I am always on the look out for new and novel approaches to supporting small groups of people have a presence and communication online using low-cost tools.
Many small organisations, such as Easingwold Running Club, need a web site to help promote their races, so paying visitors runners enter their races and to support coordinating their members. They need simple functionalities such as calendars, news, passworded file stores, information pages and discussions. The site would need to be easy to use and maintain, very cheap, if not free, and ideally encourage the members themselves to participate in the creation of the content.
Having experimented using open-source tools such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Zope and other groupware tools I was never very comfortable about setting up a server for a small group like this because:
- There are always on-going costs. These may be small, and whilst a small simple site is cheap, a site with the complexity of log-ins, WYSIWYG editors, calendaring and file uploads starts to need a bit more oomph.
- There are always maintainance issues. The job of keeping a backup has to be done by someone. The job of ensuring the site is running needs doing. If the site needs updating I would always prefer it if the client can do it themselves.
- There is always the problem of control. When someone “runs” a web site. They can always, on a whim or by accident, shut it down. With a background in education, I’m a fan of the “you can too” model and I like the idea of empowerment in general. I like shallow hierarchies and hate gate-keepers. When you have a situation in which there is a gate-keeper, at some point, you meet the gate, it seems especially in insecure geek circles.
WHAT IS THE NEW SITE?
This site is built using free services from Google, namely, Google Apps, Google Groups, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Blogger (owned by Google). The latest news from the Blogger blog appears on the home page using what Google call a “gadget” … as do the upcoming events in the calendar.
Because of a fault with the old site was re-created by rescuing data using Google-cache facility and the good old internet archive.
It took less than a day to build, starting from knowing little to nothing about the tools used. I spent some of the evening struggling with some CSS hacks but I’m no designer, that could have been quicker. The site isn’t finished yet but it works.
WHAT BENEFITS ARE THERE TO THIS APPROACH?
More people can contribute to the content of the site. Anyone with access and a browser can change the content using simple browser-based tools. The site can updated with photos and text, without any great technical knowledge. No need for HTML. The more people that “own” sections of the site, the more democratic and fair (in terms of time spent and effort) the process of running a web site becomes. I suspect that, as usual, few will take up that offer, but I like the idea that collaborative content creation isn’t ruled out from the start.
The Latest News Blog, where all the latest news will be posted, is open to anyone the club invites to post there and is a place you can put photos or race reports. Obviously, the more people that add news to the site, the more people it will attract via Google searches (the main way anybody finds any site) and in doing so will raise the awareness of Easingwold Running Club. I would encourage any member to maybe start a personal running blog at http://www.blogger.com if they are interested.
There is a secure Members Forum to which only members can enter. This is a space for private chat, say about finances or documents with sensitive documents such as members’ telephone numbers. Membership is granted by an administrator on request.
The Tables & Results section is a file store into which administrators can upload or create spreadsheets and documents. This is a quick and easy way to publish any public information members have made quickly and easily. Simply upload and view.
The Events Calendar is subscribable. This is a feature I find particularly useful as I can view events alongside work commitments using Outlook or iCal or similar. The events are also “shared with the world” meaning somebody visiting the Yorkshire area may discover one of your races via Google Calendar and pay their £2!
The alternative to using free tools is writing your own software and/or using open-source tools always require hosting and maintainance. Whilst this can be very low cost, free is always cheaper and the site benefits from Google’s excellent hosting track record. Additionally, Google’s services have many advanced features that are often missing from home-grown solutions, such as RSS newsfeeds, subscribable calendars, easy to use editing etc.
WHAT DRAWBACKS ARE THERE TO THIS APPROACH?
When one uses free-tools it could be said that you are handing over control to a third party. There is an element of truth in this and yes, their servers may be struck by lightning but that could also be said of using one’s own hosting. I feel that the benefits in terms of ease of use and functionality out-weigh this particular drawback.
Branding and looking professional can be a challenge when technologically pulling different services together. When using your own code, everything is easily editable, this doesn’t guarantee that the site will be well designed though, but in terms of ease-of-development it can be a lot simpler when you have total control.
Some of the tools, such as the file store and calendar aren’t brandable but the functionality they offer is so great, I don’t mind so much.
- I am most disappointed with the “Gadgets” which for the most part don’t work or are pretty useless. Would you really want “Depression News” as a gadget on your web pages?
- The poor Google Calendar gadget looks a bit goofy, I’m surprised that the means to integrate other Google services aren’t more elegant in terms of styling.
- The Google Page Creator has no concept of shared content, so navigation has to be copied and pasted across multiple pages which makes making a change to the navigation a bit of a chore.
- I discovered that you can’t rename pages
- The lack of Blogger and Google groups integration is astonishing. I can’t imagine any web site without a blog nowadays. There seems to be a confict within Google about where they are going with publishing and collaboration.
- There is no access to the Google Page Creator templates. I managed to implement a stylesheet hack so that the Blogger blog and the main site appear similar. It needs a little more work to add the finishing touches.
- I logged a myriad of small usability glitches that Google are free to pay me for. If they need any help with their publishing/community strategy they can find me on Google 🙂
All this said, the Google toolset is very impressive, at times a little slow, but it offers most of what a small, non-profit organisation might need. I didn’t mention that you also get email accounts for members but in this case isn’t something that they needed.
Wiring Google’s services together could be made a lot easier with easier-to-use more configurable gadgets and stylesheets that work between Blogger and Google Page Templates.
Using a “free tools” approach means that an organisation is free to either swap in different services as an when they see fit or jump ship to a different service altogether. Whether that is feasible depends on them having a friendly tech person.
The header is used on both sites and could be edited to include a logo or strapline or use a different image. It is available here . Anybody is free to improve or offer suggestions on how to improve this, it’d make a great club competition! Deleting the old header and uploading the new file will update both the Blogger blog and the main site.
The site uses a stylesheet called style_override.css that any web developer worth his salt could improve on, particularly with regard to integration with the blogger template.