Nonprofits and the Semantic Web

July 3, 2012

Consider this scenario:

The year: 2235. Zerbina, a successful interplanetary trader, and her holohusband Zork, are waking up to their first cup of Andromedan coffee. They have their central communications unit tuned to Intergalactic Public Radio, and host Robert Siegel-backslash-12 is relating the top news story of the day. An extended Martian drought has left tens of thousands of poor migrant settler families with diminishing supplies of food and water, he reports. One of their spokesmen urges legislators to pass the Emergency Relocation Bill that has been stalled in the World Senate for weeks.

Zerbina is moved to take action. “Computer,” she says, “Who’s helping the Martian settler families?” Instantly her hyperbrowser searches the iWeb for organizations that are providing relief to the beleaguered families, displaying a list of names and profiles on the smartsurfaces of her apartment. She scrutinizes the list: there are 790 different organizations headquartered on six planets and three moons.

“Which of these organizations has the strongest advocacy record?” Zerbina asks thoughtfully.

Her hyper browser once again springs into action, instantly sorting through and interpreting tens of thousands of press releases that have been posted to the iWeb. The Intergalactic Immigration Forum jumps to the top of the list.

Zerbina smiles: she knows this organization well. Responding to a small donation she had made to them a while back, they had been sending her holographic newsletters for several months, keeping her apprised of their work. The Forum had long ago applied for and received iWeb Charity Accreditation, enabling the organization to accept secure subspace money transfers.

“Computer,” she says, “Transfer twenty teracredits to the Intergalactic Immigration Forum. Mark the transfer ‘for support of the Martian migrant families.’”

“Transfer confirmed,” replies the machine in a soothing albeit somewhat metallic voice.

In 1986 Tim Berners-Lee, the actual inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote an article for Scientific American Magazine titled “The Semantic Web” heralding a new set of tools for the internet that would enable browsers and other automated agents to more easily understand web content. Items encoded in a semantic web page would provide hints about their meaning, bringing us closer to the day when Zerbina and other donors would consult and interact with the internet as they might with a trusted advisor.

The Semantic Web has yet to be realized as Berners-Lee envisioned it. Web pages are not being marked up with semantic clues in significant numbers. A more transparent web might nevertheless be coming to us from a different direction: web-interpreting agents like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson are getting better at drawing their own conclusions about the meanings of web pages and their contents.

A striking aspect of these new agents, one that holds substantial promise for e-giving, is the degree to which they might be able to reduce donor “friction”—the many steps and processes that interpose themselves between a donor’s initial desire to give and her consummation of a gift. A donor might be moved to tears by a story about homeless children on NPR, but by the time she switches on her laptop, waits for an internet connection, fires up her browser, finds a worthy charity, fills out an online form, and enters her credit card number, her generosity might have dwindled significantly.

Web-interpreting agents like Siri are most likely optimized to extract information from commercial websites. But nonprofit organizations can maximize their success with online donors by doing much more to accommodate their human readers. I’ve visited the websites of many charities and been stumped by enigmatic mission statements written in impenetrable Nonprofitese. I’ve been unable, without many clicks, to determine what, exactly, a nonprofit does, or what an advocacy organization would like me to do. Too few charities feature a “Give Now” button prominently on multiple pages of their websites, and some neglect to provide a snail-mail address altogether.

Rather than worry too much about an inchoate future, we might do better to attend to our shocking disregard for the demands of the present.

Written by Albert Ruesga, CEO and President of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.