It’s a little over five years since our last major redevelopment of the Edge Hill news website when it moved from a classic ASP application into Symfony with lots of new functionality. In that time it’s been well used (and abused) with 1337 new articles plus an archive of 537 articles dating back to July 2001 imported across. News gets piped around the website with RSS feeds and machine tags to populate the homepage, department websites and various other places – it’s a bit string-and-tape, but it’s worked pretty well!
Two years ago we began moving some websites to WordPress in order to devolve control of content and structure to Faculties and Departments. WordPress has proved itself a very capable content management system, but more importantly it is now a solid web development framework. It has moved beyond its blogging origins and has handled everything we’ve thrown its way.
Until now we hadn’t migrated any of our “applications” (online prospectus, news, events, jobs etc) to WordPress as the cost of re-writing systems outweighed the benefit but our latest project sees us make the move with a brand new News website.
While news might seem like an obvious thing to move to WordPress there were still a number of significant challenges we had to overcome in order to make the move. We also had a list of requirements from colleagues in Corporate Communications that we needed to tick off and some ideas of our own to make our news website more than “just another WordPress site”.
Over the next week or so we’ll be blogging about how we built the site and some of the new features.
If you work in Higher Ed Web Design you may be interested in hearing us talk about our use of WordPress at IWMW 2013 next month. Sign up for workshop session A7 – “WordPress: Beyond Blogging“!
“RSS: A good idea at the time but there are better ways now”
– Sam Diaz
In my opinion claiming Twitter is a replacement for RSS is like saying you’ve stopped watching the news and find out what’s going on by listening in to conversations at the bus stop. RSS readers may not have the same widespread appeal that Facebook has found but they are an essential tool for many purposes.
Many of the tips below make use of feeds so it’s important you know how they work. I’ve been a fan of Google Reader for many years – it’s available for desktop and mobile and there are apps that integrate with it too.
Find a better Twitter client
Twitter.com isn’t perfect. Despite their best efforts to “fill holes” in the product there are still many things that the website doesn’t do on its own. Fortunately for the power user there are many third party clients available so find one that you like.
If you’re sat at your desk most of the day a desktop client can be a very useful way to manage your Twitter stream. The first thing you should do is turn off pop up notifications and sounds – they’re very distracting. TweetDeck handles multiple accounts and even allows you to add Foursquare and Facebook to the mix.
HootSuite has quite a lot of fans. Personally I’ve always been put off it by the awful ht.ly tracking bar it adds to links but recently I’ve started playing with it a bit more and I like some of its features.
But for companies wanting to track customer engagement, CoTweet is excellent. It’s designed for exactly that purpose and you’ll see it being used by some very big companies like BT, Vodafone, O2
One feature CoTweet and HootSuite share is the ability to delegate access out to several members of a team without them needing to know the password. Both also allow you to make use of the carat syntax to show who in a team is tweeting, giving a personal fact to your account.
Really simple site – plug in a Twitter username and RSSFriends will give you a feed to subscribe to showing new followers with far more detail than the standard notification email. Helps you some way to achieving Inbox Zero.
Twitter search has the fairly serious limitation of only keeping about 7 days of tweets available for searching. The solution is a service like TwapperKeeper which regularly polls Twitter Search and saves the results to an archive. You can access this through an API, as a feed or download the data for processing in other ways.
Automate, Consolidate, Mainstream
The final part of my talk was three ways of managing your social media presences better.
Automate: use a service like TwitterFeed#mce_temp_url# to send the contents of RSS feeds from a blog or news site to Twitter and Facebook. Other sites such as Flickr or WordPress can auto-post to Twitter as well.
Consolidate: break up your messages into simple chunks that can be posted to multiple networks. Both Facebook and Twitter have the ability to post to the other network but make sure your messages are relevant, for example by not posting @replies to Facebook.
Mainstream: once you know that a service is working for your organisation, try to mainstream its use – spread the load of people updating sites. Make sure there’s a spread of people involved – it’s good to have both technical and marketing people for example.
Finally, don’t be afraid to Mark All Read and if something isn’t working, Fail Fast.
Once again, Paul Boag from Headscape spoke at the Institutional Web Management Workshop, this year in Sheffield. The plenary talk was titled No Money, No Matter and was generally accepted to be one of the highlights of the conference. Much of the content Paul has covered separately on his blog and [failed ] podcast but the talk tied it together and brought up some new ideas.
Paul often treads a fine line between great advice and a sales pitch but he always does it with a glint in his eye so we’ll allow it! Recently, he has been promoting the idea of bringing in external agencies just for big overhauls of the website and instead have an ongoing relationship. While at Edge Hill we don’t particularly do web design agencies, I wholeheartedly agree that cycles of major redesigns are a bad thing.
Just when you think the talk is going to turn into hard sell for Headscape, Paul turns it around and admits for many Universities money is tight and suggests instead HEIs act as “external experts” for each other. This is a fantastic idea and I really want to make this happen for us. Paul suggested monthly meetings with your expert and while I think that might be a little too often, we can see how it goes.
So I’m looking for volunteers to come to Edge Hill (we’re based in Ormskirk, Lancashire in case you didn’t know!) and give us free consultancy! In return you’ll get as much coffee as you can drink, a sandwich from the SCR and – if you want – I’ll return the favour and “consult” for your HEI.
There’s a few conditions, chiefly I don’t think TPTB would like one of our competitors coming in but other than that I’m open to offers! If you’re interested, drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: after posting on JISCmail’s WEBSITE-INFO-MGT list I received a couple of questions about the areas to be covered. Our team covers design, development and to a large degree content and while we don’t author the majority of information on the site, we do have responsibility for it. So essentially I’m looking for a general expert – someone who can say “that doesn’t look right” or “have you thought about doing cool thing X using HTML5 there”.
A couple of weeks ago, Mark Power and I were approached to cover Anthony Doherty’s workshop Mobile Apps vs Mobile Web. We spent a week working through some ideas then finalised what we were talking about on arrival in Sheffield on Monday afternoon.
Many thanks to Jeremy Speller from UCL for demonstrating their implementation of campusM and to everyone in the session for taking part in what I hope was an interesting discussion. There was quite a lot of Mobile Apps/Web talk throughout IWMW this year so I was a little worried we’d be repeating what everyone else said but I think it’s important for institutions to have the debate over what approach is best for them, whether that is buying in a native mobile app, deploying a mobile web app framework such as Molly, or building mobile versions of their website.
Finally, to make this post a bit more useful than just things you can find elsewhere, here’s a list of some mobile websites I may have demonstrated:
Following Hacks meet Hackers on Friday I decided that two conferences in a week wasn’t enough and headed into Manchester to WordCamp UK at MMU’s Business School. It was a full weekend event including socials in the evening but prior commitments meant I could only go for the day. In case the name doesn’t give it away, WordCamps are conferences about WordPress and happen all over the world.
The first session was introductions to find out who was there. With a couple of hundred (I’d guess) this took a while but I was impressed with the diversity of uses in the room. Lots of web developers as you’d expect but also bloggers and it was nice to see a couple of other universities in the room.
Also known as Canonical plugins, it’s proposed that these will allow extra support for key features that aren’t part of the core WordPress code. Currently two core plugins are under development:
Health Check: this will scan your WordPress install and tell you if there’s anything wrong, for example executable files or out of date PHP versions.
Post-by-Email: currently part of the core but badly out of date, the hope is to get the community to support it and take advantage of some extra development that has been done for other plugins.
Managing multiple WordPress instances – John Adams
John showed us the just-in-time approach to session planning, also known as winging it, after forgetting he’d agreed to run this session. It actually turned out well and some good discussion over ways of managing multiple blogs. It seems Edge Hill had one of the larger installations, albeit as part of two WordPress MU instances but it’s a problem for everyone.
We’re certainly not alone in struggling with a development/testing/staging/live strategy for WordPress but Shaun Hare from Nottingham University suggested it is possible so we should probably pick their brains about it sometime!
Final session of the day for me was Liverpool’s own Dave Coveney presenting a session about how the media can use WordPress. He was followed by a chap from the Telegraph going into a little more detail about their blogging platform with some impressive usage statistics. If you didn’t think that WordPress was a serious system you should now!
It’s been a busy week with the Institutional Web Management Workshop last Monday to Wednesday in Sheffield and WordCamp UK happening in Manchester this weekend but on Friday I took a day off to pop down to a hack day in Liverpool.
The event was hosted by LJMU’s Open Labs at the Art and Design Academy in partnership with ScraperWiki and Trinity Mirror Merseyside (think Liverpool Daily Post and Echo, Ormskirk Advertiser, Southport Visiter etc etc!). The idea was that hacks (journalists) meet hackers (coders, not to be confused with crackers who break into systems!) for a day working on datasets to produce something at the end of the day.
The basic format was splitting into teams comprising a few hacks and a few hackers with an interest in a particular subject, being put into a “booth” for 6 hours and seeing what happened. The group I was in was focused around Liverpool datasets – think Doctors surgeries, educational statistics etc.
The chaps at ScraperWiki would be the first to admit that their support for PHP is still very much beta and so it was a little harder than I expected. Eventually I got it scraping a set of data and used Yahoo Pipes to add location data to allow it to be mapped. Here’s what it looks like on Google Earth alongside school and transport datasets:
I think it was also very interesting to get journalists to meet coders. A few weeks ago I heard someone (possibly Alison Gow) say recently that you can’t get a job for the Guardian without talking about data and it’s becoming an increasingly important part of journalism. No longer is it enough to simply report the news or spout opinion – being open about where your data comes from can be just as important. So it was really good that Trinity Mirror are taking this so seriously.
Someone in my team asked when I raised the idea of using DBpedia (and hence Wikipedia) data how reliable it was and could it be trusted. My response was to point out that most Wikipedia articles cite their sources and asked how many news stories do the same!
I’m getting off topic now so I’ll leave it there! ScraperWiki are running a series of Hack Days across the UK (and beyond) so if you’re interested, make sure you sign up!
Last night was Liverpool’s first Social Media Café at Static. SMC’s are nothing new – they’ve been running in cities around the UK, and the world, for a while but it’s good to see one happening closer to home.
The format for the evening was three speakers with generous breaks between to grab a beverage and “network”. The organisers got some great talks:
I’ve got a blog post in draft (which has fallen foul to my 48 hour rule) about Foursquare and how we might be able to use it as a University. Hopefully I’ll be inspired to look at it again and publish it in the next week or two.
Final talk of the night was Dave Coveney talking about how work and social media mix. Once again his slides – as a Prezi – are online. They probably make about as much sense as Dave’s talk, and I say that as a compliment! It was very engaging walk through the history of social media (anyone remember CIX?) and how he makes use of social media personally, with the business as a side effect.
So overall a great first SMC Liverpool. There was some discussion about the direction to take the events but it will probably be a monthly thing. I’ve added the hashtag #smcliv to TwapperKeeper so you should be able to read through the archive of tweets there as it fills up.
On Wednesday evening I headed into Liverpool for an event at the CUC about iPad application development. It was run by Vision + Media, an organisation I’ve not come across before that supports digital and creative industries in the North West.
Much of the event was clearly focused on developing iPad apps and how the marketplace might evolve with the suggestion that iPad owners may be prepared to pay more for apps but prices would eventually be driven down and that a smaller number of higher-quality developers would emerge. I’m not so certain about that – the larger form factor lends itself to a wider range of content and if app developers think they can make a quick buck by repurposing open content to create spammy apps, they will do.
Katie Lips’ talk outlining some research done by her company Kisky Netmedia including some interesting predictions. There was a suggestion that tablet devices will break into Health and Education sectors and while I don’t doubt this will happen at some point, I’d be very surprised it this was mainstream within three years. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last month while you can make improvements to processes by “throwing” money at a problem (by, for example, buying every student an iPad) this approach cannot scale. To take things beyond small-scale pilots you must adapt to technologies that are already deployed or are cheap to do so which right now doesn’t include the iPad.
Other interesting talks were Dave Verwer’s introduction to iPad UI patterns which showed off a lot of the subtle thought that’s gone into making the iPad pleasant to use and Guy Dickenson on the future of reading and some of the possibilities the iPad opens up for authors and publishers.
In discussions in the bar afterwards it came up that someone who’s had an iPad for two months now has started to notice their usage tailing off. This mirrors my own experience as an early adopter of netbooks. I have one of the first generation Asus EeePC 701 and for a few months I used it extensively. Over time I found the limitations of the device more frustrating (and the epic failure at the 2008 SOLSTICE Conference wasn’t good) and went back to using my full-size laptop for most things.
In July last year I bought a Samsung N110 and the experience has been completely different. The larger keyboard, screen and battery have solved virtually all the failings of the first generation device and I use it as my main device outside work.
I can see this will happen with the iPad. While the lack of a camera or USB ports might not prevent a lot of people buying an iPad, it could deter it from becoming an integral part of their digital life.
This ties in with another point made by Katie Lips that the iPad marks a shift to devices which are essentially designed mainly for consumption: listening to music, watching videos, reading books, all paid for from Apple’s store. While that may be the case it could be the block to speedy adoption. With no USB port you must buy Apple’s dongle costing $30. Want to output video to an external screen – that’ll be another cable you need, and you can only get video out of certain applications. WordPress’ app for writing blog posts involves hand coding HTML while limited access to the file system makes it hard to easily move documents around between applications.
Don’t get me wrong – the iPad will change everything. The idea of a simple, instant-on device with a battery that lasts the full day appeals to me greatly. 90% of my digital life is in “the cloud” so I can access it on the move from anywhere with an internet connection. But for me, content creation, curation and consumption must be balanced and I would struggle to find the place in my life for a pure “entertainment” device.
I remember when I was studying Computer Science and living in halls – only one person I knew had a laptop, everyone else had a desktop PC. Now when you walk around campus, students can connect to the WiFi from pretty much every building from their own laptop, and mobile phone, and from next semester, many of them will start bringing tablets.