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The "humanitarian eBay", Global Hand, uses Plone to map donations to NGOs

by xavier last modified 2009-06-30 11:38

Based in Hong Kong, Global Hand is an NGO acting as a broker matching donations and needs to support NGO’s in their fight against poverty and disasters. It also provides branded Web sites for the United Nations Joint Logistics Center (UNJLC), the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Rotary International. All these services are based on the open source softwares Plone and Zope. This article investigates Global Hand experience and criteria to select these technologies.

“Many thanks the Plone and Zope communities for developing tools that will continue to play a key role in linking up a disconnected planet in order to combat global need.”

Sally Begbie, Global Hand CEO

Global Hand, an innovative NGO

On a planet where there seems to be an impasse between the have’s and the have not’s, Global Hand is offering an online bridging platform. A non-profit organisation, Global Hand has variously been described as a broker, a match-maker, even a ‘humanitarian eBay’. Its goal is simple: to hook up those in need with those who want to help. 

That link up has proved harder than might have been imagined. With all the goodwill in the world, the for-profit sector often struggles to find non-profits with whom to partner. Global Hand has developed matching technology to facilitate public/private partnerships: connecting resources from the private sector with appropriate needs in the hope of finding sustainable solutions to poverty. Global need requires a global solution.

Principal offering

Global Hand's principal offering to its partners is an enterprise-class Web platform, in continuous development since 2001, upon which a number of highly visible Web sites are based. The first version of the Global Hand Web site was built using Zope, with a backend SQL database built on Microsoft SQL server and later ported to MySQL. The second major version of the Web site was developed using Plone, with all data stored in ZODB. The third version is currently under development, scheduled to be released July 2007. With this new version, Global Hand moved to Plone 2.5.X, with a significant focus on the features of Zope 3, via Five.

The newest version represents significant changes in both scope and focus from previous versions. These changes reflect how Global Hand itself has evolved from its original focus on partnership with gifts-in-kind operators, to the current expanded focus on all manner of public/private partnerships.

Providing Plone infrastructure to major world NGO

The Web site itself has changed from a "branded" site to a "white label" offering that can be relatively easily adapted to the needs of major humanitarian, development, government or corporate partners. For example, Global Hand developed branded Web sites for the United Nations Joint Logistics Center, the World Economic Forum (in its Disaster Resource Network) and Rotary International. It is also developing an application for the United Nations, which is due for release in July this year.

Plone/Zope’s ready accommodation of the branding option has proved strategic in Global Hand’s worldview. Frequently, private sector overtures are difficult to match, even if intrinsically of value, because they do not fit particular poverty relief programmes. By branding its own technology for the WEF, the UN and others, Global Hand aims to connect relationships that are appropriate to these communities, while passing on any that are not to a wider audience of non profit organisations. 

Offers or needs unmatched in one constituency should, ideally, be passed on to a “global commons” where all may have access. Without Plone/Zope’s flexibility in this regard, Global Hand may well have considered the realisation of the “commons” concept too daunting to undertake.

Distinguishing aspects of Global Hand

Several factors distinguish Global Hand infrastructure from most Web sites.

  • Digital divide : Global Hand's users have an exceptionally large range of computer literacy. Some use computers many hours a day, as their principal business tool. Others, particularly in developing countries, have very little familiarity with computers at all.
  • Multilingual content : A large fraction of Global Hand's content is (a) dynamically generated and (b) presented in multiple languages, requiring Global Hand developers to make extensive use of (and extend) both Zope and Plone's i18n functionality.
  • Distributed organisation : Global Hand's "stakeholders" are, in most cases, distributed across many countries and time zones. This has forced the organisation to consider very carefully how the most basic elements of a Web site of this scale work. The "site administrator", for example, might be someone that the core Global Hand team has never even met. It might not be practical for the core Global Hand team to evaluate how well the administrators understand the site, and to help them use it well without compromising the site's integrity.

How appropriate is Plone for Global Hand?

Plone and Zope have a number of strengths, particularly for a project of this scope and visibility. On balance, Global Hand's experience with these platforms has been wonderful.
  • Content management : Global Hand has a large, diverse set of content, ranging from customs guides to organisation directories to lists of available goods. Managing a body of content this large is very challenging, and Plone provides a superb suite of building blocks to meet this challenge.
  • User management : Global Hand is a site where, on one level, any user can sign up and post a request to make their needs known. Simultaneously, however, it also has a very stringent user authentication process, involving legal documentation and other documents that users mail to the Global Hand head office in Hong Kong. Zope's security model - and Plone's use of it - was found to be very well suited to managing a user model that is as complex as Global Hand's. In particular, the development team have found the ability to extend user models to be key.
  • Cross-platform functionality : Although it may not seem as important, Zope's ability to function on any major platform is crucial. Global Hand has at least a dozen Plone instances running on various machines at any given point in time. Some of these machines run Linux or other UNIX variants. Others run various versions of Windows. The fact that the organisation can run the very same Web site on a Windows notebook that is running on a Linux server in a data centre has provided enormous gains in developer productivity.
  • Python : Finally, the fact that Zope and Plone are written in Python has also contributed greatly to the strength of Global Hand's offering. Volunteer developers have to get up to speed very quickly with, what is for many, a brand new platform. Global Hand has seen many developers, fresh out of college, pick up a Python book, and begin making productive contributions a week later. They know of no other programming language in which this level of productivity can be achieved this quickly and easily.
  • Scalability : When Global Hand began, the first Zope instance was on a spare Linux desktop. As usage has grown, so has the sophistication of their installation. Global Hand currently relies heavily on ZEO running on a multi-CPU hosted server, with Squid, Pound and Apache all playing their part. They depend on a set of installation and backup scripts for backend maintenance, and monitor the bandwidth and latency carefully. Performance challenges aside, Zope has given Global Hand the tools to configure and manage Web sites at each level of demand and sophistication.


Global Hand's decision to base its Web site on Plone and Zope was not one lightly taken. At the very beginning, the team sought impartial assessment by doing their best to talk themselves out of it. At various junctures since, moreover, they have re-evaluated their commitment to this platform. So far, they remain convinced that Zope/Plone is the best tool available. Global Hand is particularly excited about the ideas that Zope 3 has given, and the impact it is having on Plone. Thank you to the Zope and Plone communities for developing tools that will continue to play a key role in linking up a disconnected planet in order to combat global need.