Leveraging the benefits of big data is on everyone's mind these days, and it's no small task. Now, several Italian organisations have developed a tool that just might make the job a bit easier. WINGS caught up with Bernardino Casadei, General Secretary of Assifero, to get a closer look at the new computer program whose aim is to eliminate some of the data-based headaches faced by philanthropy professionals, and hopefully improve data sharing in the process.
WINGS: Tell us about Francis Dashboard. Who developed it, who was it developed for, and why should they use it?
Casadei: Francis Dashboard was developed by Fondazione Bertini Onlus under the supervision of Assifero, with support from Fondazione Umana-Mente. The tool was developed to help nonprofits make the most of their projects by increasing transparency around the knowledge that naturally arises from those projects. This strategy of collecting and managing this knowledge benefits both the organisation and the philanthropy sector at large. Because all applications will share the same yet flexible structure, grantmakers will be able to compare them effectively, having in hand their inner rationality, without spending time trying to make them comparable.
The tool’s features—treeviews, Gantt and PERT charts, pivot tables—give grantmakers full control of project structure and cycle, from the actions/activity scheme to the nature and destination of cost items, to milestones and quarterly budgets. Francis Dashboard is user-friendly, even for people who are unfamiliar with the project management tools mentioned here. The idea is to help philanthropy professionals improve their ideas and plans.
WINGS: What are the advantages of using this new tool, for grantmakers and project managers?
Casadei: There are two orders of middle-term advantages—both familiar to those used to making decisions from data analysis. As a final result, the dashboard produces a 24-column matrix, with a line for every cost item. It would be logistically impossible for a human being to fill this in from scratch. The dashboard automatically produces this from simple workflow operations. This final normalized matrix can be used as "universal currency” to analyse different aspects of the project, and to build knowledge on it. On one side, the easy collection of all matrices produced by each project makes possible unprecedented longitudinal analysis on the granting activity; this is useful for both decision-making and communication. On the other side, matrices can be imported to another ad hoc developed tool that helps improve the accounting process. Both options are developed within a general shared framework that promotes better use of ICT in the third sector.
WINGS: Regarding the technical aspect, how should grantmakers prepare? What prior knowledge is required to use the software and how can users make sure their systems can handle it?
Casadei: Users only need to know basic spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel) operations—write in a cell, copy, paste, etc. The operating system is ready if it runs Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010 (default 32 bit version) on a Windows PC. In some cases (e.g. where Office isn’t installed as admin) a few technical settings are needed, but clear instructions are available for those. Once the testing phase is completed, our goal is to make the dashboard compatible for other types of spreadsheets so everyone can use it. Right now it’s available in English and Italian, but it shouldn’t be difficult to translate it in other languages.
WINGS: Systems and software are constantly changing. What changes or updates are planned for Francis Dashboard?
Casadei: Francis Dashboard is a pilot project that makes use of some built-in functionalities of Microsoft Excel. This makes the tool flexible and comes with the benefits of MS Excel in that it is quick to adapt and evolve. For example, any grantmaker is able to easily program any pivot table or chart output from the matrix—no developer needed. On the other hand, the community of ‘early adopters’ is de facto restricted to MS Office users, and so the tool is disposed to uncontrollable changes in Microsoft’s policy and relationship with developers. As soon as the dashboard enters daily use, however, an application will be created and made accessible to everyone via any web browser, open for constant improvement.
We also plan to develop a web tool that allows users to report their progress online and share lessons learned from each project. Not only will this help keep grantmakers, donors and other stakeholders informed of project developments in real time, but it will also create a data warehouse for projects, giving us the knowledge needed to inform solutions to address society’s big challenges. A new version of Francis Dashboard and accompanying user guide are forthcoming.
Questions? Contact Fondazione Bertini Onlus - firstname.lastname@example.org
photo: Kevin Krejci, flickr