What follows is my three day coverage of the conference “Making Links“. It’s where “social action and technology converge”. This year it was held in Perth. I attended, representing CASE.

Today’s workshop “Building Websites From The Ground Up” has proven very valuable for us and I assume everyone else. We’ve had a range of diverse speakers from a wide range of backgrounds who have really covered building a website from the ground up from concept to delivery. Viveka kicked off the day with a hugely detailed presentation on the Victorian AIDS Council’s efforts to develop their new website. She let us into the finer details of the planning process including objectives, constraints, assumptions and a lot, lot more. The key thing to take away from their experience, I think, is that documentation and planning has to be paramount in the process of developing a site, if you’re to end up with what you want! Also critical to the process was ensuring Government accessibility standards were met and that the staff were adequately trained in using the new software backend (Drupal). Have a look at their site which was launched late last year – great effort! http://www.vicaids.asn.au

View of Perth Central Business DistrictFollowing on from Viveka’s presentation we had Andrew Johnson from FII who detailed a developer’s perspective on processes and jobs very similar to Viveka’s. He really emphasised the personal aspect to developing a website, encouraging looking at the task as developing a relationship between the developer and the organisation you (they’re) developing for. Returned to frequently was the idea that it was a good idea to actually like the client you’re working for. If you don’t…consider not taking the job! FII are big on Joomla which is great to see. They’ve got a range of projects on the go and we can recommend checking out their site! http://www.footefrancis.com.au

If that wasn’t enough (and it could have been) Gary Barber from Radharc weighed in on all things Information Architecture. Detailed, to say the least! He offered suggestions on how to better survey and study a userbase so that more appropriate development decisions could be made. He also showed us multiple ways of considering content, how we might look at it differently and how we might spot patterns. Surprisingly, something as mundane as sorting cards turned out to be a great way (through discussion, not necessarily the final arrangement of the cards!) to organise information in way everyone can understand or at least is happy with. Survey, observations, interviews, analytics! Details about these and more can be found at Gary’s site http://www.radharc.com.au

A slightly re-arranged schedule and a relateively relaxed atmosphere after lunch resulted in an expert’s panel on web content management systems. Joomla, Wordpres and Drupal all represented (Silverstripe gets a mention), the importance of keeping ALL of your web software up-to-date was reiterated by myself a few times. Seriously, you’ll get hacked if you don’t stay up to date. Andrew and Vivecka got to field followup questions from an engaged audience and everyone seemed pretty satisfied.

Following afternoon tea an enthusiastic/passionate discussion about domain names in Australia and abroad ensued. Darrell’s position on the auDA policy review panel allowed everyone to get a bit of insight into the domains industry and the history that preceeded it’s current state. Do .com.aus get more traffic? Are they more appropriate than asn.au? What would happen if Australia’s domain policy ended up matching the American free-for-all? There were a range of diverse opinions and everyone came away with something to think about…

Overall a very valuable day and we’re glad we attended! This is actually an event that runs prior to Making Links 2010 proper which of course we’ll be attending. We’ll continue the coverage here and of course you can follow the Twitter stream at #ml10 http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23ml10

Day 2

The conference proper kicked off this morning with a wonderful Welcome To Country from the entertaining Nanna Beryl Harp. Tanya Notely then made us feel hopeful and afraid at the same time by giving a presentation about freedom and technology. She used examples from worldwide to show how communications technology can make dramatic changes to social fabrics in a very short time. She also talked about how fast repressive governments and regimes can (and do) disable these technologies when they feel they need to. The group she works for provides resources and assistance for those who are being repressed. Head over to http://www.tacticaltech.org to learn more.

Perth State LibraryWe were then very lucky to hear from Susan Moylan-Coombs, an Indigenous character that worked for a long time at the ABC but recently has been working for National Indigenous Television. This is a channel I’d never heard of before but It’s accessible through Foxtel, Austar and Optus. Susan gave us some interesting numbers, including an impressive amount of original content created and aired for very little money. Alarmingly, we were told that NIT may very well be shut down at the end of the financial year. This is appalling news; if NIT disappeared not only would our Indigenous community miss out on much needed local content but Australia as a whole would be culturally lessened. For more information on National Indigenous Television click here

More to follow…

Day 2 post 2

Web accessibility is constantly overlooked. But there are a lot of really simple and easy things that you can do to ensure that people with disadvantage have a great user experience at your website. Actually, it’s the law that you attempt to provide this. Vicki Stanton gave us the the basics on how we could think about making websites more accessible. One very important point (one I’ll have to shame myself with) is that transcribing podcasts is important (which I’ll do as soon as I get back to Canberra..), captioning YouTube videos is important and understanding that screen readers for the vision impaired will not work well with your site if you don’t take care. Vicki provided a great range of links to resources to help you and your organisation bring your site up to standard. Check out  Check My Colors, WAVE  (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) and ATRC Web Accessibility Checker. Vicki’s personal story was inspiring and encouraging. Well done!

Jessica Kerr really, really, REALLY likes forms. By cheerful coincidence we have been thinking about web forms here at CASE, too. Her insights proved very valuable. Her approach to building a great form revolves around “The 4 Cs”. Clear, Concise, Clever and Cooperative and the way she detailed the thought process that should go into building a form makes us feel confident that the next one we do will be the best one we’ve done… apart from giving a great presentation, Jessica also provides a stack of great articles at formulate.com.au..

Day 3

Computers in Homes New Zealand have come across the sea to visit Making Links this year to share with us the trials and tribulations of deploying low cost computer solutions to remote and disadvantaged communities. There was a great deal of emphasis placed on working side by side rather from the top down in these communities. NZ (or this group at any rate) seems to have a grasp on how imposition of new ideas or interventions made in the social structure is so very condescending for an Indigenous culture with thousands of years of history. It took them over ten years to get where they are today and now with a line in the budget they certainly aren’t going away any time soon. While the politics and the geography are very different to Australia’s, the inspiration behind the ideas were valuable. For more information on the project you can head over to http://www.computersinhomes.org.nz

Sam in PerthThe WA Community Resource Network was another inspiring story that has obviously done a great amount of good for rural and regional communities in Western Australia. Generally focusing on communities between 200-3000 in population, they have ensured services like banking, Centrelink, vehicle registration and other government services are available to these areas. The polar opposite of waiting in line at Centrelink would be attending one of these community centres to enjoy a live cast of an orchestra performance in Perth. Which they also organise! From essential services to cultural enrichment, WACRN is providing these and more to a lot of grateful people. Find out more about the organisation at http://www.crc.net.au

More to follow….

The presentations on gaming mechanics for social action were fascinating. The idea of using game mechanics to achieve social action at first appeared novel but after a few minutes of schooling we were made aware of significant change achieved by making challenges/chores/laws “fun”. A wonderful example offered was an experiment by a car company who created a “Speed camera lottery”. Over a period of days a speed camera measured those speeding and those not, recording the details. Those who broke the speed limit were issued with fines as normal but those who obeyed the rules went into a lottery to win some of the money surrendered by those who were fined.

The change (for the better) of driving habits in the area were profound. This was one of many ideas floated out during the session. Words like “gamification” “interestingness” and “pointsification” are all real words even if this spellchecker doesn’t agree. Collecting, points, leader boards, levels, exchanges and flow are other words also used to describe the game mechanisms that people use to encourage participation in an activity.

Grafitti artThe counter gaming presentation, apart from being heavy on theory (not a bad thing, and a great reading list is provided) was actually quite confronting. Videos such as “dead-in-Iraq” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTnuUMM7frk) and “Shoot an Iraqi” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtvvVbeaSHk) showed us how games and social media designed to re-enforce the institutions of war and conflict can actually be ‘hacked’ in various ways to turn the message on its head. Given the academic background of the material used, I’ve got to do some serious reading before I can say anything more in-depth! We’ll get a copy of the reading list up on the blog when we can!

FII’s Joomla presentation was comprehensive and energetic, demonstrating their in-depth knowledge of the web content management system. Working with the software for many years they have developed a range of open source and commercial components, modules and plug-ins which Andrew gave us a brief overview of. The question about open source versus proprietary CMS software was asked, the answer was that the entry cost of open source is much lower than a commercial solution but you have to trust in the community behind the free software to support your needs into the future; in some cases organisations require service level agreements that can only be properly arranged in a paid environment. On the other hand the community behind Joomla is so large and friendly that finding good help isn’t that hard.

By the end of the day everyone appeared happy and tired. The closing plenary summarised a lot of the feelings I’d heard expressed out during the tea breaks. A good group of people that have come together to share some great ideas. There’s plenty of work to be done by ourselves and by the conference. One discussion earlier today perhaps alluded to the goal we all share; by working hard enough and encouraging enough positive change we’re actually all working to put ourselves out of business, making our support groups unnecessary and irrelevant. Some groups put a timetable on that goal (2020 for example) and the more cynical among us perhaps don’t. Personally, I don’t mind – Tweeting and blogging isn’t all I do. Getting back to the other side of the continent is next on the list, for example. Then, probably sleep.

Thanks to everyone involved, see you next year!