Change the Web Challenge Project Update: OpenAction Interview

Amy Sample Ward
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I recently had the opportunity to connect with John Brennan, the driving force behind OpenAction.org, which empowers individuals and organizations by helping them tell the world about the positive impact their actions have.  John participated in the Change the Web Challenge from Social Actions in 2009 and received $5,000 for his winning Project: Social Actions Interactive MapYou can learn more about John and OpenAction in the interview below.

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John has spent time working for Microsoft, doing R&D for the defense industry and was part of a few past startups that didn’t quite reach “critical mass.” In June 2009, John decided to sell nearly everything he owned and set out for New York City (via San Diego). With over a decade of web development experience, John channeled his skills into building something with social value. John is currently working on OpenAction, a platform that connects people to the projects they care about. It’s a sustainable solution to help create and strengthen the emotional connection between organizations and donors. The team also hopes to incentivize organizations to share knowledge and give beneficiaries a direct voice.

 

Where did the idea for OpenAction begin?

That’s a funny story actually, but I suppose many entrepreneurs have similar stories. Last March I met Joe Solomon and the Social Actions team through twitter. I remember leaving for Vegas and making a promise to Joe that I would submit a mashup to the 2009 Change the Web Challenge. The mashup was a map showing where people were volunteering in near-real-time. It ended up winning the competition, $5,000 and lots of exposure.

I’ve always done side projects part time, but never had the courage or funds to go at it full time. The community showed me a need for what I built, so I used this momentum as an opportunity to take what I built to the next level.

I left my 9-5 in San Diego on June 4, set out on a month long road trip with my brother across the United States to New York. On July 5 the real fun began.

 

How was the project developed?

Some of the foundation was built in April 2009, but the majority of the product development started in August 2009. I spent the first few months asking questions and listening to what NGOs had to say about how they did their job and what could make it easier.

I’ve spent the past few years working with the semantic web, referred to as “web 3.0″, that focuses on open standards and linking data. Many of us are aware of open source software and open architecture, but open philanthropy doesn’t exist yet. Once NGOs standardize the way they publish project data on the web, “apps” can be built on top of this data. Much like Apple did with the iPhone.

I also knew it needed to be both top-down and bottom-up. The problem with developing a standard is that it is only as useful as those adopting it. So that’s where OpenAction comes into play. Essentially, we give organizations a simple tool to manage project information, like photos and videos. The real value to organizations is that they now have a dynamically updated map they can embed on their web site. Instead of paying a web developer to add new project data, they can do it using a few simple form fields. This might put my developer friends out of a job (laughs), but it’s all about becoming more efficient.

Our application also automatically generates RSS feeds for their supporters to stay engaged throughout the life of the project. It’s similar to how one subscribes to a blog. The project updates themselves can displayed in a timeline, so people can easily follow the project’s progress as it unfolds before their eyes.

 

What’s next for OpenAction?

Our organization helps people find and connect with projects they care about. It makes sense to let these people connect to others working in the same space. So we are starting to map social entrepreneurs with the hopes that they might be able to make more of an impact working together than apart. This is actually how my partner and I connected several months ago. We were both doing similar, but separate mapping initiatives. We decided we’d be stronger together — and we were right.

So if any of your readers work with social entrepreneurs, or are such, I would love to connect with them as well. After all, while we might see different paths to the same goal, the goal is usually the same: positive impact on the people and the planet.

 

What else are you working on?

Working on trying to find time to sleep.

 

Do you have any lessons learned or stories you can share with other social entrepreneurs?

This is probably my sixth startup, but first as a “social” entrepreneur. So for brevity I will keep to the last year, and maybe save the rest for a separate blog post one of these days.

I would say, don’t go at it alone. This is so important. You really need to have someone that is as involved in the idea as you are. Not only to give more proof that the idea has legs, but it gives you someone to bounce ideas off all the time. And unlike friends, this person will understand the problem space. Simply put, startups will inevitably have ups and downs, and having someone else in it with you is just good for morale.

Tapping into the (right) community is also an important lesson I learned this time around. In past startups I would use friends and family to measure early success. Sometimes they were the target audience, but that was often due to the lack of product focus. I love thinking about the famous stories of Davy Crockett here. Not the tales itself, but the method used. He claimed to have killed that infamous bear, and all the towns people believed it as if he went to each and every person to spread the word face-to-face. Having a conversation with every townsperson would be a nearly impossible feat. Davy Crockett was, however, an expert story teller and community builder. Instead, he spent his time talking to the heads of each village. The key here, I believe, is to empower your community and let them be your biggest advocates.

A third, and final lesson is often used by web developers, but can easily be applied to social entrepreneurs. It’s the KISS principle. “Keep it simple stupid” — enough said. Don’t over engineer or over think a problem, let the market and your audience dictate your next move.

 

How can people follow your work and OpenAction?

We are actually going to be on OpenAction ourselves, to sort of practice what we preach. Things have just been super chaotic as of late. I would say the best way is to follow me @worldlyjohn and my partner Mike @wanderingwenger.

To learn more and check out OpenAction for yourself, visit:
http://openaction.org