Monthly Archives: October 2009

My upcoming workshop on quality websites

Not all the resources I’ll be taking along to share at the workshop I’m leading at the Engage your community conference on Friday 13 November are actually finished.

My copy of a “Website owner’s manual: the secret to successful websites” by Paul Boag is available online as an unedited draft. It comes as an e-book from Manning Publications who specialise in a book publication process which engages a book’s audience in the creation process.

Through the early access program new chapters are made available as they are being written. I can interact with the author to ask questions and provide feedback which will actually feed into the final manuscript. Once finished I will receive the completed book in electronic format (with hardcopy also available). Somewhat ignominiously I printed out the 280 page ebook (on OfficeMax 100% post consumer recycled) as I was struggling to read it on screen.

Many of the topics I’m covering in my workshop are touched on the book by Boag, an experienced web designer, consultant and podcaster. Those that are particularly pertinent include: defining roles, setting objectives, planning and measuring, commissioning websites, working with designers and accessibility.

Rather than trying to teach people how to actually design a website, my workshop is for managers, coordinators and others with responsibility. We’ll take a helicopter view of the whole shebang then focus on a few critical areas in more depth. I’ll also be sharing a simple self-guided health check so participants can assess and improve their  website’s performance.

At the main EYC event conference there’s a presentation on “Putting your users first – ways to improve your website”, which looks to be a great overview of usability. Presenter Natasha Lambard is a founder of the Webstock conferences and was Head of User Experience at Trade Me, so she has lots insights into how you let ‘users’ needs drive development of your website.

I admit I’m biased as I’ve been involved on the organising team, but she’s just one of many top notch presenters on day one. Fundraising, community building, Second Life and communications strategies are some of the other topics being covered.

I look forward to sharing a few battered copies of some of the resources I have if you come to my workshop, along with enthusiasm for high quality websites. See you there.

In big letters: Places are still available to both the full-day EYC conference on Thursday 12 November (register here), and six half day workshops offered on Friday 13 November. The event is being in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.

How come?

Tweet from Adobe Connect Pro team -

Out of context the question “how come?” may sound innocuous. That’s why I’m replying on my blog to the question from Adobe’s Connect Pro team, not via Twitter. I’m adding some much needed context, something Twitter posts are invariably oblivious to, so my reply exceeds 140 characters.

Where to begin?

Last week I fired off a bon mot tweet bemoaning the difficulties of accessing Adobe’s web conferencing software in New Zealand. After a month of searching and a second evaluation of the product Michael and I decided it was the best of the web conferencing tools available (see my earlier post “Does the tool really do the job?”). Videos play clear and crisp, the interface is relatively intuitive, and video input from an external source has been thought through. These are areas the other products we looked at fell down.

As we’re just running a one-off event (at this stage), the pricing advertised on Adobe’s Asia Pacific website is very attractive: $55 for a month’s access allowing 100 simultaneous participants. Whether it is US, Euro or Australian, this price represents good value for the quality of the product. Though I’d have to say this price is unaffordable to most grassroots community groups I work with.

Unfortunately, at the moment casual month-by-month access is not offered directly by Adobe to customers in Aotearoa. This isn’t stated anywhere I could find on their website, but is something I only confirmed after a call to the customer support line.

Buying the software outright is not an option, as the costs of running a server with system administration support and license fees is prohibitive. Especially for a one off event.

The one Australasian supplier I found gave some excellent advice, but quoted several thousand dollars to use their system when I asked for a price for our one-off event. Bemused is the most polite word I can think of to describe my reaction.

At this point I tweeted: “Adobe customer service excellent – the answer not so rosy: no easy way to get Connect Pro in NZ. Drats!” The glass half empty perspective is well founded as I was told by Carla from the customer support team that “We are still in the process of widening the horizon of our service to reach out to as many customers as we can. Please feel free to check our website for latest updates and so that you may be guided accordingly.”

I hope this answers “how come?”, with some context thrown in, but without a wider, excoriating rant about the sins of capitalism and proprietary software.

As I want to end on a high note, I can report the earth has rotated a few times since my tweet and I’ve found an organisation that can help out with our online launch requirements in a spirit of public goodness. I expect a few more ups and downs, but it looks like everything will work out.

First steps in Second Life

Visiting the Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island in Second Life.

Visiting the Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island in Second Life.

For some reason I’ve been dreading the next couple of weeks on the FO09 course. After the safeground of looking for community in forums, wikis and blogs we’re moving into the virtual world. It’s off to Second Life we go.

The fact that I know I’ll be in good company as demonstrated by the presence of the Nonprofit Commons, Second Life Education New Zealand (SLENZ) project and many other reputable outfits (including hundreds of universities), doesn’t dissolve my wariness. This is particularly accentuated as I don’t have a lot of time to devote to coming to a deep appreciation of what is offered. So, I’m likely to be both tentative and superficial. What a combination!

Anyway, I’ll set aside my reservations, without losing my skepticism and I’ll trudge off to the front gates of Second Life. I’m writing up my experience, using a diary format, after Earl at Groupings said he’d be interested to hear how things go.

Wednesday 14 October
4.12pm: I open the Second Life application I downloaded a couple of weeks ago. It’s pretty obvious what to do – create an account.

4.35pm: The name of the avatar I choose could stick for a long time, so I really should deeply mull this over. I don’t. Instead I enter a first name that pops into my head, then have a choice of 50 odd surnames. Nothing really appeals. I run a search on a few of those offered: Halaan is a of type clam. Exotic food, sounds fitting so it’s now a part of my Second Life persona.

4.37pm: I try logging in with my new name but it doesn’t work. Rechecking my email I find made a typo when searching – oh dear, my assumed identify refers to a character in Golgotha. Should I stick with it, or start again. I can’t bear to kill off my new identity so the name stays.

8.38pm: I don’t always read the fineprint of terms of service before accepting them (ahem). This time is different. My suspicions about Second Life are so deeply entrenched I’m actually going to read what conditions I’m entering into.

9.48pm: Being brutally honest, I’m not actually that much clearer about the conditions having spent the last 10 minutes reading them. Be careful is probably the sum of it. Regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own, Linden Labs (which runs Second Life) owns all the accounts. I guess this means they can shut you down your business and lock you out. I’m reassured by both the Privacy and Harassment policies about the protections available.

9.05pm: My search for “Second Life scams” on Google reveals lots of examples of shysters and rogues plus some deluded folk making awful mistakes, but I didn’t see much about the architecture or what Linden Labs does that is worrisome. Time to take the plunge – click “Accept”. Will my life ever be the same.

10.25pm: Not so scary. But I’m stuck on the god damn help island where I first land. Read the start guide again. Look on the knowledgebase wiki. Finally, back to searching on Google: “basic start Second Life”. Where did I miss reading the bit about double clicking to ‘touch’ objects and then have the option of ‘teleporting’.

11.02pm: So far I’ve got a free Linux t-shirt, visited a memorial to John Lennon, strayed across a desert island. Barely seen a another ‘soul’. On Friday I know there’s a presentation on digital storytelling offered by TechSoup. Maybe there’ll be some likeminded avatars to chat to. Anyway, I’ve put the avatar to sleep… when I reawake I’ll be wandering into a class room.

Thursday 15 October
9.15pm: Not quite the first thing that I do, but before I dive into work I decide to see if my avatar wakes up with a crowd of people around it. 30 seconds to load and I’m looking at my avatar in Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island. It’s deserted. How pleasant waking to a gentle back bird song soundtrack wafts over me. I resist the temptation to get a Pohutakawa, on sale to raise funds for the permaculturists.

9.27am: Bump into another bald avatar – we try to work out how to regain our hair. Another 10 minutes wasted but I triumph. I’m able to control where virtually every follicle grows. I’m manipulating buttons and sliders on the screen using my real body by hitting keys and moving my mouse to change things on screen to represent a likeness of myself – this is weird, other worldly. A kind of dissonance sets in. Eyes are glazing over.

9.40am: With a glimmer of my younger self on screen it’s time to sign-off and do some productive work. One of my fears has been somewhat allayed – you don’t necessarily wake in the morning with people screaming in your avatar’s face. Indeed, I’ve found out if there is any trouble there are lots of options: mute incoming chat, sit, teleport elsewhere (I don’t think avatars can be followed), quit, shut down.

1.54pm: I receive a request by email: Would you be my friend in Second Life? I don’t have to do anything immediately as I can respond to the request when I login to the virtual world. I’m pleased to a see visible instructions on how I can stop receiving similar emails. It’s really the last thing I want cluttering up my inbox.

8.00pm Five students turn-up for the introductory tour of second life… after some scene setting, we all login into Second Life. I accept the request to ‘teleport’ to where our tutor is standing on Koru island (here’s the SLURL for it).  It’s owned by the Nelson Marborough Institute of Technology where a Masters student is creating a wonderful learning environment: part funfair, part campus of the future.

Somewhere along the way two others have gone astray – without any easy way of contacting people outside of the Second Life we proceed without any idea of what has happened to them. Later we find out a software problem prevented them from logging on.

It was great to try out all the communication tools (chat and voice, plus one-to-one instant messaging) and befriend people. When I go ‘in-world’ I can see who of my friends is also there. Coming to grips with our inventory of map coordinates, facial features and spare underwear is essential, as you never know when your avatar will need this sort of stuff.

Aside from many laughs as we stumble around, the highlight of the visit to Koru was obtaining a free tuxedo from the Rapungakore learning space. This “The Skill Mastery Hyperdome” is part of the SLENZ project. Accordng to the blurb this is a space where “students can learn, develop and practise skills that will help them progress on their career pathways and achieve their life goals”. Heaps of outfits are hanging up for people to try as they simulate different interview situations.

9.40pm Quit. Re-immerse myself in reality reality – Dilmah black tea with milk thanks.

Friday 17 October
11.10am Arrive at Nonprofit Commons (NPC) meeting space with a friendly greeting from Brena Benoir. Unfortunately I missed the weekly meeting. To join in means sitting at my computer at 4.30am! Brena said they generally have a good turn-out (the meeting earlier had 34 people attend) and cover a wide range of topics (see meeting notes on the Nonprofit Commons wiki). Quite a few people turn up for dances on Tuesday and Thursday evenings,  plus there are other events I see from the NPC calendar.

Wednesday 21 October
8.45am Opening my email I’m reminded about Second Life – something that hasn’t been on the top of my mind in the few days. It’s advertising junkmail promoting a shallow consumerist culture:

“Looking your best is important in Second Life, which is why our Fashion Showcase offers limitless ways to show off your style. Plus, meet new friends who share your taste in clothes while you shop!”

I’m wondering if I can get some free wrinkles with a tan thrown in from the Male and Female Skins store. A chance to play I guess.

Much to my relief, in the last week I haven’t found I’ve got an unknown addiction for Second Life escapism. Nor have I come to any harm. There’s much to like about the imaginary, playful alternate reality – there is amazing creativity on show and a chance to talk with people from many walks of life. I can see some potential for education, as I glimpsed when visiting the employment training centre set up by SLENZ.

But there are real barriers, particularly if you don’t have a newish computer. Some of my classmates on the FO09 course have not managed to enter Second Life at all. And the learning curve is steep. When I was stuck for an hour trying to move from the first island I landed on, I was almost ready to delete the whole application and terminate my avatar. Buying stuff, finding a home, creating art works… to find out how this all works and if it’s worth it means more time in front of the computer.

For all my tribulations and doubts I’ll actually keep exploring, if very slowly. If you’re ever in SL, look out for my avatar, Tipene Haalan.

Does the tool really do the job?

I’m up to my eyeballs investigating options for running a live, online launch. It’s interesting that once you take the wrapping off the box of some of the web conference products you quickly find out just what the strengths and limitations are.

The marketing hype promises seamless use of video and application sharing. But during a recent trial of Webex Event Centre we spent an hour viewing barely a single moving image. Somehow the formats uploaded didn’t work (mainly because I was uploading from a Mac), then there was a problem from down the line when somebody didn’t have all the right browser plugins or Java updates.

It was frustrating and pre-figured some of the difficulties participants may face.

Our fears about the likely difficulties of running an online event in the way we envisage were realised. For all the convenience all-in-one web conference software might offer (ie integrated presentations, whiteboards, VOIP, chat, recording, registration, etc) it seems sharing pre-recorded video is not a strength.

The lesson in all this is not to take the claims of marketers at face value (who is surprised when I suggest this), and really drill down into the specifics of what is offered. I’m realistic to know some trade-offs are inevitable, but it’s best not to sacrifice the most important type of interaction or content to be shared. In this instance it’s all about wanting to share high quality video.

The matching of technology to audience, event goals, and processes is actually a complicated business. It’s something we’re all having to grapple with in the #FO09 course. In November students are jointly running an online mini-conference. Each is choosing the way to deliver each conference sessions, as well as the topic, with initial ideas being shared through the course wiki.

Facilitating learning in an online setting, raises some alarm bells for my classmate Willie Campbell. She says:

I am conscious of the constraints and affordances of any platform you use to work with others in an educational way. Doesn’t matter whether or not it is digital or manual. SO choose wisely- is this piece of digital technology able to be accessed, understood, interpreted by your group of learners? If not, then why are you choosing it?

With my recent experiences and Willie’s words ringing in my ear, I actually think it is very relevant to delve into methods and practices that help community leaders and teachers get the balance right between activities, processes and technology choices. In a few words this seems to be about stewarding technology for communities, as described by Wenger, White and Smith in Digital Habitats.

The mini-conference is open to the wider public so I’m keen to hear about the level of interest in a session exploring these sorts of issues. Two options present themselves: hearing from someone who has studied in this area, or inviting two or three local practitioners to share their insights and then have a conversation.

I’ve got a month to get organised, so let me know your views.

BTW: I’m not one to be put off, so we have begun exploring another avenue to host the live website launch. The goal is to remove any impediments to people joining in, particularly any software constraints that mean people walk away dis-satisfied and potentially bearing some sort of a grudge against the website being launched.

Personal technology configuration: backups

Yesterday when I arrived at Deirdre Kent’s place she was sitting with a friend sharing tools and tips for using their laptop computers. It looked liked they were having a productive session. Deirdre is a convenor of the Transition Towns Aotearoa social media network.

It’s about the third time in the last fortnight where I’ve encountered people talking about their peculiar mix of technology and practices to get work done, communicate, and ideally be creative.

On the groupings blog Earl draws out some insights from a post by Nancy White describing what he sees as an “Object lesson in ICT competence”. Nancy has written about the “the architecture of the information technology of a person busy online” (see “the social media I use”, 12 August 2009).

Earl suggests she “never, ever, uses just one [tool] for any particular task”.  The list for email alone includes the Eudora email client, two Gmail accounts, web-based mail plus probably a Yahoo or Hotmail account.

The question raised on the groupings blog is “whether this feels doable and reasonable or just a welter of work and organisation that is too steep a cliff to climb?” I’d suggest many individual practices come about in an organic way. New needs dictate new tools, but the old ways don’t necessarily disappear. This is different to how organisations generally approach things where planning and some element of rigor plays a far greater role.

Pausing for a second to look at my personal technology configuration, to use Nancy’s phrase, most of what I end up doing is the result of a happy accident or an urgent need. It’s got me thinking I could write about some of the ways I learn and adapt what tools I use, how and why.

My back-up regime is classic example. Most of my back-up is manual. Even though I’m using the ChronoSync programme which allows for scheduling I’ve never got around to learning how to set this up. Instead I’ve got a weekly habit of backing up at a specific time.

It’s a bit complicated so I’ve got a list. I’m want my back-up to cater for recovery of any files I accidentally over-write and for disaster recovery (including fire), so I’ve got a combination of on-site and online back-up. I mostly save just files I’m working on plus associated resources, though I do have an old snapshot of the entire contents of my hard-drive.

At the moment this is the backup I’ve got in place:

  1. Hourly: Portable hard-drive using Time Machine programme which makes back-ups via Firewire cable. I’m able to instantly retrieve files from the last month.
  2. Daily: synchronised backup to JungleDisk, online service. I found this particular service after reading an opinion piece in by Cory Doctorow called “Not every cloud has a silver lining”. My data is transferred securely and can be encrypted. I’m able to drag and drop files or use my file sync programme. I only pay for data transferred or stored, rather than a set amount per month. As it’s backed by Amazon I feel pretty confident about the reliability of the service.
  3. Weekly: synchronised backup to my 80GB iPod and another computer. As I generally take my music player out with me I class this as offsite storage. With an iPod files will easily be able to extracted, singly or en masse, should I need it.

To get another perspective on backups, listen to Peter Griffin reviewing some of the free and paid-for options for storing and backing up your important personal data online (see “Digital back-ups”). (This aired on This Way Up on Saturday 3 October is available online for  up to 10 weeks).

As my backup regime is something that’s evolved over the last few years I’ve grown to be pretty comfortable with it, but I don’t know if it’d stand-up to outside scrutiny.  Perhaps reflecting on my personal technology configuration and sharing my thoughts might lead to some changes. As I’m not going to do everything at once I definitely think it’s doable and reasonable, to answer Earl’s question.

iWork software for sale

I’ve been perfectly happy with Apple’s iWork ’08 suite of software. I’ve created business cards, brochures and reports, a few slide presentations and played with the spreadsheet. It’s been easy to learn and use, especially with loads of templates. Best of all it only cost about $80.

Last week I hit a glitch – I couldn’t move labels on the pie graph. Two long, even unwieldy titles were overlapping.

With a deadline looming for a customer satisfaction survey I’m working on I decided to get the latest iWork package. Released earlier this year the ’09 version is the greatest yet, at least as is suggested by the blurb brimming over with superlatives about being new, improved and other spurious similar connotations. I can’t really comment in any detail on how it compares with the earlier package, though I am now able to move the labels. Phew! However, the price has shot up by over 100%. The same three programmes are now $179.

I can understand the drive to continually improve already great software but I’m not so sure about the pricing increase. What about an upgrade price for people who already have it? The price of Apple’s latest operating system is just $59 for a single license, so the computer giant is not averse to fair pricing models.

Because I don’t need two versions I’m selling off my copy of iWork ’08 on TradeMe (closing 11 October). What’s it worth now? I have no idea but the TradeMe punters will be sure to let me know.

Update (11 October 2009): the software sold for $65.