Tag Archives: software

Trello: A Swiss Army Knife For Tasks, Prioritizing And Project Planning

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer.

One of the great services available to the legal aid tech community (lstech) is LSNTAP’s series of webinars on tech tools.  I’ve somehow managed to miss every one of these webinars, but I’m a big fan of sharing the tools and strategies that allow us to more effectively get things done. In that spirit, I wanted to talk about my new favorite free online tool, Trello.

Trello is an online Kanban board.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you are still likely familiar with the concept: most TV cop shows have a board in the squad room with columns for new, open and closed cases.  Kanban is the name for these To Do/Doing/Done boards, and they are a powerful, visual tool for keeping track of projects.

You don’t need Trello — you can do it with a whiteboard and a marker.  But Trello’s online version can become very useful very fast.  Like the best apps, the basic functionality is readily usable, but  advanced functionality lurks under the hood.  With no training, you can create a todo list that monitors what’s coming up, what you’re working on and what you’ve finished.  Explore a little bit, and you learn that each task can have a description, a due date, a file attached to it, it’s own task list and one or more people assigned to it. Because Trello is just as good as a one-person productivity tool as it is as a team coordination tool.

I can report that the IT team at LSC has dived into it.  Here are a few of the things we’re using it for:

  • Our project big board.  We keep all of our upcoming projects, with due dates and leads, in a Trello board.
  • Individual task lists.  The developers track their major deliverable dates, the rest of us the small things we’re working on.
  • Strategic Planning – anyone who has ever done a session involving slapping post-its on the wall will appreciate this simple, online version of that exercise.  SWOT analyses work particularly well.

At this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I first learned about Trello, it was successfully being used as a help desk ticket system.  I’d recommend this only for small programs.  A more powerful free ticket system like Spiceworks, or a commercial product will be able to handle the volume at a 50 person + company better than Trello can.

But here’s the real case for a tool like Trello: it goes from zero to compellingly useful in seconds.  While I won’t knock enterprise project management systems, I lean toward the ones that give me great functionality without taking up a lot of my time.  I’ve hit a couple of stages in my career where the immense workload begged for a such tools, but implementing one was too big a project to add to the list.  I bet that you’ve been there, too. Trello lacks the sophistication of a waterfall system like MS Project or an agile one, such as Jira. But it can get you organized in minutes.  And, in our case, it doesn’t replace those more sophisticated systems. It supplements them at the high level.  We do both traditional projects (deploy servers, install phone systems) and agile ones (build web sites, program our grants management system).  We can use the proper tools for those project plans, but keep the team coordinated with Trello.

Here’s our 2013 project board:

 

Note that we only assign the project leads, and the main use of this board is in the project review that kicks off our weekly staff meetings. But it’s helping us stay on task, and that is always the challenge.

What are your favorite tools for team coordination and project management?  Let us know in the comments.

Google Made Me Cry

Well, not real tears. But the announcement that Google Reader will no longer be available as of July 1st was personally updating news.  Like many people,  over the last eight years, this application has become as central a part of my online life as email. It is easily the web site that I spend the most time on, likely more than all of the other sites I frequent combined, including Facebook.

What do I do there? Learn. Laugh. Research. Spy. Reminisce. Observe. Ogle. Be outraged. Get motivated. Get inspired. Pinpoint trends. Predict the future.

With a diverse feed of nptech blogs,  traditional news,  entertainment, tech, LinkedIn updates, comic strips and anything else that I could figure out how to subscribe to,  this is the center of my information flow. I read the Washington Post every day,  but I skim the articles because they’re often old news. I don’t have a TV (well, I do have Amazon Prime and Hulu).

And I share the really good stuff.  You might say, “what’s the big deal? You can get news from Twitter and Facebook”  or “There are other feed readers.”

The big deal is that the other feed readers fall in three categories:

  1. Too smart: Fever
  2. Too pretty: Feedly, Pulse
  3. Too beta: Newsblur, TheOldReader
“Smart” readers hide posts that aren’t popular, assuming that I want to know what everyone likes, instead of research topics or discover information on my own. There’s a great value to knowing what others are reading; I use Twitter and Facebook to both share what I find and read what my friends and nptech peers recommend.  I use my feed reader to discover things.
Pretty readers present feed items in a glossy magazine format that’s hard to navigate through quickly and hell on my data plan.
The beta readers are the ones that look pretty good to me, until I have to wait 45 seconds for a small feed to refresh or note that their mobile client is the desktop website, not even an HTML5 variant.

What made Google Reader the reader for most of us was the sheer utility.  My 143 feeds generate about 1000 posts a day.  On breaks or commutes, I scan through them, starring anything that looks interesting as I go.  When I get home from work, and again in the morning, I go through the starred items, finding the gems.

Key functionality for me is the mobile support. Just like the web site, the Google Reader Android app wins no beauty contests, but it’s fast and simple and supports my workflow.

At this point, I’m putting my hopes on Feedly, listed above as a “too pretty” candidate.  It does have a list view that works more like reader does.  The mobile client has a list view that is still too graphical, but I’m optimistic that they’ll offer a fix for that before July.  Currently, they are a front-end to Google’s servers, which means that there is no need to export/import your feeds to join, and your actions stay synced with Google Reader (Feedly’s Saved Items are Google’s Starred, wherever you mark them).  Sometime before July, Feedly plans to move to their own back-end and the change should be seamless.

July is three months away. I’m keeping my eyes open.  Assuming that anyone who’s read this far is wrestling with the same challenge, please share your thoughts and solutions in the comments.

 

 

The Five Best Tools For Quick And Effective Project Management

This article was first published on the NTEN Blog in March of 2011.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages. You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using.

As an IT Director, co-workers, peers, and consultants frequently ask me, “Do you use Microsoft Project?” The answer to that question is a resounding denial.

Then I elaborate with my true opinion of Project: it’s a great tool if you’re building a bridge or a luxury hotel. But my Project rule of thumb is, if the budget doesn’t justify a full-time employee to manage the Project plan (e.g., keep the plan updated, not manage the project, necessarily), then MS Project is overkill. Real world projects require far more agile and accessible tools.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. The people who run the organization need to support it and the people the project is being planned for need to be expecting and anticipating the end result. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages: vague or different ideas of what the goals are; different levels of commitment; poor understanding of the deadlines; and poorly set expectations. GANTT charts are great marketing tools — senior executives never fail to be impressed by them — but they don’t tell the Facilities Coordinator in clear language that you need the facility booked by March 10th, or the designer that the web page has to be up by April 2nd.

You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using. Here are five tools that are either free or you’ve already obtained, which, used together, will be far more effective than MS Project for the typical project at a small to mid-sized organization:

  • GanttProject. GanttProject is an open source, cross-platform project management tool. Think of it as MS Project lite. While the feature set includes identifying project resources, allocating time, and tracking completion, etc., it excels at creating GANTT charts, which can then be used to promote and communicate about the project. People appreciate visual aids, and GANTT charts visually identify the key tasks, milestones and timeframes. I don’t recommend diving into the resource allocations and the like, as I think that’s the point where managing the project plan starts becoming more work than managing the project.
  • Your email app. It’s all about communication: setting expectations, managing expectations, reminding and checking on key contributors so that deadlines are met. Everyone already lives in their email, so you want to visit them where they live. Related tool: the telephone.
  • MeetingWizard, Doodle, etc. We might gripe about meetings, but email alone does not cut it. If you want people to understand what you’re trying to accomplish — and care –they need to see your face and here the inflections in your voice when you tell them about it. By the same token, status updates and working out schedules where one person’s work depends on others completing theirs benefit greatly from face-to-face planning.
  • Excel (or any spreadsheet). Budgets, check off lists, inventory — a spreadsheet is a great tool for storing the project data. Worthy alternatives (and superior, because they’re multi-user): Sharepoint or Open Atrium.
  • Socialcast (or Yammer). Socialcast is Facebook for organizations. Share status, links, and files in a microblogging client. You can create categories and assign posts to them. The reasoning is the same as for the email, and email might be your fallback if your co-workers won’t take to microblogging, but if they’re open to it, it’s a great way to keep a group of people easily informed.

It’s not that there aren’t other good ways to manage projects. Basecamp, or one of the many similar web apps might be a better fit, particularly if the project team is widely dispersed geographically. Sharepoint can replace a number of the tools listed here. But you don’t really have to spend a penny. You do need to plan, promote, and communicate.

Projects don’t fail because you’re not using capital “P” Project. They fail when there isn’t buy-in, shared understanding, and lots of interaction.

Peter Campbell is currently the Director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending the earth. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo & Marin Counties, Inc. Peter has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years, and has a broad knowledge of systems, email and the web. In 2003, he won a “Top Technology Innovator” award from InfoWorld for developing a retail reporting system for Goodwill thrift. Peter’s focus is on advancing communication, collaboration and efficiency through creative use of the web and other technology platforms.

Microsoft’s Secret Giveaway

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

Sometimes it feels like the bane of my existence is my office phone. It’s so bad that I rarely answer it, preferring to forward it to Google Voice where I can peruse the barely readable transcripts just well enough to filter out the 90% cold sales calls I receive. So what a pleasure it was to answer my desk phone on Thursday and have an illuminating conversation with my Microsoft Licensing representative. He called to tell me that I own some awesome benefits that come with my Software Assurance program. I’m betting that I’m not the only one who was clueless about these benefits.

Microsoft Licensing, as you know, is the little-known tenth circle of hell. It’s a conceptual labyrinth of terms and conditions that was likely conceived by a team of the writers of the original “Prisoner” series with the advice of contract attorneys that graduated from law school 30 years ago and have never since seen the light of day.

Software Assurance is the tax we pay on our MicroSoft purchases that allows us to upgrade to the newest versions without paying upgrade fees (as long as we’ve paid our software assurance fees, of course). I assume that this is of interest to Idealware readers because most of us pick up a lot of our MS software from Techsoup Stock, and the Techsoup Stock donations come with Software Assurance, not without.

But Microsoft isn’t evil; they’re just bureaucratic, and every now and then a few smart people step up out of the morass and do things that I appreciate. These Software Assurance benefits include:

The Microsoft Home Use Program provides staff with ridiculously steep discounts on MS Office. Register this benefit, and the allowed number of users (which I’m unclear as to how they calculate) at your company can purchase MS Office 2007 Ultimate Edition (or Office 2008 for Mac) for $9.95. That’s not a trial edition, and it’s the opposite of crippled — Ultimate is the “everything but the kitchen sink” edition and it comes with a license key.Microsoft ELearning is a series of online classes in standard MS products like Word and Excel, and Server products like MS SQL Server or Windows 2003. I did note that the list of available classes that my rep sent me looked a little behind the times; no 2008 or 2010 products covered, but many of us aren’t on the bleeding edge anyway.

Microsoft Technet gives you access to forums and experts, as well as evaluation copies of new technologies. For example, as I write this, I just learned that I can pick up Office 2010 and Sharepoint 2010 betas via my MSDN or Technet subscriptions to try.

And the Office Multi-Language Packs let you deploy office in additional languages.

This isn’t fluff. We’ve been paying full price for Office at home (more than we do at work) and I’ve purchased E-Training on MS products and an MSDN subscription (fairly equivalent to Technet) because I had no idea that I already owned them. It makes me feel much better about what seemed like a pre-emptive insurance program that makes me commit to the next version of MS products before I’m ready to make that commitment, at times.

Of course, this is smart business for Microsoft. With Google announcing that their Google Apps offering will be on a feature par with Office within a year, and OpenOffice under active development as a pretty comparable alternative, you don’t want your business customers to get too comfortable with those free alternatives at home. It’s just surprising to me that, for years, this was buried in the small print section of eOpen, and not broadcast widely. So I’m doing MS a favor and blowing the horn on this one.

To access these benefits, log onto eOpen (which I hope you’re using to manage MS licenses!) and once you’ve signed in and clicked “unhide licenses”, find your last Techsoup order (or a similar large purchase) and open it up. The very first link in the license detail should be “Start and Manage your Software Assurance Benefits”. Clicking on that will pop you to a paragraph that includes a link to the “Software Assurance Benefits Management Tool”. Click on that to get the benefits. The more MS software you’ve bought, the more tedious this will be: there are benefits associated with each Software Assurance purchase, so you’ll need to register this way for every relevant order. But it sure beats paying for these things at Best Buy!

Why Geeks (like Me) Promote Transparency

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.
Mizukurage.jpg
Public Domain image by Takada

Last week, I shared a lengthy piece that could be summed up as:

“in a world where everyone can broadcast anything, there is no privacy, so transparency is your best defense.”

(Mind you, we’d be dropping a number of nuanced points to do that!)

Transparency, it turns out, has been a bit of a meme in nonprofit blogging circles lately. I was particularly excited by this post by Marnie Webb, one of the many CEO’s at the uber-resource provider and support organization Techsoup Global.

Marnie makes a series of points:

Meaningful shared data, like the Miles Per Gallon ratings on new car stickers or the calorie counts on food packaging help us make better choices;But not all data is as easy to interpret;Nonprofits have continually been challenged to quantify the conditions that their missions address;

Shared knowledge and metrics will facilitate far better dialog and solutions than our individual efforts have;

The web is a great vehicle for sharing, analyzing and reporting on data;

Therefore, the nonprofit sector should start defining and adopting common data formats that support shared analysis and reporting.

I’ve made the case before for shared outcomes reporting, which is a big piece of this. Sharing and transparency aren’t traditional approaches to our work. Historically, we’ve siloed our efforts, even to the point where membership-based organizations are guarded about sharing with other members.

The reason that technologists like Marnie and I end up jumping on this bandwagon is that the tech industry has modeled the disfunction of a siloed approach better than most. early computing was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. If you regularly used Lotus 123, Wordperfect and dBase (three of the most popular business applications circa 1989) on your MS-DOS PC, then hitting “/“, F7 or “.” were the things you needed to know in order to close those applications respectively. For most of my career, I stuck with PCs for home use because I needed compatibility with work, and the Mac operating system, prior to OSX, just couldn’t easily provide that.

The tech industry has slowly and painfully progressed towards a model that competes on the sales and services level, but cooperates on the platform side. Applications, across manufacturers and computing platforms, function with similar menus and command sequences. Data formats are more commonly shared. Options are available for saving in popular, often competitive formats (as in Word’s “Save As” offering Wordperfect and Lotus formats). The underlying protocols that fuel modern operating systems and applications are far more standardized. Windows, Linux and MacOS all use the same technologies to manage users and directories, network systems and communicate with the world. Microsoft, Google, Apple and others in the software world are embracing open standards and interoperability. This makes me, the customer, much less of an innocent bystander who is constantly sniped by their competitive strategies.

So how does this translate to our social service, advocacy and educational organizations? Far too often, we frame cooperation as the antithesis to competition. That’s a common, but crippling mistake. The two can and do coexist in almost every corner of our lives. We need to adopt a “rising tide” philosophy that values the work that we can all do together over the work that we do alone, and have some faith that the sustainable model is an open, collaborative one. Looking at each opportunity to collaborate from the perspective of how it will enhance our ability to accomplish our public-serving goals. And trusting that this won’t result in the similarly-focused NGO down the street siphoning off our grants or constituents.

As Marnie is proposing, we need to start discussing and developing data standards that will enable us to interoperate on the level where we can articulate and quantify the needs that our mission-focused organizations address. By jointly assessing and learning from the wealth of information that we, as a community of practice collect, we can be far more effective. We need to use that data to determine our key strategies and best practices. And we have to understand that, as long as we’re treating information as competitive data; as long as we’re keeping it close to our vests and looking at our peers as strictly competitors, the fallout of this cold war is landing on the people that we’re trying to serve. We owe it to them to be better stewards of the information that lifts them out of their disadvantaged conditions.

Drupal 101: Look and Feel

I’m wrapping up the Drupal 101 series with some talk about Drupal themes, and some additional info on topics that we’ve already covered. The goal of these posts is to give new Drupal administrators an idea about how Drupal works, and some pointers to the key add-ons and resources in the broad Drupal ecosystem. For reference’ sake, we started with an intro, moved on to Modules, and then covered navigation. So, now that we have a functional web site, what does it look like?

Getting Themes

Drupal comes with five or six themes to choose from, and, if you use them, then your site will look very, um, uninspired. This might not be a problem if your goal is not to impress your visitors, but simply provide information or functionality, but, if you’re putting up a website for your organization, you want one that stands out from the crowd. So you have two choices: you can find a better, less common theme, or you can customize one of the default themes.

The first place to go is to Drupal Theme Garden. This is where many Drupal theme designers share their work. Here, you can either find a theme to use (or customize for your use), or get a good idea about the types of things you can do with your theme.

Customizing Themes

From the Administration menu, you can modify any theme’s main text elements, deciding whether or not to display your site’s mission or slogan, name or logo. And you can replace the default “droplet” logo with your own logo (a no-brainer!). Assuming that you’ve started with a theme that you really like, this might be enough. But, if you want to do more serious customizations, such as moving the logo to the center of your header or changing the site colors, you’re going to need basic web 4.0 programming skills and, most likely, some level of comfort with the PHP scripting language.

Most themes consist of one or more style sheets, a number of “tpl” files with PHP/HTML code laying out various page elements, such as blocks, footers and sidebars, and one called page.tpl.php that establishes the overall page layout. The main styles are usually stored in styles.css, and you can make a lot of changes to your site’s appearance here, modifying default background colors and images, placing and resizing content.

If that’s not enough, most customizations can be done using WordPress’s internal macros and functions, meaning that you won’t have to worry about assigning variables or what goes into the foreach loops. WordPress has simple commands that you can insert into a page to loop through your posts and display them or list your categories in the sidebar. A nice breakdown of the WordPress functions can be found at WpExplorer.com.

If you do modify the stylesheets and templates, make sure that you are storing your themes in sites/default folder and that you’re properly backing up whenever you do an upgrade. If you modify theme files in the main themes folder, and then upgrade to, say, a Drupal security fix, your modifications will be overwritten. In general, themes remain functional from dot release to dot release (e.g., what worked for Drupal 6.1 still works in 6.9), but the Drupal maintainers often make dramatic changes in number versions, so don’t assume that your theme in Drupal 6.9 will not be messed up if you upgrade to Drupal 7 (coming soon).

More Installation Options

In the first Drupal 101 post, I mentioned Fantastico, a two-click installer for Drupal available on most hosting services that use the cPanel site management interface. I subsequently ran into this useful article about Elefante and Simplescripts. These are packages that you can use to install a variety of popular open source applications, including Drupal.

In addition to application installers, there are other options for installing Drupal:

Customized Drupal installations like Open Atrium and Acquia come with more modules and functionality.There’s been some development and discussion about Installation Profiles, a Drupal add-on functionality that lets you define additional installation details, such as module defaults and inclusion of additional modules and data for distributing custom Drupal installations.

Conclusion

What I hope this Drupal 101 series has done is to offer some context and guidance for people new to Drupal who are about to give it a try, and some backing to my initial proposition that Drupal’s strength is it’s flexibility. Along the way, I’ve received tweets asking “Why Drupal?” and my answer is that Drupal isn’t the only CMS out there, or necessarily the best one for your web site. There are a huge variety of commercial and open source options. In fact, my personal website runs on a combination of Frog CMS and WordPress, because I wanted a simple tool for integrating RSS feeds, which Frog provides, and a powerful blogging platform. On the other hand, last week the White House ditched their commercial CMS for Drupal. So this series might also inspire you to look elsewhere, particularly if a more traditional, tree-structured content management interface will work better for you than Drupal’s layout by association model. Whichever way you go, we suffer more from a surfeit of good options than a lack of same.

Drupal 101: More on Modules

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in October of 2009.
Last week, I kicked off this series on setting up a basic web site with Drupal, the popular open source Content Management System. This week we’re going to take a closer look at Modules, the Drupal add-ons that can extend your web site’s functionality. One of the great things about Drupal is that it is a popular application with a large developer community working with and around it. So there are about a thousand modules that you can use to extend Drupal, covering everything from document management to payment processing. The good news: there’s probably one that supports the functionality that you want to add to your web site. Bad news: needle in a haystack?

A potentially easier way to add extra functionality to Drupal is to download a customized version, such as CiviCRM or Open Atrium. We’ll discuss those options later in the Drupal 101 series.

Core Modules

Drupal comes with a number of built-in modules that you can optionally enable. Some are obviously useful, others not so much. Here are some notes on the ones that you might not initially know that you need:

Primary content types like blog, forum and book offer different modules for user input. They can be combined, or you can pick one for a simple site. Since the differences between, say , a blog (individual journal that people can comment on) and a forum (topical posts that people can reply to) are less distinct than they are in other CMS’s, you might want to pick one or two primary content types and then supplement them with more distinctive ones, such as polls or profiles.Enabling contact allows your users to send private messages to each other on the site, as well as allowing you to set up site-wide contact forms.OpenID allows your users more flexibility and control as to how they log into your site. I can’t see a good reason not to enable this on a public site. Since more and more people have profiles on social networking sites and Google, tools like Facebook Connect or Google Friend Connect should be considered as well.

By default, Drupal asks new users for a name and email, but not much else. With the Profiles module, you can create custom fields and allow your users to share information much as they would on a social network.

Taxonomy is also recommended, and I’ll talk more about that next week.

Throttle should be used on any high-traffic site to improve performance.

Use Trigger if you want to set up alerting and automation on your site.

Add-on modules, must haves:

CCK (Content Construction Kit) More than some CMS’s, Drupal is a content-centric system. It doesn’t simply manage content, but the web interface is structured around the content it manages: content types, content metadata (taxonomies), content sources (RSS feeds). Out of the virtual box, Drupal has content types like blog entries, pages and stories. Each content type has a data entry form associated with it. So, if you create a number of stories, and you want to read them all, then you can browse to the page “story” and they’ll all be listed there. CCK helps you create additional content types and use a fairly robust form-builder to customize the screens.Views

The Views module lets you customize the appearance and functionality of many of Drupal’s standard screens, and to add your own. Unlike CCK, which is limited to the default layout of content types, Views lets you seriously customize the interface. One easy reason to install Views is in order to take advantage of the Calendar view, which gives you not only a full page, graphical calendar to add events to and display, but also sidebar calendar widgets and upcoming event lists.

Here’s a tip: setting up the calendar view is reasonably tedious. The best write-up explaining it (for Drupal 6) is here: http://drupal.org/node/326061. Drupal’s documentation is okay, but this is step-by-step. It does miss one step, though, which is to add the “Event Date – From date” and “Event Date – To date” to the Fields listing (with friendlier titles, like “From” and “To”). Otherwise, calendar items show on the day they were submitted instead of the day that they are occurring.

calendar_view.png

There’s a good case to be made that these two modules should be folded into Drupal’s base package, because, in addition to providing very powerful customization features to the core product, there are a whole slew of additional modules that require their presence. If you plan to install a number of modules and/or customize your site, these are pretty much pre-requisites, so just grab and install them.

Contenders:

WYSIWYG EditorsWhat-You-See-Is-What-You Get, or Rich Text Format (RTE) editors transform Drupal’s default data input boxes into flexible editors with Word-like toolbars. The WSYIWYG module lets you install the editor of your choice. I’ve done well with FCKEditor (recently rebranded CKEditor, thank you!). The WYSIWYG module lets you work with multiple RTE packages and strategically assign them to different fields and content types. Most RTE editors are very configurable, but note that, in addition to installing the modules, you need to install the editors themselves, so follow the instructions carefully.Organic Groups

If you’re building a community site, with hopes of having lots of interactive, social features, Organic Groups gives you the flexibility to not only create all sorts of groups and affiliations on your own, but let your users create their own groups as well, much like Facebook does. For an interactive site, this is essential.

E-Commerce/Donations

Many modules are available for either integrating with Authorize.net or Paypal, or setting up your own e-commerce site. The aptly named e-Commerce module and Ubercart are among the better known and supported options.

Drupal fans: what modules do you recommend? Which do you install first? Leave your recommendations in the comments.

Next week, we’ll talk about menus, blocks and taxonomies: Drupal 101: Navigation.

Drupal 101

I’ve been doing a lot of work with the open source content management system Drupal lately, and thought I’d share some thoughts on how to get a new site up and running. Drupal, you might recall, got high ratings in Idealware’s March ’09 report comparing open source content management systems. Despite it’s popularity, there are some detractors who make good points, but I find Drupal to be flexible, powerful and customizable enough to meet a lot of my web development needs.

While you can put together a very sophisticated online community and/or website with it, you can also use it for pretty simple things. For example, the nptech aggregator at nptech,info uses Drupal’s excellent RSS aggregation functions extensively, and not much else. No blog, no forums. But, having installed and tried standalone RSS aggregators like Gregarius, it became clear that Drupal was just as good an aggregator and, if desired, much, much more. Similarly, when co-workers were looking for a site to share documents with optional commenting (to replace an FTP repository), Drupal was a good choice to support a simple task without locking out growth possibilities.

Installation

Installing Drupal can be a three click process or a unix command line nightmare, depending on your circumstances. These days, there are simple options. If you are using a web host, check to see if your site management console is the popular CPanel, and, if so, if it includes the Fantastico utility. Fantastico offers automated installs for many popular open source CMSes, blogs and utilities.

Absent Fantastico, your host might have something similar, or you can download the Drupal source and follow the instructions. Required skills include the ability to modify text files, change file and folder permissions, and create a MySQL database. At a minimum, FTP access to your server, or a good, web-based file manager, will be required.

If you’re installing on your own server, things to be aware of are that you’ll need to have PHP, MySQL and a decent web server, such as Apache installed (these are generally installed by default on Linux, but not on Windows). If you use Linux, consumer-focused Linux variants like Ubuntu and Fedora will have current versions of these applications, properly configured. More robust Linux distributions, like Redhat Enterprise, sometimes suffer from their cautious approach by including software versions that are obsolete. I’m a big fan of Centos, the free version of Red Hat Enterprise, but I’m frustrated that it comes with an older, insecure version of PHP and only very annoying ways to remedy that.

Up and Running

Once installed, Drupal advises you to configure and customize your web site. There are some key decisions to be made, and the success of the configuration process will be better assured if you have a solid idea as to what your web site is going to be used for. With that clearly defined, you can configure the functionality, metadata, site structure, and look and feel of your web site.

  1. Install and enable Modules. Which of the core modules (the ones included in the Drupal pacckage) need to be enabled, and what additional modules are required in order to build your site? This is the first place I go.
  2. Define the site Taxonomy. While you can build a site without a taxonomy, you should only do so for a simple site. A well structured taxonomy helps you make your site navigable; enhances searching; and provides a great tool for pyramid-style content management, with broad topics on one level and the ability to refine and dig deeper intuitively built into the site.
  3. Structure your site with Blocks. You can define blocks, assign them to regions on a page (such as the sidebars or header) and restrict them to certain pages. On the theory that a good web site navigates the user through the site intelligently, based on what they click, the ability to dynamically highlight different content on different pages is one of Drupal’s real strengths.
  4. Theme your web site. Don’t settle for the default themes — there are hundreds (or thousands) to choose from. Go to Drupal Theme Garden and find one that meets your needs, then tweak it. You can do a lot with a good theme and the built in thee design tools, or, if you’re a web developer, you can modify your themes PHP and CSS to create something completely unique. Just be sure that you followed the installation suggestions as to where to store themes and modules so that they won’t get overwritten by an upgrade.

This just brushes the surface, so I’ll do some deeper dives into Drupal configuration over the next few weeks.

Evaluating Wikis

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in August of 2009.

I’m following up on my post suggesting that Wikis should be grabbing a portion of the market from word processors. Wikis are convenient collaborative editing platforms that remove a lot of the legacy awkwardness that traditional editing software brings to writing for the web.  Gone are useless print formatting functions like pagination and margins; huge file sizes; and the need to email around multiple versions of the same document.

There are a lot of use cases for Wikis:

  • We can all thank Wikipedia for bringing the excellent crowd-sourced knowledgebase functionality to broad attention.  Closer to home we can see great use of this at the We Are Media Wiki, where NTEN and friends share best practices around social media and nonprofits.
  • Collaborative authoring is another natural use, illustrated beautifully by the Floss Manuals project.
  • Project Management and Development are regularly handled by Wikis, such as the Fedora Project
  • Wikis make great directories for other media, such as Project Gutenburg‘s catalogue of free E-Books.
  • A growing trend is use of a Wiki as a company Intranet.

Almost any popular Wiki software will support the basic functionality of providing user-editable web pages with some formatting capability and a method (such as “CamelCase“) to signify text that should be a link.  But Wikis have been exploding with additional functionality that ramps up their suitability for all sorts of tasks:

  • The Floss Manuals team wrote extensions for the Open Source TWiki platform that track who is working on which section of a book and send out updates.
  • TWiki, along with Confluence, SocialText and other platforms, include (either natively or via an optional plugin) tabular data — spreadsheet like pages for tracking lists and numeric information. This can really beef up the value of a Wiki as an Intranet or Project Management application.
  • TWiki and others include built-in form generators, allowing you to better track information and interact with Wiki users.
  • And, of course, the more advanced Wikis are building in social networking features.  Most Wikis support RSS, allowing you to subscribe to page revisions. But newer platforms are adding status updates and Twitter-like functionality.
  • Before choosing a Wiki platform, ask yourself some key questions:
  • Do you need granular security? Advanced Wikis have full-blown user and group-based security and authentication features, much like a standard CMS.
  • Should the data be stored in a database? It might be useful or even critical for integration with other systems.
  • Does it belong on a local server, or in the cloud? There are plenty of great hosted Wikis, like PBWorks (formerly PBWiki) and WikiSpaces, in addition to all of the Wikis that you can download and install on your own Server.  There are even personal Wikis like TiddlyWiki and ZuluPad.  I use a Wiki on my Android phone called WikiNotes for my note-keeping.

Are you already using a Wiki?  You might be. Google Docs, with it’s revision history feature, may look more like a Word processor, but it’s a Wiki at heart.

Word or Wiki?

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in August of 2009.

An award-winning friend of mine at NTEN referred me to this article, by Jeremy Reimer, suggesting that Word, the ubiquitous Microsoft text manipulation application, has gone the way of the dinosaur.  The “boil it down” quote:

“Word was designed in a different era, for a very specific purpose. We don’t work that way anymore.”

Reimer’s primary reasoning is that Word was originally developed as a tool that prepares text for printing. Since we now do far more sharing online than by paper, formatting is less important. He also points out that Word files are unwieldy in size, due to the need to support so many advanced but not widely used features. He correctly points out that wikis save every edit, allowing for easy recovery and collaboration. Word’s difficult to read and use Track Changes feature is the closest equivalent

Now, I might have a reputation here as a Microsoft basher, but, the truth is, Word holds a treasured spot on my Mac’s Dock. Attempts to unseat it by Apple’s Pages, Google Docs and Open Office have been short-lived and fruitless. But Reimer’s absolutely right — I use Word far more for compatibility’s sake than the feature set.  There are times – particularly when I’m working on an article with an editor – that the granular Track Changes readout fits the bill better than a wiki’s revision history, because I’m interested in seeing every small grammatical correction.  And there are other times when the templates and automation bring specific convenience to a task, such as when I’m doing a formal memo or printing letterhead at work.  But, for the bulk of writing that I do now, which is intended for sharing on the web, Wikis put Word to shame.

The biggest problem with Word (and its ilk) is that documents can only be jointly edited when that’s facilitated by desktop sharing tools, such as GoToMeeting or ReadyTalk, and now Skype. In most cases, collaboration with Word docs involves multiple copies of the same document being edited concurrently by different people on different computers.  This creates logistical problems when it comes time to merge edits.  It also results in multiple copies of the revised documents on multiple computers and in assorted email inboxes. And, don’t forget that Track Changes use results in larger documents that are more easily corrupted.

A wiki document is just a web page on a server that anyone who is authorized to do so can modify.  Multiple people can edit a wiki concurrently, or they can edit on their own schedules.  The better wiki platforms handle editing conflicts gracefully. Every revision is saved, allowing for an easy review of all changes.  Earlier versions are simple to revert back to.  This doesn’t have to be cloud computing — the wiki can live on a network server, just as most Word documents do.

But it’s more than just the collaborative edge.  Wikis are casual and easy.  Find the page, click “edit”, go to work.  Pagination isn’t an issue. Everything that you can do is usually in a toolbar above the text, and that’s everything that you’d want to do as well.

So when the goal is meeting notes, agendas, documentation, project planning or brainstorming, a wiki might be a far simpler way to meet the need than emailing a Word document around. Word can be dusted off for the printed reports and serious writing projects. In the information age, it appears that the wiki is mightier than the Word.

Next week I’ll follow up with more talk about wikis and how they can meet organizational needs.