Nonprofits sometimes on cutting edge of technology

Cash-strapped nonprofits may not be the first place many would think to look for novel uses of technology, but it turns out some of them are on the cutting edge.

Take the Nature Conservancy. It recently equipped a couple of scientists for a trip across Africa's Namib desert on foot. "We draped solar panels on the back of a camel, gave [the scientists] a light notebook with low power requirements and digital cameras," said Jean-Louis Écochard, CIO for the Nature Conservancy. "Throughout the journey they could upload images of biodiversity, rhino habitat, they could keep in touch and write a blog." Incidentally, at one point a camel took off carrying a new Macbook, causing a several hour detour for the chase.

Twice yearly, 26 large nongovernment organizations (NGOs) get together as part of a nonprofit collaborative effort called NetHope to share tips on how they're using technology. This week, they've been meeting at Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington.

The way NGOs like the Nature Conservancy use technology is a bit like the off label use of medicine -- when doctors prescribe medicine for ailments other than what the drugs were designed to address. "This is off label technology," Écochard said. "We're bending it in a way that makes it work in a place to suit our purposes."

Scientists at the Nature Conservancy use high-end cameras attached to helicopters to snap detailed photos of foliage in Hawaii in order to identify where invasive weeds are growing. Windows CE based handheld devices, most often designed for manufacturing lines or other urban business deployments, aid scientists measuring changes in remote grasslands.

This week, Microsoft announced that it will give the Nature Conservancy SharePoint software, a donation valued at U$2.4 million. Once the software is in place next year, it will connect remote scientists and other workers in 700 offices and 30 countries around the world.