Getting under the hood

Posted on August 18, 2011 by Rusty Coats

By: Rusty Coats, The Patterson Foundation Technology Partner

As the son of a Chevrolet dealer, I grew up in the service bay, learning about cars – and life – from men covered in grease. While the men on the sales floor dressed fancier and had more expensive tastes (to the point that many were broke by Tuesday and truly motivated to sell a Camaro), I preferred the mechanics.

They taught me to never to be afraid to get under the hood. Engines can be quirky things, flawed by design or punished by abuse, but they’re logical. They can be rebuilt, modified, souped-up. And while most people are content simply driving their cars, mechanics like to tinker, on a quest: Let’s see what this baby can do.

The same is true of technology.

This month, I met with the team at Winning Mark in Portland, Ore. They are development partners related to the Journalism Accelerator, one of the early outcomes of the New Media Journalism initiative led by my wife, Janet Coats.

Janet’s goal was to discuss current progress and next steps: product development, workflow, partnerships, sustainability and exit strategy – common guideposts in all TPF initiatives.

I was there to get under the hood.

What I learned – what is under the hood of the Journalism Accelerator – has tremendous potential for other TPF initiatives and for the nonprofit sector in general. Not because of its specific parts – but what it does.

It listens.

The Journalism Accelerator is a souped-up assembly of open-source and proprietary software. Think of it as a Lego stack. Each block interlocks with the other.

In simple terms, here is the JA architecture:

The site's public face is Wordpress. This open-source platform is a popular blog software ideal for interactive publishing. For many websites, this is where the stack ends. The JA goes much deeper because it is designed to capture user interaction and reuse that knowledge to add richness to the site.

One layer down is the BuddyPress plugin, which handles user registration, tags users to self-selected interests and ties in social media channels such as Twitter. This creates profiles so users can interact more meaningfully – finding others by shared interests, what they've commented on, what they've said on Twitter, etc. This also recognizes that use of the site doesn’t occur in a vacuum; users are active in conversations off-site, and the JA harvests that.

Beneath BuddyPress is Highrise, a CRM (customer relationship management) tool that listens to user behavior and enriches the BuddyPress profile. Only site administrators see this layer. Highrise is a learning software; it pays attention to a user's behavior on-site and enriches that user's profile. For example, I may state that I am only interested in technology and revenue on my JA profile, but because I post a lot of comments on community-journalism topics, my profile will now reflect that.

Beneath Highrise is Radian6sentiment-analysis software that listens to online conversations - on the JA and elsewhere - and algorithmically determines the "mood" and drivers of those conversations. It listens to JA site activity, Twitter, blogs, social media sites, mainstream media sites (and their user comments) and others, then returns dashboards, word clouds and other visuals to display how a community is talking about certain topics, and whether that conversation is positive, negative, passionate, flat, etc. This is extremely helpful in understanding the audience, anticipating topics and discovering new voices.

Put it together and you have a site that looks like a blog but is actually a learning ecosystem. Because we were in crunchy-granola Portland, we called it composting. When interactivity occurs, its energy is harvested to fuel further interactivity.

Other initiatives can learn from this and implement similar stacks. The key is to turn a website’s mission on its head: You are not publishing (talking), you are facilitating (listening). And you put technology in place to make sure that nothing is wasted.

As always, the key isn’t the technology. The secret sauce is the strategy.


  • Using this stack as a social barometer after a natural disaster to uncover as-yet-unknown areas of need by listening to what people are saying in online and social channels.
  • Mission- or cause-based foundations using this strategy to find grantees or funding opportunities beyond “the usual suspects.”
  • Foundations using this strategy to find kindred nonprofits and funders with whom they can combine forces to increase impact.

The possibilities are worth exploring. By shifting the focus of communications from publishing to learning, initiatives and nonprofits can be more informed, proactive and participatory, simply by talking less and listening more.

And it all starts by getting under the hood.

About The Patterson Foundation Technology Lens

As The Patterson Foundation's technology partner, the technology lens collaborates with the foundation and its partners on the most effective ways to leverage emerging technology, including recommending the appropriate platforms, tools, and processes to leverage for greatest impact.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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