Thursday, May 25, 2006

Week 1: Mission Statement, Users, and More

We had our first online meeting today, and it lasted almost 3 hours. Needless to say, he had a lot to talk about.

First off, here's a brief list of what we have accomplished since last time.

* Contacted several organizations which have done matchmaking in a similar way before (Global Village Engineers, GeekCorps, VolunteerMatch, Idealist, and a few others) and we have received messages back from several. We have set up meetings with Idealist and Global Village Engineers

* Constructed lists of engineers and Non-profit organization representatives that our team members know. We are in the process of contacting them. If you have any ideas on people (or organizations) to contact, please let us know.

* Identified what each of us thought the mission of this project is.

We hosted our meeting using Campfire ( and the technology worked fine. At first we had a bit of trouble keeping on track, but after a bit we worked it out and had a very productive meeting.

During the meeting, we discussed what our mission was, problem spaces, and user interviews.

Our Mission:
We all came into the meeting with our own idea of what our mission should be, and we all had a similar goal, with a few different ideas. After more discussion we ended up with:

"We are starting an organization that will help organizations working actively towards the betterment of humankind and the planet get solutions to problems they have discovered but do not have the time, energy, or resources to solve on their own. These problems are ones which can make a positive impact to the operations of the organization, and will be solved by volunteers with the guidance of our organization."

This is by no means, a final version of a mission statement, but it is a start. It is a founding idea. Essentially rather than our primary goal to be education or advocacy, we want our primary goal to be completing projects.

A Problem Space:

We also discussed our problem space. Imagine, if you will, a 3 dimensional set of axes. On one we have Engineer Commitment (ranging from "I'll go to a country for 3 years" all the way down to "I'll check out the site on occasion"). The second axis has Engineer Knowledge, ranging from "I've taken no classes in engineering, but I enjoy technology" to "I could (and have) written the book on engineering. I am great at design, and can accomplish any problem you throw at me." Finall, the third axis has the Support Commitment (which would include the non-profit's commitment) which would range from "I'm going to give you an idea, but that's it" to "I'm going to talk with you for hours each day, am available at a moment's notice, and will pay for people to come out and talk to our users."

We would like to position ourselves to working with non-profits who are fairly committed. This means that they would provide experts who know about the users of a potential solution and would show engineers around the area that they work (and possibly pay for the trip out there, but not necessarily).

At the point, we do not know enough about our user space to identify the engineers we need.

User Interviews:

Chandra has already completed an interview, and provided us with some tips of questions to ask, as well as a list of questions to ask engineers. This will be very helpful when Mel and I go out and continue interviewing users.

As always, we are looking for any ideas you might have, specifically involving people to interview. If you know of someone to interview, or you yourself could be interviewed, please let us know by commenting here, or e-mailing us. We are looking for a variety of engineers (engineering students, professors, young professional engineers, older professional engineers, technical experts, retired engineers, engineers who used to be in industry but changed to a non-technical field, etc.) as well as non-profit organizations that we could contact. If you have any comments, feel free to leave them. We look forward to your feedback

Sunday, May 21, 2006

It begins: summer plans

Our team
We have a final core design team for the summer; Ben Salinas, Mel Chua, and Chandra Little.

Ben is a general engineering sophomore with a lot of experience working with and contacting nonprofit organizations, and will be in Texas this summer. Ben believes math should be done in color.

Mel is a senior electrical engineering student and a programmer interested in interface design; she will be in Boston this summer. In her free time, she plays a broken-down piano named Hector, despite not being able to hear the top two octaves on it.

Chandra is a senior mechanical engineering student with the most experience in the user design process, and will be in Europe this summer. She knows how to dance the chaotic macarena.

The advisory board
Our advisory board currently consists of two engineering professors (one experienced with engineering for nonprofits, one experienced with computer science and interface design), but we are looking to increase the board's size to about 7 people by adding people outside of academia, particularly engineers, businesspeople, and NGO administrators.

The "Keep Me Posted" list
If you'd like to keep in touch with what's going on, let us know. We'll be writing updates and notes on this blog approximately once a week, so the RSS feed is a good way to stay up-to-date. Feel free to chime in with comments or questions any time - and if you'd like to help, email us and let us know!

Summer communications
Since we are a distributed team, we need a good communications infrastructure to hold us together. We're primarily using Basecamp and Campfire, with a lot of email, and having chats once a week to report-in and set focuses for the next week. Since Chandra will be traveling through most of June, she'll be scheduling the chats 'till she settles down in July.

Summer goals
Our exit criteria for the summer are as follows:
  1. Knowledgeable overview of all possible user groups, with our final specific user group defined.
  2. Knowledgeable overview of whole possible problem space, with our final problem space within that defined, and a clear final problem to tackle.
  3. 10 rough prototypes that address the final problem, ready to begin taking to users.

In order to do this, we've divided our summer (12 weeks) into 4 phases of 3 weeks each.
  1. (Now-June 11) Inquiry. Information gathering; contact people, interview, get a feel for what they do and how they operate. Not yet thinking of problems or solutions, or categorizing our data yet; just getting a good grasp of what kind of space is out there.
  2. Synthesis. This is where we play with categories, creating personas, profiles, user values, and organizing what we know in a useful way. Final definition of all possible user groups and problem spaces will be complete at the end of this section.
  3. Brainstorming. Iterate through each category of problem spaces and user groups and brainstorm possible solutions. Lots of them.
  4. Refining. Choosing the final user group and problem, and selecting about 10 solutions to prototype. By the end of this section, we will have our first rounds of prototypes completed and going out to get feedback from our users.

Who's working on what

Mel and Chandra
will be focusing their efforts on interviewing engineers. What does an engineer do with their day? What do they want to be doing? How does volunteering fit into their busy lives (or how could it)? If you've studied engineering then took a non-engineering job, if you manage engineers, if you're a young engineer, a retired engineer, working any job at any location, they would love to hear from you.

Ben is trying to learn about NGOs, since there are so many different kinds. What are different ways that NGOs are started, run, grown, and structured? How do projects get started within them, what kind of people work with them? If you work with or within an NGO, he would love to hear from you.

How you can help
If you're willing to be interviewed (anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour) by one of us, please let us know - we're looking to understand the experiences of a lot of different people, so if you're interested in NGOs with technical problems or engineers looking for volunteer opportunities, please let us know!

Friday, May 19, 2006

What's happened?

This project began from an idea that I came up with on April 5th at Olin's Big Conversations where Mardi Seng spoke to students about his life and his non-profit: Plant Hope In Cambodia ( The idea, at that point, was that NGOs had problems but did not have resources to solve them and that engineering students needed exposure to real world problems and so by connecting these two groups, everyone would be better off.

After doing a bit of research, we found the existing ThinkCycle site ( which was doing just what we wanted to do. However it looked terribly out of date and inactive. We contacted the person running the site at the time, Nitin Sawhney, explaining how we would like to talk to him about trying again. He replied back and a few weeks later we met.

Since then, Mel and I have met with several professors at Olin and received feedback from community members and industry representatives at Olin's Exposition. We currently are looking to further define the problem that we are trying to solve by communicating with potential users and people who have done similar tasks.