Web project update for May 2010
By Ed Mitchell 27th May 2010
- Team building
- Development work phase
- Going onto the live platform
- Going into public beta and facilitation
- Next steps: maintenance and enhancements
- Life around the web – the wider perspective
- Some standard web statistics
- Some engagement statistics
Following 2009’s consultation phase, we employed a full time web co-ordinator, Ed Mitchell, who started in September. The web strategy was finalised, a website briefing document produced, and an open invitation issued to technologists who would share the development and maintenance of the website.
A group of ‘Transition Technologists’ was openly attracted from around the country, discussions were held, and a core team of 7 emerged (2 developers, 2 systems adminstrators, 1 designer, and 2 more business-y advisors). This group agreed to share a finite budget, design decisions, open source rights to all code and documentation, and other responsibilities, including sharing their ‘lessons learned’ from the experience.
We felt it was very important to transparently share authority with the transition technologist team – we simply don’t know enough about technology to assume that what we ‘want’ is sensible and a useful use of limited resources – only by sharing control of these discussions could we most benefit from their impressive experience and imagination. They found it to be refreshing – normally sole agent freelancers, they enjoyed sharing responsibilities, problems and solutions with eachother in a facilitated environment, dividing work out and co-creating the site. We have encouraged them to consider forming a co-operative, and sharing other work in the future.
Development work phase
Development work began in earnest in late December 2009 with the assessment, rationalisation and migration of existing core data into the newly established platform. In January 2010, the integration and technical design work picked up speed, covering all the deep design decisions, software modules and related code to hold it all together.
The designer had been sitting in on all the technical meetings (all on skype – they haven’t yet all met physically!) to get a sense of the website from the bottom up, but only began producing the visual interface in early February. She began with just a framework (rather than flashy design boards to sign off) – this was a bit scarey to start with, as it’s not standard ‘agency style’, but we soon understood. Her work reflected her perception of our culture and aspirations for the site; instead of producing one interface we would live with until the next design, she identified our ambition to manage the site pro-actively ourselves, responding to its use accordingly to support the users’ activities. In light of this, we now have a widely appreciated visual design (simple, calm and elegant) which will afford a variety of uses, sitting on top of a very powerful information framework which we can juggle and change and add and remove sections with ease. She also did a lot of work ‘behind the scenes’, which will make it far easier for users to use the site.
Like the technology application, the design is deceptively simple, giving us a range of options we could not have imagined, and a host of design features built in which we will still be introducing in six months.
By mid-February the team were alpha testing, tweaking, refining, spotting problems, and identifying gaps as the users (that’s us) started adding content (and identifying more things we needed!).
As well as all this ‘visible’ work, one of the developers was busy building our own open source publishing platform (dev, test, live) – hard and dirty work to be honest, but vital as it is the spaces and process enabling us to invite any contributor to assist with the development process in the future, making the transition web project fully ‘open source’. Our web host also started analysing how much energy is used when serving a web page so that we could share this information with our users – this is a bit of a ‘gorilla in the room’ on the internet at the moment and we want to raise this conversation.
Going onto the live platform
Our original goal was to be in public beta in February 2010, but this was slightly over-ambitious (to say the least), so we were very happy to be online but not publicised in late February to do real testing in the live environment.
At this point we discovered all sorts of new and exciting problems owing to the difference in the development and live technical environments. There was still much to do behind the scenes as well – more modules needed adding, changes, bugs etc. The development team worked hard and long and were generous with their time and endlessly patient!
Going into public beta and facilitation
Moving into a new big group-owned website is like moving into a new house together, while you are building it. It takes a lot of patience, open-ness to critique, imagination and other attributes that don’t lead to punch-ups!
The site went into formal public beta at the beginning of March. We launched it as simple as possible in order not to baffle people (a common mistake site launches make). We are following a gradual introduction strategy working outwards from our core goals (initiatives and projects), slowly introducing site functions with time. This enables users to familiarise themselves with the site, making new functions less threatening. It is going well.
We have introduced the initiative, personal, and project profiles with minimal friction. The first few newsletters have gone out and gone well. We have set up some blogs, particularly Stephanie’s ‘Transition Tales’ blog which has gone down very well, and are trialling the ‘Sharing Engine’ by aggregating respected bloggers’ blogs, and news from Transition Initiatives.
Alongside this technical action, we have formed an ‘editorial steering group’ in order to distribute editorial decision-making and set open editorial guidelines democratically with representatives from staff and volunteers. This further shares ownership of the web platform around the movement, focusing on Transition’s deeply rooted ‘bottom up’ model.
Next steps: maintenance and enhancements
We have identified a fair few big bugs (e.g. the password system is being difficult for some users) and a range of desirable feature enhancements which are being discussed between the technologists, and will be dealt with across June. Not all of the enhancements people have suggested will be done (we have a likely budget of £3,000 which doesn’t go all that far), but all enhancements have been logged and suggested in our ticketing system.
Following the conference in mid-June we will introduce the new forums, and introduce the ‘Community Microsites’ to a group of ‘early adopters’ who can come and break yet more new ground in this virtual world of ours.
We are also working with the transition technologists to agree a set of criteria and processes to enable the wide opening of the code-base, documentation, publishing and issue resolution processes required to properly open the project up as an open source project. Everything we have done to date is documented with a creative commons licence, freely available for others.
Life around the web – the wider perspective
The Transition Network website is not the web project’s only focus. There are hundreds of websites and social networks and whatnots all over the web where Transitioners are residing, sharing and telling their stories. We are working behind the scenes on the ‘Sharing Engine’ at the moment, which will help us keep up to date with all the sites around the web, which will help, but there are a few big web stories of note:
The Ning situation:
The massive social network provider Ning recently announced that it would charge for use of its ‘social network website in a box’ offer. Ning is great, and we consider that if initiatives think it’s doing what they need, then they should consider paying for it. If people are after a free service, we found Wiser Earth to be the most suitable alternative. Read our response to the situation here. There are hot conversations going on in the Transition United States Ning group. We don’t expect nor want there to be consensus, just open dialogue.
This is just amazing and proof of the power of what people can do when they collaborate effectively on a shared problem with the right tools and attitude. The web project did not have the time or resources to put together a ‘website in a box’ offer for initiatives. We wanted to, but necessarily focused on the wider, ‘knowledge-sharing’ goals of the Network and worked on a simple solution (the community microsites) to help those in need of basic support.
Following the ‘drupalcon’ in San Fransisco (a gathering of people who use the drupal software), a group of drupalists from different initiatives around the world have come together to co-create a service that can offer Transition initiatives websites which have been designed at their core for the needs of an initiative. It’s early days yet, but the group are pressing ahead with astounding and mesmerising gusto and we’re doing what we can to help, and generally saying…
‘Wow! Look what can happen when you don’t try to control things, focus on collaboration, let a thousands blossoms bloom’.. and other suitably awed comments on the power of ‘Community’ with a capital C. Good luck drupalists!
Visit and engage with the Transition Drupal group here
Facebook and privacy:
It has recently emerged in the internet mainstream that Facebook has been tweaking, altering and changing its position on ‘privacy’ for some time, and this is not necessarily to the benefit of its users, who have found their random and sometime rude/litigious/stupid/gossipy comments are not private. Well slap me down with a wet fish! Who would have thought it? A private company using its data to its financial advantage.
On the whole, folks, we’re aware of what is coming out of our mouths in public places and behave accordingly, so don’t think the internet is any different. As a wise person once said to me (I’m famously indiscreet and I even heckle myself at public meetings), whenever you are writing an email, blog post, comment etc. think of it as a headline on a newspaper.
Everything we say online is stored somewhere. Remember that…
Some standard web statistics
Between April 1st and April 30th, there have been 145,986 pageviews from 32,333 unique users (google analytics, a very small minority of these are from the old site). People are viewing an average of 3 pages, and staying on the site for just under 3 minutes per visit. The most popular pages are the initiatives directory, conference page, ‘about Transition Network’, the projects directory, and the Primer.
We are not in competition for ‘eyeballs’ and not trying to convince users to stay online (in fact, exactly the opposite) as we might be if we had a marketing focus, but these indicators give us a useful benchmark for the future, handy technical management tool for our servers, and a great base to start analysing the site’s evolution for the future. Although our systems adminstrator says that we mustn’t believe everything our stats package says…
Some engagement statistics
Since ‘launching’ on March 1st, we have:
41 projects in the projects directory (without any communications push!)
460 initiatives in the initiatives directory (299 official, 161 ‘mullers’)
7067 people are in the people directory, 1,075 have updated their personal profiles
These are exceptionally heartening engagement indicators, and are far more ‘engaged’ than any online community that Ed (who has been managing online communities since 1997) has experienced. And we have not yet starting applying any ‘community facilitation strategies’.
Without blowing our own trumpet, we feel that these show that a sensibly simple platform, combined with a calm facilitation plan, for a motivated and passionate movement, can really help people connect across the world to share their experiences.