EarthCube and Open Atrium: Harnessing Open Source For Nonprofit Collaboration

The Nonprofit Technical Conference kicked off in DC this past Thursday, and we had a great time connecting with organizations and learning about the technology challenges facing nonprofits. One topic that kept coming up was collaboration strategies for nonprofits. As Open Atrium 2.0 is adopted by more and more organizations in the nonprofit space, we wanted to highlight the great work our friends at EarthCube are doing with Open Atrium as a communication and collaboration platform for their community-based organization. I sat down with Kate Kretschmann, EarthCube project coordinator, and Pam Barry-Santos, developer at Earthcube, to get the scoop on why they chose Open Atrium for their collaboration solution and how they are using it for their community-led research.

Phase2: Can you explain EarthCube’s mission and what role collaboration plays within the organization? 

Kate: EarthCube is community-led project spanning across the geosciences. Its aim is to develop a framework over the next decade that will allow researchers to collaborate and share data across disciplines. Right now, there are 15 NSF-funded project teams and about 25 special interest groups working on EarthCube at the same time. Our project involves acting as the coordinating body for all of those projects, so we need to enable cross-project collaboration in every way possible, which includes building an EarthCube web platform.

Phase2: What were EarthCube’s communication/ collaboration challenges and why did you choose OA? 

Pam: Prior to the move to OA, another CMS was being used. There were communication barriers, search limitations and it was much less flexible overall. We were looking for a way to make the site more useful and ease collaboration. Knowing Drupal was the heart of OA, we satisfied our goal to move to an open-source platform and have plenty of flexibility where we could hit the ground running relatively quickly by using an existing distribution and still be able to add-on to the site with Drupal’s wealth of modules and community support. The main features of OA were the ones that were of most interest to us – it’s all about communication and being able to find and share information among individuals and groups.

Phase2: Has the collaboration site helped build community?

Kate: This is a long-term project with most of the work happening virtually, so it’s extremely important for us to build and maintain an engaged community. Our new site has been open to the public a very short time, and already we’re seeing project teams using it to schedule events, share announcements, link to outside data, and start building out their own spaces. They’re interacting with other teams on the site as well, which is pretty encouraging.

Phase2: How does EarthCube organize their collaboration on OA?

Pam: The basic structure focuses on each group having their own space so they can share information. Because almost all of the work focuses on collaboration among people scattered throughout the country, having a central location where people can keep other groups informed and encourage communication is the main goal. The structure on the site follows a simple hierarchy that’s based on funding (four of the categories) and an area where any “special interest group” can request to have their own space. The membership to the site and the groups is open (requesting to join the site or a space is a formality and we imported just over 1700 users from the previous site). Within this basic structure, we currently have 72 different spaces, each with its own “owners” who can decide what content they want, what resources (sections) they wish to use and how they want to structure their space on the site. We set up the basics: the space itself, several sections, space to load documents, add any users they request and identify who the admins will be. Because Drupal is a popular CMS, we find that many admins for the spaces have already used Drupal (though, not OA) and are already familiar with the fundamentals. If they have questions or need some help, we are able to take care of their requests.

Phase2: How does OA lend itself so well to organizations like yours?Kate:

Its flexibility and collaborative aspect are its main benefits. This is a relatively new endeavor and its path is not set in stone. The main goal of the project is sharing information and facilitating contact. OA seems to be designed with those features as the primary functions.

Going forward, we need a site that can grow with the project. The current state of our site is just the beginning of what we hope to accomplish. And that is what’s so beneficial with working in Drupal and OA and their communities of support – we don’t feel that anything is off the table in terms of the site collaborative potential. Sure, there may be functions that won’t rival the depth of similar ones supported by Google or other specialized sites, but the ability to keep all the information centralized (using some of the space as a portal to other locations that hold additional content) is a huge step toward making sure others in the project can find all the information that is out there. And giving each group the ability to share all their information in a centralized location is the goal.

Phase2: What is your favorite feature or most useful element of Open Atrium?

Kate: So far, the Organic Groups module is allowing us to organize all of our project teams and interest groups (each with very diverse needs) into a single web portal, while still giving each group the ability to share information however they want. It’s also lets us rearrange our group structure and regularly add new subspaces, so we’re glad to have that level of flexibility.

Phase2: Is there a feature you wished Open Atrium has, that hasn’t been developed yet?

Pam: We’d love to see two-way inheritance (spaces, sections, etc.), inheritance of space members into groups (so that notifications can be sent to a group and there’s no need to manually maintain a group’s members in addition to the space’s members), and a more robust file repository option. We’ve incorporated File Depot into the site and it’s working, but I think it could be better integrated into the site if it were not done as much as an add-on implementation. We’re also working on adding a newsletter/mailing list function to the site. Being able to communicate to a space’s, and sub-space’s members, through a newsletter (something outside the notifications function) would be a nice addition.

We're so pleased to see EarthCube using Open Atrium and finding new ways for their organization to collaborate. We look forward to seeing how this project grows with Open Atrium!

Karen Borchert