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Greenpeace turns to open source to finish its web transformation

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood February 19, 2020
New collaboration with Red Hat seen as key to delivering on the original idea of its new online identity- a global ‘engagement platform,’ Planet 4

Image of a Greenpeace team involved in a Sprint

In 2016, Greenpeace International decided to try a new way of stimulating grass-level environmental activity via something it called ‘Planet 4’ - a global content management system (CMS) it defined as its new engagement platform. In its original mission statement, it also outlined its expectations for the tool: that it would foster more engagement “when we present ourselves to our supporters, and our potential supporters, through a clear representation of our values with a clear proposition for why we exist, how people can become change agents through our work, and what they can do with us right now”.

Essentially, Planet 4 is a complete redesign of all of’s back-end content management systems, and thus its global web presence. Well, it’s taken a while, but the original idea of the CMS as being a vehicle for not just putting content on the Web, but for driving people to action has got a huge boost today with the announcement that Open Source leader Red Hat has decided to lend a hand.

Specifically, Red Hat’s provided the technical expertise to help the charity take the thing to the next level, with the partners claiming they have developed an “actionable plan” to unify the global engagement platform using Open Source data integration tools and user-centric design methodology.

That’s not to say Planet 4 didn’t happen. In 2019 the charity calculated that Planet 4 sites received over 16.3 million page views, that 3,840 ‘story points’ had been delivered and it has around 7.7 million users. Greenpeace has 27 national/regional offices in 55 countries, though there are more websites than 50, as while there may be just one physical office for a location, there may be multiple domains; 83% have transitioned to Planet 4 as of us going to press, the organisation told us.

The issue is that it’s not scaling, and it’s proven maybe harder than first anticipated back in 2016 to make it work. Given it’s a global organisation with more than 27 national and regional offices, many using their own tools, Planet 4’s technical landscape is complex, and there’s a lot of data and interactions flowing between systems, the pair say. Now, what’s really been a successful proof of concept will become more what that original mission statement defined, then, or to quote its head of Engagement Strategy & Planning, Matt Browner-Hamlin:

After collaborating with Red Hat, we are better positioned to realize the vision of Planet 4 as a powerful engagement platform. Taking an Open Source approach has truly helped us by enabling our large, diverse team of people to work collaboratively on the same platform.

Speaking to Greenpeace, it looks like the real start of all this was a special week-long Agile-based ‘Sprint’ in Amsterdam back in May of last year. The design sprint helped Greenpeace International better understand its current integration challenges, develop solutions that could be implemented on a global scale by its small in-house team of technical experts, plus be able to prototype and validate ideas and features that can help it grow supporter numbers and deepen engagement.

‘Clarity round a very complicated data landscape’

diginomica found out more about the Amsterdam meet and what happened after from Laura Hilliger, a consultant working for the NGO as a concept architect and design lead who has been closely involved with the collaboration.

So I became involved with Greenpeace International in 2015, and since then I've had a variety of different roles. I was engaged originally because of my background in Open Source, and I was brought on to help bring Open principles and behaviors to Greenpeace International, and then by extension, the global organisation. What I've been doing is trying to help people understand the nuances of the Open Source community, while also building Planet 4—a piece of technology that instead of speaking to the public, invited the public to get involved. 

Greenpeace had a vision of what that meant, but it was pretty ambiguous, and I helped them to determine what exactly the software would need to be, and how we would run the project in an Open way.

The Planet 4 idea is that we help people take action on behalf of the planet—an engagement platform to provide a space online to help people understand our ecological endeavors, and to help them understand that our campaigns are successful because of the collectives of people that are working towards a shared goal. It's really trying to show that individual action matters, and we're trying to do that with a piece of software because we can use visualisations and data to show how individual action becomes collective action.

In Amsterdam, Hilliger told us, a consulting team from Red Hat made up primarily of technical architects and senior designers met stakeholders from both Greenpeace International and the Planet 4 project.

We sat together for a week and did a design Sprint which really helped us look at what we were trying to do in a new way, and give some advice around some of the things that are a bit complicated for the technical implementation.

The meeting provided us with new insights that really helped Greenpeace hone in on strategies to help us integrate Planet 4 with the other various platforms that Greenpeace has in its technical landscape. Red Hat created clarity around a very complicated data landscape, and it made it easier for us to manage some of these technical complexities with our limited set of resources.

After Amsterdam, she added, the supplier provided Greenpeace International with a technical document that laid out ideas about how it could practically build what it was trying to build:

Really, they’ve come in in the middle of a big software project, but that technical documentation helped the tech team at Greenpeace International think around, okay, with this complex landscape, here are some options that will allow us to get to the actual vision of the platform. And Greenpeace having access to the Open Source community and these very bright technical brains provides us with the support that we need to take some of these conversations and decisions further. 

Greenpeace has capitalised on this collaboration by helping to understand that what we're doing matters to people outside of our immediate supporter group. In Open technology terms, it's also interesting to engineers and designers that are not necessarily working in the realm of nonprofit.

Great start, then, but Greenpeace knows there’s a lot more work to do:

In six months I hope that because of the influence of the Open Source community, Greenpeace will have been able to take giant strides forward on the engagement platform, and done some of the data visualisation and software integrations that we need to be able to do in order to actually achieve the vision of Planet 4.

This work is already starting, and I'm hoping that with some community engagement and things like specific strategies to get the Red Hat community involved, so they're actually contributing code, contributing design, contributing thought work to the platform itself, we can do what we set out to do back in 2016.

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