The month in redesigns and the larger NGO web picture

It seems that we at Maneno weren’t the only ones to take advantage of summer doldrums to do something of a look refresh. Our friends at Kabissa did a complete rebuild of their system in Drupal which gave them a new look as well as more refined functionality. MobileActive.org also launched a new site based on Drupal. The blog Jackfruity got a new look as well as 27 months and Chris Blattman. Obviously redesigns are a dime a dozen in the every changing webscape, but I brought up these examples as they generally focus on African issues.
Making things prettier is always good, but having been a web developer for over a decade now, it’s interesting to see how design cycles work. We started out with static web pages, moved in to dynamic web pages, then moved in to mashups pages, then CMS pages, and now it’s something of a mix of all these, but hosted in the ever-fluffed up Cloud. Don’t get me wrong, The Cloud is here to stay, but in lieu of actual news due to the depressed world economy, it seems that anything ‘Cloud’ and anything ‘Twitter’ are pretty much all there is to report on in the technology scene.

Adoption Latency

Probably the most interesting thing about these rehashes of the web is how they touch the non-profit or NGO sphere in the last phase. At the start of this year I remember watching a talk where one of the speakers said, “Yeah and this system lets you create a Google Maps mashup which was totally cool in 2005.” He was right when he said that because it was part of a software package targeted at non-profits in the US. I’m guessing that they had run their course in selling it to corporate customers some time earlier.
But now, what seems to be the big buzz in non-profit communities is all around Drupal. Everyone wants to have their site based in Drupal to impress I don’t know who, because a properly set up Drupal site doesn’t let on that it’s in Drupal. But, Drupal does do what it is built to do well. It allows people to set up a content management system reasonably quickly. The real advantage though is in the case of a group like Kabissa where they wanted to have an initial CMS (Content Management System) but at the same time were able to add a great many things to the core of it. In their case it’s to flesh out their directory system. I assume that it’s a similar case for MobileActive, although they seem to have a greater focus on their blog, so I don’t know why they went with Drupal as I’ve not been tremendously impressed by the blogging setups in any of the CMSs out there including Drupal.

The Rub of Being an Optimistic

The problem with any CMS whether it be Drupal, Joomla, Plone or many others is that they are not a one size fits all, one stop shop solution. Groups seem to run in to these things blindly that way and it’s often done because they think it’s going to be cheap, they have limited funds, and it’s going to be fast.
I’ve worked with Drupal and Joomla before and let me tell you that there is nothing fast about getting a site going with them. Tossing up a site is indeed, easy, but tossing up a site that looks like your organization’s site is not. Everyone thinks that they can avoid having to hire some guy like me to get a site going, but unfortunately for them and fortunately for me, it’s still the case they need to get a geek on board and generally at quite a cost. This is one of the reasons that in the for-profit world the CMS is in decline in popularity.

How Important is your Site?

A word to the wise out there for any group getting ready to rebuild their site in a CMS: consider everything. There are many free hosted solutions out there these days and even though they will have their limits, your kilometerage will probably be a great deal more if you take a look at them. Google Sites and Yola are two that spring to mind. We’re also working to build a hosted site function in to Maneno which the BarCamp Africa site is the first, very beta, version of.
But people need to site back and look at how much they have to spend on a site redo and how important the website is to their organization. If your organization is working in Africa, then the website is crucial to your operations and should be considered as important an expense as office space. Trying to cut corners will not only show, but it will hamper your activities a great deal.

Why Doth no Drupal, Maneno?

To close, a number of people initially asked us why we didn’t build Maneno on Drupal or even WordPress since we’re focused on blogging. The simple answer to both of these is that Drupal and WordPress have paltry multilingual abilities. Yes, you can create a single site in just about any language you want quite well, but having them in multiple languages within the same domain is onerous. On top of that, while Drupal can be slimmed down a good deal depending on your bandwidth needs, WordPress, is one heavy mutha on the administrative side of things. This is why we have created Maneno anew and to honest, if we weren’t doing that, what value would be really be bringing to net?
The month in redesigns and the larger NGO web picture