How Drupal can save the world

Apologies for my unannounced (and unplanned) summer hiatus…

Last night I attended my first Net Tuesday, at Workspace in Gastown. Let me first say that Workspace is a cool place. I first visited it for the inaugural Vancouver BarCamp in 2006. The place was new and the idea underlying it fresh: a gathering space and workplace for all those independent professionals toiling away in isolation, at home, or in some crowded café (though at the time, wireless wasn’t as widespread in the coffee house circuit as it is today). It remains a vision of white, with a commitment to minimalism, and its philosophy of open manifest architecturally. And its little (inexpensive) espresso bar at the entrance is prolly Workspace’s most brilliant move.

Anyhoo, a good crowd turned out for the event, the title of which drew me there: How Drupal can help you save the world. Phillip Djwa of Agentic, Scott Nelson and Karianne Blank of Fearless City, and Boris Mann presented their various interpretations on the theme. All the usual suspects were there, with loads of familiar faces from the various tech events around town; as usual Rebecca Bollwitt was liveblogging (goddessblessher) and Roland Tanglao was front and centre with his (phone?)camera photo documenting for posterity (or Flickr).

I’m not going to duplicate Rebecca’s fine work, so I’ll just note some of the highlights.

Boris did a little open source evangelizing, though he was not as hardcore as I’m sure he can go. His case for Drupal as world changer came down to the fact that it is open source; that a community of thousands works collaboratively and in a distributed fashion, on the project;  that if it doesn’t have the feature you want, you are free to write it (given the technical expertise, granted. As a tool (rather than a project), Drupal’s power for progressive social change lies in the fact that it is a community builder.

Boris pointed to the obvious relationship between open source and non-profits, suggesting that the mission of open source can be tightly coupled to that of non-profits: to create change through sharing information, through knowledge exchange, through engaging communities and mobilizing them to action. Boris ended by summarizing Drupal’s most attractive features: its multilinguality, “infinite scalability” and functionality (from sending SMS to creating a wiki page on the fly).

Scott Nelson and Karianne Blank were up next, offering a synopsis of the Drupal website just launched for FearlessCity. Based in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the project is “trying to be voice of community, to bring people in and engage people who feel a digital divide, who feel excluded from technology, our core user group,” explained Karianne. Fearless City’s goal is to interface mobile technology with a Drupal backend. Karianne echoed Boris when she praised the way Drupal facilitates community building. “It’s a platform for people to come together and make a community on their own terms. It’s not about us dictating what the community will be but consulting with community to see what they need.”

Philip Djwa walked us through a project his company, Agentic, had recently completed for the genocide prevention organization, Stand Now. Agentic largely serves social mission organizations, fueled by the belief that “technology has potential to affect social change.” With that in mind, Agentic helps non-profits harmonize their online needs with their social change goals, which are mostly to engage and expand their audience, educate them and mobilize them to action as well as organize volunteers.

Philip pointed out the difference between a social movement and a campaign:  campaigns – tactical, targeted series of actions – hopefully lead to change, and contribute to the emergence or sustenance of a movement. The movement – or the desire for a movement – is impetus for campaigns like those Agentic helps coordinate.

And Drupal has a nifty toolkit tailor made for such campaigns, according to Philip: newsletters, ecards, donations, petitions, conference support, memberhsip database; Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and so on.

After the presentations, I asked Boris how he thought Drupal compares to other CMSs like Plone, Joomla or TikiWiki. He had a one word answer: features. All I know is that Drupal is hot here in Van, and that various Indymedias have been using it for their sites (instead of their own custom open publishing softwares like Mir or SF-Active), plus writing their own Drupal mods. So there’s gotta be something to it. Plus I like Drupal’s tagline: “Community plumbing”. Cool.

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