its hot outside…

it's hot outside

And I’m indoors pondering what needs to be done on the SBA website over the next year. We had a great Arts Trail weekend, with over 4000 people coming through the Southville Centre doors. Plenty of people brave enough to weather the rain and wind. The SBA website held up well, and although there were areas that I felt were weaker than others, overall it worked. Now is the time to look at what was acheived and to make a decision on what we are going to do to improve the site over the next year or so.

The first questions is – are we going to carry on using the Drupal CMS for the main content engine, or are we going to use a different one, or develop our own from scratch? And if we do develop, are we going to keep on with a hosted website or are we going to make the jump to a hosted server/virtual server? There are many pro’s and con’s for each of these decisions.

Keeping with what we have now

If we keep what we have now, there is a good chance we will have a working website at the end of the process. That means that in one year we will have a working site, even if we still have the limitations that we presently have. Those are – bandwidth and the limitations of the Drupal CMS. The plus side is that will all the experience I have gained using Drupal over the last year, we could develop further and then write some modules that overcome the problems that we are having. And buying more bandwidth is not really a problem.

The other side to it is that we find it difficult to develop new solutions, e.g. voting for non-members has been a problem for me. If we had a completely hand-built soluton we could have overcome this by, well, building it.

Developing on a new platform

If we decide to build on a new platform or framework, we would get around the limitations issue. If we needed something, we could build it in. My reservation is that we might not have enough time to develop all the stuff we want in the 6-8 months we have available. I am looking specifically at Django, which I feel would give us the maximum flexibility whilst at the same time giving us enough hand-holding that we could get it up and running without too much trouble. The other framework I looked at was Seaside, but that is developed using Smalltalk and I dont feel confident enough in my Smalltalk skills to be able to say that I can develop a solution using it. That will have to wait for a later project.

If we used something like Django we would be able to make pretty much any functionality we might need, but might find that the task of actually coding might be too time intensive. We would also have to look at a hosted server solution, as we would need root access to the server to make it work. I am sure that it would be OK from a financial point of view, but it would only work from a technical point of view if I could split the work between myself and one or two other people.

What we learned

So did we learn anything from this year’s Arts Trail that could help us make a decision? Well, I learned one valuable lesson, and that it is important for you to make anything you develop as simple as you possibly can. Simple for yourself and your users. It doesnt matter how simple it is, the golden rule is..it could have been simpler! It really doesnt matter how much instruction you provide, it will never be enough or written in the right way for all of your users. And speed is of the essence. You will be asked to provide functionality then and there. Immediately available tonight. And simple. And “oh can it link back into the voting thingy?” Keep it simple at keep it really easy and fast to add stuff.

The other thing is that you may have all the best features in the world, but you might not be able to get the people to use it. Just because it is there doesn’t mean that they will come and use it. They wont. They really wont just come and use it. Why? Maybe they are scared, maybe they dont want to come and interact with your site. After all, what’s in it for them? They wont do anything unless there is either something in it for them or else there is something that will not be done for them unless they do interact. Like uploading their image for the trail. If you dont upload it by this or that date, then it wont be in the brochure or the map. Suddenly you have everyone trying to upload there image at the last minute of the deadline!

Bandwidth. This is a pain. You pay for every time you go over your bandwidth limit – that is, how much pictures and text you are allowed to have moving across the internet from or to your website. if you exceed your limit, you are simply cut off. Your website simply stops being there for your users. For us that happened twice, fortunately not on the Arts Trail weekend, but it did happen between the uploading of images and the weekend itself. This could be mitigated by several things. We over specified what size image we needed, on advice from the graphics team. We actually asked for images that were too big, consequently we went over bandwidth later that month. The images were printed at 2cmx2cm, in fact I think they were even smaller in print than that! The images we asked for were simply huge. We didnt need images of that size at all.

The other thing I learned is that you might think that our members would be the biggest users of bandwidth. No, they’re not. The biggest users of bandwidth are Google and MSN Search, the two biggest search engines. Between them I estimate that they took over half of the bandwidth in the early part of the problem month. This can be stopped by use of a special file called robots.txt which tells the search engines what parts of your website they can and cannot go in and therefore consume bandwidth.

Help desk, communications, getting information. Three bottlenecks for this year’s site. Without Janine Partington’s hard work it could have all gone horribly wrong. What we need is an easy way for our members and people to get access to information and log problems with us. Everything went via Janine and then onto myself. Whilst we were fairly pain free (thanks Janine) if we had got a major problem then would have been deluged. There needs to be a clearer communications channel between the website group and the members/users. Janine needs some king of way to be able to get at the database on the server, as that is now the most up-to-date version of the members list. She needs to be able to access it, add people, delete people and run mail merge’s etc against the list.

Content. There wasnt enough content being added to the site. Most posts were down to Janine, Dave Morgan-Davies and myself. This isnt enough, and if the site is to grow into a true community asset then we are going to need a way to drive content onto the site. That means we are going to need an editorial team/group to write articles, stories and come up with ideas for special items e.g. competitions, voting etc. And it needs to be easy enough so that the person adding this stuff doesnt need to know a thing about website design or programming ar anything like that.

Many lessons learned then, does it help us make a decision? Not really, but it is a starting point for discussion. If anything the motto has to be “keep it simple”, and get people involved with the process. So if you live in South Bristol and you are interested in being part of this process, then get in touch with me. You will be made very welcome!

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