One of cloud computing's best practical apps is community building

Community organizers can find instant gratification in the cloud for almost every event coordination urge.

I'm an idiot. I've been writing this blog for weeks and I haven't written a thing about my bread and butter, one of the cloud's best practical applications: community building. Not building discussion communities that hash and rehash the pros, cons, and definitions of the cloud; not building standards committees, startups, or fanatics. I'm talking about the down and dirty, rapid, collaborative community organization the cloud can provide. Of all the people cheap cloud computing can benefit, who are more worthy than community organizers? It was my own most recent organizing effort that inspired this post.

Although several other organizers had planned on taking the lead, things didn't work out as planned and I found myself organizing BarCampAustin 4. I needed to plan an event for over 2,000 people in less than eight days. For the uninitiated, BarCamp is an un-conference -- an ad hoc, participant-driven gathering born from the desire to share and learn in an open environment. Organizing a BarCamp is fairly straightforward; organizing BarCampAustin is a different story. BarCampAustin takes place during SxSW, so the event takes on a life of its own.

I only had eight days to secure a venue and provide all the things that make BarCampAustin, well, BarCampAustin during one of the largest music and film festivals in the United States. I hit the phones to see who I could sucker into working on the event, and found a ton of folks who wanted to see BarCampAustin happen.

What we needed next was an infrastructure with which to organize ourselves -- enter the cloud. We used the BarCamp wiki (hosted by PBWiki) to organize the externally facing site, but we needed something more: internal tools, a space to collaborate, and a way of registering participants.

Google Apps was a no-brainer to get started, but what to do about registration? A quick tweet blasted my question to over 5,000 followers, whose responses quickly narrowed us down to Facebook and Upcoming.

I'd never thought of Facebook as a cloud app, but by most definitions it is. We set up an account for the event and could instantly invite and register participants. We toiled over graphics and frills for our landing page for about 30 minutes, but we had everything we needed within the first five. Same with Upcoming.

So what did all of this give us? Time. Time is the one thing we didn't have and every job we could "cloudsource" was one more item we could cross off of the to-do list.

There were other benefits of this as well. For example, having people be able to edit project docs in a single location was a huge benefit because while we started with 3 people, we ended up with over 40 volunteers. Being able to easily allow others to add/change/delete everything from budget items to other users ended up being priceless. We were immediately able to start working as a team, and instant gratification is addictive for community organizers.

Of course the real value's not in the instant gratification, but rather the ability to have an infrastructure on par with most established businesses within minutes at little or no cost. Sure there were trade-offs, such as nice-to-have features we did without. It didn't look as pretty as we'd have liked, but it worked -- hundreds of people enjoyed an event we simply wouldn't have been able to organize without the cloud.

The price is right, the technical learning curve is mild, and who doesn't like instant gratification? Why aren't more nonprofits and local community groups reaping the benefits of the cloud? I would bet the main reason is related to the lack of exposure they have to the technology. Perhaps they simply need someone to point them in the right direction.

Maybe we should all get together and form a "cloud mentor" program to help educate nonprofits and other charitable organizations on the benefits of the cloud. If you think that's something you'd be interested in, leave your name and contact info in the comments. I know more than a few nonprofits that would love to meet you.