Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looking back, over, and ahead...

The class presentations were really useful for several reasons. They helped us get a quick look into the various web projects of the class. This in turn helped us appraise the strengths and weaknesses of others sites as well as self-appraise our own site.

Melbourne Made - Loved their Categories and dividing up the Home page with articles
based on dates in chronologically descending order.

Melbourne Muse - Their Site Map is really cool. Must remember to add this in our site too. Their competitor analysis was also very well done.

Open Book Melbourne - This site has most optimally cashed in on the benefits of social media, word of mouth for its advertising, marketing and for building its online community of faithful followers. In fact they even had proof of the pudding, which in online terms is not in the eating, but more in the “commenting”! A reader posted an interesting comment on one of their articles asking them to review a bookshop called “Rendezvous” and they’ve done it!! Awesome. This is surely an example about how the online community can help with resources, ideas for articles, etc. User generated content at work! Branding for the site is still a work in progress.

All of them seem to be hyper local though. We’ve had the hyper local vs global debate before. Do we want our site to cater to a general global audience, because our site is about simplifying “global” environmental issues? Or do we want to drill further down into the simplification and relevance aspect and make the issues relevant to people from a specific geographical locale? Would this aid in the getting sponsorship and increasing the commercial potential of the site; in online community building (which in turn can be used to attract funding, staff, etc) by connecting relevant news items, educational courses and events etc - that are specific to Australia, and then further specific to the states, towns, cities, suburbs?

We seem to work on improving the social media aspect of the site. Social Media will help us build online communities, increase the marketing and commercialising potential for the site and generally get noticed in the web world. Twitter, Facebook, Delicious seem to be the way to go for all that.

We will also need to insert Google Analytics into the site and start analysing traffic patterns, etc. We are also still analysing usage patterns of our primary and secondary audience. We need to include web accessibility standards in order to make our site accessible to readers with disabilities, etc. This is an important market segment that we do not wish to overlook. But it’s a pity that we’ve done exactly what Tom Hughes-Croucher, the author of Opera Web Standards Curriculum has critiqued in the What is Accessibility article:

Most discussions of accessibility first talk about disability. This implies that people with a disability deserve special treatment. This isn’t what accessibility is about—it’s actually a symptom of the way people have traditionally built buildings, web sites, and pretty much everything else in fact. When you build things with the assumption that everyone is the same as you, then they will always be wrong for some other people. People assume accessibility is about helping people with disabilities because retrofitted accessibility is very obvious in our societies. For example, a lot of buildings that started life with only steps have suddenly sprouted cheap ugly ramps. However, accessibility has long been a feature of military design. Why? because it is often critical for survival—at high g-forces jet fighter pilots can’t do the same things they can do on the ground. If aircraft designers didn’t take the needs of pilots in both high and low gravity environments into account then there would be a lot more plane crashes.

In terms of content, we are busy uploading more “What Is” articles, tips, cheat sheet terms, intra and inter linking, etc. Meanwhile, I remembered this really cool ad that seems to explain exactly what our site hopes to do - to bring environmental issues, down to earth, explained in relation to everyday, practical applications and implications...

Technical bottlenecks: the saga continues. But, the empire strikes back with a vengeance...

After we thought we had made a decision about how technical we were going to go, that we were not going to self-host, etc, we realised, this was not the way to go. Why? Because really, we can barely do anything under the banner “free”. Most annoying. Anyway, so we’ve decided to go back and self-host. After a gestation of 48 hours, this finally happened! Awesome. There’s so much more we can now do. Wish we had realised this sooner than later.

One of the coolest features is the “Featured Content” plugin from WordPress. You know how some sites have various articles of the site appearing like a slide show, like a rotating gallery? This plugin is the brain behind that. Inserting a simple piece of code into the right place in the right page is all it takes. Here’s a good web-based video tutorial explaining the feature, its use, installation, etc.

It seems simple enough, but we’re still battling the “where to insert” that simple piece of code. Which page and exactly where in the code of that page must this be inserted for it to work well enough? This is the most crucial part which is just not clear in the 1 minute (between 6:15-7:15) that it is explained in the video tutorial. Ideally we’d like it just below the header of the Home page. Hmmm. More needs to be done on the research front...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The “What Is” section

The first two articles that Ciara and I put up are: “what is global warming” and “what is sustainability.” We have made a conscious attempt to write keeping in mind web standards, accessibility and usability, linking externally and internally, and other issues like copyright, embedding graphics and videos, etc. But, we also ensure not to lose track of the focus of the site and the audience. So the articles have a nuts and bolts kind of introductory approach.

The first paragraph is in very plain English, with no jargon, minimum links - just explaining the concept to a very lay-person, who has heard the term, but has no clear idea what it’s about. This will keep the reader engaged and a promise of more material will help engage the reader too. The article moves from general to specific, drilling down to what this means in everyday life to a reader (belonging to the demographic described above). The main article has only a few critical links and the article concludes with a more information section - and this contains the bulk of external links, relevant to the article.

Another crucial aspect we have to keep in mind is that the article does not seem to have any agenda (political, commercial, etc) other than to inform. We have to try and be as ethically neutral as possible and not get judgmental about personal or religious ethics. We must not draw on controversies or appear to promote the purchase of goods, special brands, etc; not get too critical of the government, policies, establishment and seem too right- or left-winged. Sticking to these stipulations is critical to ensure that we are authentic and noble in our ways - to impart knowledge. If we don’t come across like this to our key audience, we’ve essentially lost them because they will suspect our motives and lose confidence. Also avoiding complex scientific terminologies, units of measurement, statistics or references to and assumptions on other socio-political standards, conventions, definitions, etc - is something we have to totally avoid. If a term is critical, it must be explained it in the simplest terms. Not doing so will also alienate our readers.

The technical bottle-necks

Just when all the other issues have started to sort themselves out - content plan, site structure, audience, etc - we have a new hurdle for the technically challenged. Exactly how do we go about doing this? Where do we start? WordPress, some other host, self-host, get a domain, buy web space? We learnt HTML, CSS, Dreamweaver, WordPress Codex and all that jazz. I will admit it does seem a bit much. I wish we had a step-by-step process through all this. Maybe a site that will cater to this?! “Building a website for dummies: A step by step guide to creating, hosting and maintaining your own web site.”

Then some one said that the University gives us some web space. But not much. We toyed with that idea. But we just don’t think we can deal with all the technical stuff - the HTML code, the CSS and pay money for it!

We looked into WordPress and have decided not to get too carried away in technical gizz-mo. So we have decided not to self-host, use complex HTML, CSS, etc. We’d rather focus on the content and on delivering it in the most optimal way to suit the needs of our potential audience.

Of course, after getting into WordPress we discovered that if we opt for the free service, we are deprived of many features. There are no widgets and absolutely no way of making any changes to the template. So many features like adding a calendar for the events tracker, google search algorithm, etc are simply not available.

Clearly this is evidence of just how closely knit technical skill and ability is with content, the living proof of the merger of form and content. Hence the potential of the site is greatly influenced by what we can do in terms of the technology we have at our disposal.

But we are not disheartened. This has helped us rule out what we can’t do because of what we can’t have. It has helped us focus better on what the site should be about and what it should primarily do and for whom. This seeming impediment has opened up doors to experiment within the realms of content and making the site rely heavily on content, which is what the purpose of this whole endeavour is to begin with - web writing for web audiences and the purpose of the WWW. What we are now going to do is just pick a template that best suits us and the nature of the site, keeping in mind the one which offers also the most in terms of add-ons, technical features and pluggins, etc.

Times they are still a changing!

But after doing all that research into what the site should be about and for whom, I’ve been thinking along the lines of why it’s necessary to be so hyper-local? After all, there is a reason why it’s called the World Wide Web! And considering that neither Ciara nor I are originally from Melbourne, our access to and knowledge about hyper-local issues is limited.

So, after a lot of brainstorming we’ve decided to modify all this. We’ve decided to target a less specific audience, in terms of demographic profile. The site is now aimed at a broad demographic profile primarily consisting of any of the following sections interested in learning more about sustainability, and the idea of ‘going green’:
1) secondary school children interested in environmental wishes, contemplating studying it further
2) young parents of very small children wishing to understand issues that will affect them and their children and desiring to learn what they can do to help the situation
Our secondary audience could perhaps be senior citizens who are not net savvy and tertiary educated students who already know all the technical details and jargon.

The site will introduce a broad range of environmental issues with a macro, birds eye view. We hope the site will become a kind of one-stop shop (instead of say, Wikipedia), for anyone who fits our proposed demographic profile that wants to find out anything about the environment, explained in simple terms and made relevant. We haven’t been able to work out a business model though, in order to commercialise the site. This is something we have to work out in the future.

The site’s main focus will be the “What Is” section - which is basically articles explaining several key environmental issues, concepts that are being discussed globally. The articles will be easy to absorb, light, informative and yet not like baby-food, dumbed-down prose.

The other sections will be: “Cheat Sheet”, “Tips”. The “Cheat Sheet” is a quick reference sort of glossary with explanations of key terms. The “Tips” will be simple techniques to practice environmental sustainability

We plan to make some segments specifically for Australians who fit the demographics. For example, the “Events” section. This will be events primarily in the major cities in Australia.
However, we hope that this will extend to other countries too. Going forward, this will help foster and build online communities too. This is the planned roadmap for the future. But for now, the main sections are not specific to any nationality as such, except the events section.

And finally, we’ve christened the new baby: green my bean!

In keeping with the down-to-earth approach that the site is taking, we have also made a conscious decision to keep most things about the site in lower case. Hence even the site name is green my bean. Little things like this we hope will go a long way in creating an overall brand image, consistent look and feel of the site in general to already established visitors and hope to attract more traffic belonging to the intended demographic.

Setting the environment

Keeping all this primary evidence in mind, I think it would be great if the site was for Melbourne school and pre-university students who are passionate about the cause of the Environment. A site that helps them take environmental sustainability to the streets, everyday practical living. A site that helps them promote sustainable living in their houses, in their schools (later in universities) and in their communities and grow to be socially and environmentally-responsible citizens. I think school and pre-university, TAFE students in Melbourne can benefit in the following ways:

  • stay abreast of all environment related news, more specifically how it affects them in their everyday life
  • stay abreast of all the events, festivals, conferences, meetings, etc regarding the environment, within Melbourne, that will be of interest to them, for their level and that they can participate in, in some degree or the other
  • gain awareness about other projects that are being carried out by other students from other schools in Melbourne and get involved in projects that interest them as an individual or as part of larger group
  • collaborate and interact with other students in Melbourne
  • build a student portfolio by using this forum to gain practical hands-on experience, which can later be translated into relevant work experience for those interested in pursuing higher education (tertiary) in environmental studies, etc in university
  • stay abreast of relevant courses, certifications, university, study-abroad exchange programs related to environmental studies

A fairly significant contributing section of the student population in Melbourne are school and pre-university, TAFE students. This is an important section because their needs and remarkable achievements, potential to collaborate and achieve more, have not been addressed in any other forum.

Thus, the proposed site basically targets school and pre-university, TAFE students, aged between 13-21, in Melbourne who fall under any or a combination of the following traits:

  • are passionate about the cause of the environment but not sure what to do about it, looking for some channel
  • have contributed and contributing in one way or the other towards this cause
  • collaborate with others in the same age, socio-economic bracket, with similar interests
  • like to build a student portfolio to use later for tertiary studies

This audience profile is similar to the target audience of the Melbourne-based radio station, SYN FM (a PDF):

“SYN FM claims to represent students and youth with a focus on the 12 to 24 year old age group. According to the 1996 ABS Census, 220,169 people, or 7.3% of Melbourne’s population, attended secondary school; 79,855 people (2.7%) attended TAFE; and 143,798 people (4.8%) attended a university or other tertiary institution. The 1996 Census also indicates that in Victoria there was an 86.9% participation rate in education for the 12 to17 age group, 34.3% for the 18 to 25 age group and 5% for people aged over 26 years. Based on the participation rates in education in Victoria and the size of the 15 to 24 year old age group in Melbourne (498,178 persons), SYN FM estimates the size of its community at about 293,925 persons, or 9.3% of Melbourne’s total population.”

An environmental obsession

This is one section of the Incoming Passenger Card that every passenger arriving into Australia from overseas, has to fill. For any frequent overseas traveller travelling to Australia for the first time, unaware of Australia’s peculiar environment, this elaborate section of the card and the extremely strict customs regulation regarding all this does seem strange. However, after spending some time in Australia and getting acquainted with the environment of the antipodes, one begins to understand what the fuss of border security is all about, especially with regard to protecting the Australian environment!

The flora, fauna and landscape of Australia varies widely from the rest of the world. Australia has seen many cases of damage to its natural environment and habitat because of artificial interference - introduction of rabbits, prickly pear, etc. Australia contains several species of plant and animals that are yet to be even discovered! On an aside, Bill Bryson's travelogue Down Under critiques all these issues and places them in relevant context.

Australians, particularly Melburnians are quite interested in environmental issues - the depleting ozone layer, drought, extreme climatic conditions, UV rays, etc. For example, strike up a conversation with any Melburnian (who has lived in Melbourne either for decades or for a few months), and the topic of the environment comes up in some degree or the other: Melbourne’s peculiar climate of five seasons in one day, the weather forecast, staying sun-safe, the long-lasting water shortage and drought, government restrictions regarding water usage, the type of water a house-hold uses for gardening, etc.