Category Archives: Projects

No #net2welly website yet, but we have a plan

NetSquared Wellington website plan: very messy writing on whiteboardWhen I turned up to facilitate the “A new #Net2Welly website in an hour?” meetup yesterday, I was prepared to get stuck in with website installation and design.

I had hosting arranged with Crazy Domains, and checked they had WordPress ready to install at the push of a button. I’d already paid $14.95 for the domain.

The plan was to work in small groups on different aspects of website development. I envisages people working at three or four tables covering: installation and set-up; graphic design; structure and content; and testing/ launch.

With only half of the 12 people who RSVP’d actually in the room — poor turnouts being one of the drawbacks of the informal meetup format — these plans quickly changed. It made sense to work as single group.

And we didn’t go anywhere near the control panel, DNS set-up or plugin directories. Instead, we arrived at the end of our hour long workshop with a plan.

Skipping the talking part of the process and essentially doing things on the fly would most likely have a led to a train web wreck. Maybe not fatal, but highly likely a site heading off the rails. Discussion what will be valuable our community and narrowing the focus are fundamental starting points.

As we started Alan Royal shared Rudyard Kipling’s timeless advice: “I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all i knew); Theirs names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who.”

And that’s exactly what we covered: our goals, linkages with the big picture NetSquared vision, how would the website sit alongside other community IT initiatives in Wellington, who is the audience, what content could we easily co-create as volunteers, how will people interact, and what will it take to ensure the website is accessible to all.

Ultimately, we had to decide whether a website will be a valuable addition to communities in Wellington. After a round where everyone had their say, the answer was yes. Our goal is offer a virtual extension of our regular NetSquared Wellington meetings: part learning, part networking, part social.

As well as meetup and other event notices, we plan to share short posts about stuff we learn about using technology for social change. Maybe this is from a workshop or webinar network members attend. Or perhaps brave experiments with coding or online communication.

Anyone willing to abide by some simple community guidelines will be able to create and add a blog post. Brave stuff in a world where everyone constantly pleads they’re “busy, busy, busy”. Busy, schmbusy: we’ll give it ago.

Other ideas we’ll explore include:

  • a project space that could connect people with IT needs with those with skills to offer
  • a page with resources or sign-posts about essential, useful online tools and ways of doing stuff
  • sharing the good words and connecting people via a popular social network (or two).

First we have to build the website, something we’re due to begin together on Tuesday 12 August. Come along, all fingers and devices at the ready.

Even though we didn’t actually build the #net2welly website in the allocated hour, we’re off to a great start.

Reprint: “A leap into the unknown?”

Old fashioned poster encouraging people to grown their own food at homeIn something of a departure from what you’ll usually find here, I’m republishing a piece that I wrote quite a while ago. The article below appeared in the now defunct Political Review in mid-1993.

A photocopy of the article has been sitting near my computer ever since I became self-employed in 2007. I’ve been meaning to type in the story as I still think it’s relevant.

Talking over a wedge of cake at my son’s shared birthday party last Saturday has prompted me to do the typing. It didn’t take long after I started conversing with Sam to dig into permaculture, swapping garden surpluses, community organising and the like.

When Sam comes to dinner I’ll show him some of the books I’ve acquired over the years on different aspects of social ecology, over-consumption, reimagining cities and mending our ways generally. For now, this article will have to suffice as a sweeping introduction to some thinkers that have helped form my thoughts on ‘sustainability’.

If I decided to re-write this article today, many of the issues raised are still pertinent almost 20 years later. Taking just one example, on my reading list is a new take on Ted Trainor’s arguments: “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” (2011) by Richard Heinberg.

I’d be tempted to find out whether Ted Trainor is still so optimistic about neighbourhoods being the locus for social change. My limited involvement in the Brooklyn Transition Towns food group, a variety of organic food co-ops and sundry other practical projects, shows what hard work it takes to get people working together, and the rewards that are possible when things take-off.

I could go on at length, but you might not end up reading the actual article. So, without prolonging the preamble, here’s the full unexpurgated text of “A leap into the unknow?”

A leap into the unknown

A shift to Ted Trainor’s self-sufficient ‘radical conserver’ society requires a bold leap. But as Stephen Blyth discovers, it is not a vision that is completely unknown.

Ted Trainor, Australian social ecologist and activist, has a radical idea about the way we can live. It’s a vision that denies a central role to the market. Instead needs are met locally, people are not exploited nor is the environment. It’s a vision that requires that we “Abandon Affluence”, as the title of his 1985 book suggests.

Although a radical leap, Trainor’s ideas are grounded in values from the past. His vision relies on old time values of thrift and frugality. A more self-sufficient way of living. When Trainor spoke in Christchurch last October he suggested that many in the audience would remember a time of greater self-sufficiency. It was not that long ago.

Read the rest of the article

Photo credit: P J Chmiel

Looking for plums on K Road

A blue bowl containing three plumsWhen I’m facilitating a meeting or workshop I like to have something on the table for people to munch on, gaze at wistfully or even turn over in their hands.

A small offering helps pass the time during any dull bits and it makes people feel valued as you’ve gone to some effort to think of their needs. Offering sweets or peppermints is easy. This is perhaps why all the corporate venues have the hard, little white rocks.

When I was walking from Grey Lynn to the NGO I was working with on Thursday I wanted to get some plums. A generous big bag.

Being seasonal fruit was really appropriate for the group I was working with, not to mention the health benefits. A colourful addition to the setting I hoped.

At this time of the year plums are falling off the trees. But not so on my route along Karangahape Road. Not a plum tree, nor did the shops stock them.

I stopped looking in little dairies after number five. The fruit on offer was, well, totally insipid. One shop, whose owner had the audacity to list on its signage the promise of fruit and vegetables for sale, stocked a desultory bag of yellowing oranges in a fridge. About seven bananas, 20 apples and a few more oranges was all I saw.

Nor did I see a greengrocer on K Road, though there are plenty of stodgy bakers and greasy take away outlets. Makes sense I guess. Who is going to opt for a peach or plum when they’re out on the town.

Packaged foods with long shelf lives (ie crisps, sweets, nuts, etc), starch and fatty foods make money, but fruit obvioulsy doesn’t. How can it be that the market provides all this, but ready access to plentiful, fresh and healthy fruit is scarce. No wonder we’re facing an obesity epidemic.

Fortunately, even without a bowl of elusive plums the workshop went well.

And in the end I summoned up a gift for the participants. The night before the workshop I stumbled on the replica of the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, created in 1200, at St Columba Church in Surrey Crescent. It’s “a quiet place so that we, who are unable to make long retreats from our busy lives may find refreshment in these small havens of peace.” I thought storing away the idea of a place to step back from the hurly burly of the project (and work as usual) might come in useful.

No plums but maybe something more lasting.

Photo credit: Anushruti RK’s photostream

Moving on from CommunityCentral

New CommunityCentral website banner

As I gaze out my home office window (which I do in exceedingly rare moments when I’m day dreaming turning over thorny ideas) I can see a kowhai gently bending with the breeze. The plant is a farewell gift from the partners behind CommunityCentral.  My paid role Project Manager came to an end last week after over 18 months involvement.

In the week of my departure we released two much awaited features: Private workspaces and Discussion networks. The features are set up to allow people to use a secure online spaces to support their work, learning and conversations. They’re in part about productivity, and part building connections.

If you login in you’ll see there are already people using these spaces. For instance, Tracy Kenyon, of Presbyterian Support Northern, has set up a Discussion network to link volunteer managers and coordinators. Her aim is to build up online community. You’ll see the names of Private workspaces, but that’s about all as these are for committees or project teams. They’re very much about internal workings of organisations.

In the latter half of the project my role was primarily focused on software development and setting up internal processes. My head was truly under the hood of Drupal as we endeavoured to wrestle the generic organic groups modules into something we felt would work for community and voluntary sector audiences. There also some cosmetic changes are well – in evidence in the banner above.

There is more to do, and likely a few rough edges here and there. We established a firm policy of being open to feedback. A suggestions forum has been added to the About section as a one way of collecting members’ comments and ideas for new features.

The project is now switching focus. As it says in the latest edition of the email update:

… attention is now turning to helping all members make good use of the platform, and telling lots more people about what is available. So, now is the time to spread the word!

I got an enormous amount out of working with a diverse group of people to turn the idea of community hub into a nascent community. Although it seems pretty obvious, I’m a signed up member of the supporters crew. It’ll be hard to forget, especially with a kowhai waving to me outside the window.

“So many ways to skin a cat” presentation, Connecting Up 09 conference

I’m finding lots of distractions as I try to finish a write-up about the presentation I gave at the Connecting Up 09 conference yesterday. Straight in front of me is this green void – “a digital design drived from nature realized in lightweight frabric using the latest digital fabrication and engineering techniques, creating more with less”.

The installation is housed in the atrium at the Customs House public library. The library itself is a mixture of traditional dark wooded reading rooms created within the old, stone Customs House and contemporary fittings in brilliant red. Then there are the books – I’m seated next to books such as the “Atlas of Western Art History” and “America in Space”.

And don’t mention coffee or Circular Quay ferries tempting me. Okay, back on track. I better make use of the free wifi Internet access.

I talked yesterday about the process we used to bring CommunityCentral to life. The main focus was on how we went from free-form idea generation to a tangible set of features our developers could build. On the recommendation of egressive – the company we’ve been working with for the last year – we wrote up user stories which were then translated into technical specifications.

On reflection the process was a good one. The user stories helped bridge the communication divide between the regular folk on the project and the developers. A by-product was buy-in by the governance group without them having to get involved in every little detail of the web development process. Recently, our new website coordinator Catherine read through them to get an idea of what CommunityCentral is trying to achieve.

The process isn’t foolproof and I was embarrased to admit we’ve consistently missed deadlines when someone asked if we had a project plan. I think that’s the nature of website development, especially when interactivity is involved, and scarce human resources.

Talking afterwards with a couple of people I recommended an excellent summary of methods for obtaining user input to help set priorities for building websites: The unusually useful web book by June Cohen. Although written in 2003 (an eternity ago in webland) it still has some of the most concise and useful advice on website development I’ve seen.

In my presentation you’ll see a picture of a canoe about to capsize. As I said yesterday, the image really captures some of the sense of dread verging on excitement of the whole project. There is some fear, the whole thing could topple over, things could go wrong, we could end up capsizing.

The way I see it, the worst that could happen is a drenching – but can we learn from that? Would we try again?  The project is marked by a boldness – lets try. If the governance group were too timid to try – hmmm, that wouldn’t actually help people working in community groups get online and begin building new connections.

The chance to reflect back on CommunityCentral’s life so far has been refreshing. Too often I don’t find the time to stop and reflect, so cheers to Connecting Up for running another excellent event.

“So many ways to skin a cat” presentation on SlideShare
Links to blog posts, pictures and other conference materials

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CommunityCentral sneak preview

On the CommunityCentral blog you’ll a find a sneak preview of the new homepage. After a demonstration at the NZ Federation of Voluntary Welfare Organisation’s AGM we’ve decided to let people see what the new web-based platform will look like.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been doing a fairly intensive amount of usability testing. This has included a series of formal tests by AccEase who draw on a pool of people using screen readers and other assistive devices. I’m doing some more informal usability testing with a small group of typical users. And finally, the reference group we set up as been probing the e-newsletter function.

All this testing is generating a lot of feedback – some of which will involve relatively minor cosmetic changes, including wording, but there could be some more substantive problems. As we want to start engaging with users, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to address everything raised in the testing before the website goes live.

After ten months of planning, discussion, scoping, and behind the scenes work, the launch seems to be coming up so quickly. There are endless details to sort out and fiddly refinements. At times I wonder how I will get through everything.

What keeps me going? It’s actually because now that we’ve got a working website I can see how CommunityCentral will make a meaningful contribution to supporting people working in tangata whenua, community and voluntary organisations. It’ll take time, but I can see how the vision of the founders and initiators can be realised.

Anyway, I’d welcome any feedback if you visit the sneak preview.

PS We’re looking for a dynamic person who enjoys setting up systems and giving people really good support to act as webmaster/ site manager. Our ideal scenario is finding an intern or volunteer who will take on the role of webmaster and support person – for something like four or six months. Please get in touch if you’re interested or know someone who might be suitable. I’d be happy to send details.