LeanDog's boat, the Keasarge, is docked next to the USS Cod Submarine just West of Burke Lakefront Airport. Clevelanders may remember it as the former Hornblowers Restaurant.
I just had the most amazing weekend at Cleveland GiveCamp, an event at which programmers, developers, designers, writers and others came together to build Web sites and applications for local non-profit organizations. The event was hosted at Lean Dog, An Agile Software Studio housed in a converted steamship, the Keasarge, and its on-land neighbor, Burke Lakefront Airport.
Throughout the course of the weekend 100+ volunteers produced Web sites and applications for 20 organizations. While the sites vary in complexity according to the needs of each organization, it's fair to say that these sites could have cost thousands of dollars each to develop without volunteer labor.
For some organizations this meant they were able to get their first site. For others it meant that they could have their sites rebuilt—in a manner that would help them maintain them on their own—so they could better communicate with their constituents in the future. For all it meant that the dollars that might have been spent on the Web could instead be put towards directly helping their cause.
Mark Schumann, one of the event organizers, drove this point home during the closing presentations. There he told us that the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance will be able to hire another staff person now that they don't have to spend money to build a new site. This will allow them to reach 3,000 more teens, out of which typically 150 will get professional counseling. Mark went on to explain that we can't know for sure how many of those 150 would have taken their lives without getting help—but I think we can all agree that if even just one life is saved, that makes a tremendous impact.
Each of the many charities served by Cleveland GiveCamp supports our community in important ways, so it was really impressive to see how the volunteers were able to help them continue those efforts.
Everyone who participated in GiveCamp had their own unique experience. The organizers have been working hard for months. I, on the othe hand, ended up turning up at the last minute. I'd first read about GiveCamp some months back, but at the time I assumed they needed programmers who knew more about developing applications and other things outside of my skill set. As we all know, one should never assume.
On Friday afternoon I learned that Susie Sharp had been asked to bring down extra volunteers to help document/promote the weekend's activities via social media. I tagged along with "Team Tweet" thinking I'd go see what was up and help live-Tweet the action.
We arrived at GiveCamp just in time to see them assign the developer teams to their non-profit organizations. Originally they'd hoped to have 70 volunteers working on 16 projects, but Cleveland spirit prevailed and they ended up with 100 volunteers who were able to work on 21 projects. At this point I still thought they'd be programming their own content management systems and applications, so I just went back to the boat to set up my MacBook Pro and plan out my Twitter strategy. The one skill group teams were short on was design, so I also let folks know that I could help teams with that as needed.
As the groups started planning their projects and choosing their development tools, something unexpected happened. 15 of them chose to use WordPress as the content management system for their sites. WordPress struck me as a good choice because it is relatively simple to implement, it's free, and the end-user interface makes it easy for the non-profits to update and maintain their sites.
Estina Goertz from the Cleveland Tenants Organization asks a question during WordPress training. (Photo by Susie Sharp)
Many of the teams who chose WordPress hadn't used it before. So it was natural that they would have some questions. I'm not an expert, but as many of you know, I use WordPress pretty much every day. This blog runs on WordPress, as does every site I've built in the past year. Their choice of WordPress gave me a new purpose, so I switched gears and took on the roll of roving WordPress troubleshooter. I also gave a presentation on Sunday afternoon to show the non-profits how to maintain and update their sites.
As mentioned, it is relatively easy to set up a WordPress site using a pre-existing theme. Many users can do this themselves. But these were not do-it-yourself level projects. Customizing a site to serve specific goals and functions is far more complicated. One needs to know a certain amount of HTML, CSS, PHP and MySQL and may also need to know more elaborate programming. The sites the developers built fit into this category.
Some required more complex navigation, others had special uses for incorporating social media, many needed PayPal integration for online giving, one required an e-commerce shopping cart solution and another was part of a project that also integrated a new iPhone application with a Twitter feed.
Iggy, one of the LeanDogs asks if it might not make more sense to use a WordPress query, rather than a plug-in, for a feature we've been discussing.
WordPress 3.0 integrates the former WordPress MU (multi-user) features as well as many options that make it easier for users to customize navigation and other page elements. But it's also very new. The official final release of 3.0 was just launched in June. I've upgraded many of my sites to 3.0, but I've not yet built a new theme that incorporates the new features.
Some of the developers based their projects on new 3.0 themes while others based them on older themes that will still run on 3.0. It was easier for me to answer questions for the latter group; in many cases I could just go back to my Mac and send them a snippet of code I'd used in the past. Or I could pinpoint which plug-in was involved and just point them to the settings page they had to adjust. It was great when someone asked me a question I could answer immediately.
But that didn't happen all—or even most—of the time. As they came to me with menuing—or other questions that were unique to 3.0—I looked over their shoulders as we tried to work things out together. Other times I hopped on Google and searched about until I found the documentation we needed to solve the problem. Once I found a solution I would e-mail it to the person who'd asked and add it to Delicious where I was sharing links for the WordPress developers. There were a few questions that completely stumped me, or that were outside my bailiwick, but in the end I think we were able to find work-around's or alternative solutions for most of the dilemmas that came up. And in some cases the programmers were able to build their own programs in lieu of plug-ins that didn't already exist.
In the end I think I learned as much as anyone and am glad that I'll be able to put what I learned to use on my next project.
When geeks put together an event, they know what tools to use. Participants needed to communicate with each other and we wanted to spread the word to the public about what the teams were accomplishing.
I used Tweetchat to monitor the #clegivecamp Twitter hashtag.
The organizers chose #clegivecamp as the hashtag for the event, so one of the first things I did was open a Firefox tab for http://tweetchat.com/room/clegivecamp in order to monitor what was happening. Throughout the weekend participants used this to post announcements; share links, anecdotes and amusing photos; and to converse between the two locations.
I also used it to find out where I was needed for WordPress assistance. If someone Tweeted that team 5 had a WordPress question, I could tweet back asking for the location and tell them I was on my way. If I was away from my laptop others would see the Tweet and someone nearby could let me know where I should go next. People also sent Tweets directly to me, but overall the hashtag made it easy to keep in touch, whether or not we knew each other's usernames or email addresses.
Delicious is the social media tool I use most regularly. As I worked with the WordPress teams it quickly became obvious that I needed a place to share links and other information. At first I thought I might make a new blog post here, then keep adding to it. But that seemed like it could become unwieldy. Instead I created a delicious tag for #clegivecamp. Then whenever I found a plug-in, or piece of documentation that would apply to one of the projects, I would save it to delicious along with that tag. I also used secondary tags such as wp-plug-ins and wp-documentation to help differentiate between the saved items.
Throughout the weekend I posted reminders on Twitter and Facebook to let people know that these links were available. Then if someone asked a question, that I'd already researched, I could direct them to Delicious to find the documentation link I'd already saved. I also used this tag as a place to save user oriented documentation for those who attended my WordPress training session. This meant that I only had to give them one link to write down in their notes. They could then follow that link to find all the other links we discussed during the session. Over the next few days I will continue to add more links there as I recall/find those that would be appropriate for this group.
Cleveland GiveCamp began the weekend with a Givecamp group on Facebook, but when Team Tweet began their social media promotion they thought they could benefit from the added features of a Facebook page. Thus Susie Sharp created the Cleveland GiveCamp page. Here Susie, Heidi Hooper, Jim Evans, Paul Schambs, Kasey Crabtree, Stuart Smith and others started posting updates and photos about the event.
As the weekend went on, the developers and non-profits added to this content with updates about their projects, announcements and other related information. As people have added to the page it has turned into a nice repository for information about the event. If you have a Facebook account, I urge you to "like" the page. This will help show our sponsors, the media, volunteers and others that you think it is a worthwhile event that should be held again next year.
Leadership from the organizing team including:
and support from the Cleveland GiveCamp Sponsors:
Overall Cleveland GiveCamp was a tremendous success. The developers accomplished an incredible amount of work, ensuring that their non-profits can better achieve their goals. The camaraderie of the participants meant that we all had fun while working, and volunteers made sure we were well-fed and provided with sufficient quantities of caffeine to keep functioning. If you would like to learn more about GiveCamp or organize one in your own region, please visit the links below.
We all know these blog posts don't get written as frequently as I'd like. But that doesn't mean you need to go weeks without hearing me babble. Over on http://www.facebook.com/heidicool, I'm using content curation to share one link per day. At one tip per week day it won't clog your Facebook stream, but hopefully you'll find something useful.
And for more links (and ramblings that may not always be related to the Web) I usually Tweet and reTweet a few (or several) times per day at @hacool.