Sharing the means of production while owning responsibility for the process
Two critical core values at the heart of the Transition Network Web Project are about owning responsibility for the process, and sharing the means of production. We discussed these at the beginning of the web project in 2009 and it's even more relevant now.
Following this week's excellent posts about the environmental, sustainable, and repair-able uses of technology, this is an overview of how we are not techies, but how we have gone about taking responsibility for our web technology and what that has meant.
We could not have done it without the group of freelance developers who have helped us along the way - the 'Transition Technologists' Jim, Chris and Laura. We have participated in a group with them and tried to make that group as highly functioning as it can, sharing decisions and budget with them since we began in 2009 and taking their advice. We could not have done this without a deep level of trust in them and their opinions.
We also could not have done it without using the open source content management system drupal. I am continually amazed by how powerful the tool and the community is.
It's been a big start to the year for the web project.
The web move took longer than planed, but went OK onto Puffin and Penguin our brand new second hand web servers in Sheffield, running the open source hosting environment Aegir. All of the website code is now openly shared and open source-ready for a wide group of developers (not just some pseudo open source ball of code that no-one understands). The website documentation is coming along to enable other people work on it, and all our work tickets are public. The web project plan for 2013 is about to be published, and we are about to publish our communications plan for 2013.
This week, the Social Reporters posted their 500th blog post and are having a richly deserved and long overdue meeting. We stopped using Google analytics in favour of an open source product Piwik. We introduced a raft of open source spam prevention measures instead of insisting our visitors use Facebook or Google to authenticate themselves. We agreed to keep even less data on our users than before (only half of the IP address), and encourage and educate our website visitors about how to stop being tracked on websites. We are just on the cusp of releasing the beta version of our 'Projects Widget' to help Transition Initiative websites share projects data without any tech work.
The website has served nearly one million unique pageviews in the last year, and the homepage appears to visitors in 0.6 seconds. Since our web server move there has been zero downtime.
Owning the ups and downs
It all sounds quite grand, but there are hair raising moments almost every week. It involves an un-ending stream of mostly constructive website feedback and rapid decisions in an unknown world with no rules or guidebooks. We are making it up as we go along.
There are moments when I long to have an authoritative and a la mode web agency to take responsibility for getting it all done, give us a groovy illustration style design, and say it will all be OK.
But that is how it is when you set out to own and understand your own web project instead of handing over control to an external provider.
Owning the process and understanding what you have got
Website agencies are great (I had a brilliant time in one in the first dot com boom).
We feel that they have lots of great benefits, but that they also separate you from the knowledge about, the control over, and your decision making capacity about your means of production. We felt that that choice wasn't really stepping up to our responsibility of saying 'this is ours, and we own it'.
We decided early on that we wanted to take all of that onboard, as part of our organisation, rather than need to continually defer to an external authority.
I have learnt that the website will never be perfect, and that nothing can be. A website is something that could be something better in everyone's eyes, and we will never be that thing (no-one can).
And that there is a whole technical industry, through software providers to agencies and consultants, implicitly and explicitly playing on our longing for something better,newer, refreshed next year, or closer to perfection.
We just can't afford that approach; we have to let go of wanting to be perfect, and be robust and stretch our money (and expectations) to cope with a modest budget in an uncertain financial future. We can't afford to rely on not having our hands on the engine.
But we also want to make decisions firmly and quickly.
For example, we can choose what tools we use to track our website visitors. So when we want to make a political statement about how little we are tracking in a world where tracking is verging on human rights issues, we just do it.
We also feel that our route has let us be flexible and do what we think is the correct thing. By owning our decisions and hosting our own code and site, we have been able to tread a path that suits us entirely.
And as things change, and people move on, the site lives on with a manual that anyone can pick up and read and start working on. Like a sturdy bicycle, rather than a highly tuned motorbike that demands specialist attention.
There have been mistakes and many delays. We banned deadlines at the very beginning and I'm very glad about that! We have no secrets and things we learn in the process are available for others to see.
We have also made good friends with those people using and providing the technology we use, and other work has sprung out of it for them.
So it's been hairy, and a roller-coaster ride, by doing it inhouse, but we've absorbed the learnings, and as things progress, are free to manage the future on our terms - which still involve sharing the means of production while owning our responsibilities in the process.
This is a guest post by Ed Mitchell, the web manager for Transition Network - who is a facilitator and not a developer or web tech.