take on, even when we seem bent towards argument.

The community operating system of VisionLink is built to enable the operational connections between needs and assets across our nation's communities. It is an honor to build the tools used by leaders, staff and volunteers across the United States as they work to weave resilient and connected communities.

Dr. W. Douglas Zimmerman
President and CEO
VisionLink, Inc.



Martin Luther King Day, 2013

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 1964

It is still the Winter of America's discontent. It is as a deeply divided nation that we prepare to celebrate President Obama's second inauguration. We continue to hunker down in our own ideological camps, refusing to think outside our own box, treating the words of anyone with whom we disagree as if they were incoming missiles rather than opportunities for dialogue.

Meanwhile too many of our people continue to be unemployed, too few can even earn enough to pay taxes, our medical entitlements continue to grow through the roof, we are spending considerably more than we take in, we have no long-term economic strategy-let alone a tax policy to enable it. Instead of cooperating with the other side, our politicians sound like Groucho Marx in Horsefeathers: "Whatever it is I'm against it."

The reaction of the NRA and the coalition of gun-control lobbies to the horrific events in Newtown last month illustrate just how divided we are. Each talks past each other, each more passionate, each more armed with its "facts."

Where is that more perfect union the founders bequeathed? Where are the blessings of liberty they secured for us, their posterity?

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' -Martin Luther King, Jr.

I share this dream. I have shared it my entire life. I too dream of a day when we live out our creed, of a day when we treat each other as equals, of a day when children ... live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ... of a day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, 'My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'

I grew up in an America where legally-mandated segregation was reality. Fifty years ago in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and the rest of the old South, Blacks could not drink from "whites only" water fountains, could not sit at "whites only" lunch counters or swim at "whites only" public swimming pools. I came-of-age politically growing up in Detroit in the 1950s when I was part of a picket line outside Woolworth's because Blacks were not allowed to sit at lunch counters in Woolworth stores in the segregated South.

In the America I grew up in, Black children were educated in segregated schools, separate although far from equal. Black men felt the need to cross the street when a white man was coming, fearing for themselves and their families. Fifty years ago, Blacks could not vote nor could they peacefully demonstrate for their freedom.

... this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression. -Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801

Fifty years ago, the year of the March on Washington and King's I Have a Dream speech, 100 years after Blacks were freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Blacks were a minority without equal rights and without the protection of the law.

The next year, on July 2, 1964, the 188th Anniversary of the day the Continental Congress voted America's independence from Great Britain, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Later that year, Martin Luther King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The next year, on August 6th, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Free at last ... nearly 100 years after the Civil War had ended slavery ...  America was finally agreeing to live out the true meaning of our creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men-including Blacks- are created equal.'

What we did in the 1960s and what we have been doing ever since is affirming the rights of minorities: rising up to live out the true meaning of our creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men-and women, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation- are created equal.'

Or as Jefferson put it: that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now ... We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we are to break through America's political impasse, we the people have no alternative but to learn to live together. We the people have also seen throughout our history what we are capable of achieving when we work together, unleashing and focusing our energies towards meeting our challenges.

It is the true meaning of our creed that teaches us how to get along. Miracles appear when we live out the true meaning of our creed, when we treat all men and women-even our political opponents-as political equals. Our opponents have interests, concerns, hopes, fears and aspirations just like we do. They're in the same boat as we are. We either learn to live together or we perish.

Imagine if we the people committed to living out the true meaning of our creed. Imagine if we stepped up and did our part to make it happen, treating each other with respect, with understanding, with compassion and with that special feeling that we are part of a shared American community.

As King reminded us, Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. And love means applying our creed to others, treating those with whom we disagree with the same respect as we would want them to treat us.

Imagine if the gun control lobby and the NRA lived out the true meaning of our creed, accepting as self-evident that all men and women-both those who want gun control and those who oppose gun control- are created equal.'

Imagine if the two sides started meeting regularly, getting to know each other, understanding each other's lives and their concerns, discovering as Lincoln reminded us that we are friends, not enemies. Would that not lead to common ground, to doing better than we are doing now? Would that not make for a more perfect union?

Imagine if even one side sincerely reached out to the other ... taking the other side's perspective seriously, with respect; recognizing that those who hold a different perspective are also created equal.

Imagine the impact, for example, if the NRA donated $5 million to fund mental health studies that might lower the incidence of these senseless killings. Or the impact if the gun control lobby donated $5 million to the NRA to jointly produce and distribute an educational Keep Your Gun Safe program to help gun owners keep their guns from falling into the wrong hands. Perhaps both groups might each donate $2 million for programs to prevent bullying in our schools. Imagine the impact if we the people simply lived America's creed.

As we live America's creed, we unleash our imagination, our creativity, our ability to work hard, our sense of community, our readiness for shared-sacrifice, our entrepreneurial spirit; all those qualities that define what is exceptional in America.

"When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank god, I'm free at last.'"

Let Freedom Ring.


Copyright © 2013. Stan Stahl, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to republish this essay provided its source is identified as The Agnostic Patriot at www.agnosticpatriot.org and this copyright is included.