TEA Time: New England GiveCamp 2012 Recap

Last weekend I was in Cambridge, Mass. for New England GiveCamp 2012, the third of annual meet-ups that match technical and design people with nonprofit organizations that need their help.

The Charles River Esplanade
The Charles River Esplanade. Photo courtesy user Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

My cause was The Esplanade Association, an organization that cares for the Charles River Esplanade Park.

The Charles River Esplanade Park is the Boston-side green space along the river, from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge. While it’s owned and managed by the state of Massachusetts, TEA (which has to be the coolest acronym possible for a Boston-based group) exists to organize people to help protect and care for the park.

Much of their work involves organizing volunteers to clean up the park several times each year. TEA also holds a number of programs in the park — yoga, Zumba, dances and the like — and runs several fund raising projects.

They came to GiveCamp, initially, looking for a way to better coordinate singing up groups and individuals for cleanup days.

Ticketing Turns To Overhaul

Currently, the way Jessica B. Pederson, TEA’s project manager, handles such reservations is by posting a schedule of cleanup days on her Web site, and asking people to email her if they are interested in participating. Then, via email exchanges back and forth, the details get worked out.

Even though the majority of these events are done through groups — so Jessica is in contact with a few group representatives, rather than scores of individuals — this proves an understandably arduous process that consumes a great deal of Jessica’s time, and it was something that she knew just screamed out to be automated.

You can’t swing a cat without hitting sample booking / ticketing system code on the Web, and there’s little practical difference between booking, say, a hotel room or buying a ticket to a play, and reserving a volunteer opportunity slot. Just provide the date, the number and types of tickets available, and a way for people to provide their contact information, and you’re done.

So I started by looking for ASP.NET-based ticketing solutions on the Web, since most of the Web developers who participate in GiveCamp are .NET folks. (Actually, I was side-hoping I could request Saurabh Moondhra and William Wade, the two ASP.NET developers I worked with during GiveCamp 2011, whom I knew would shine on such a project.)

And I was also thinking, in the back of my mind, it would be nice to address TEA’s Web site.

Don’t get me wrong; the site they had worked fine and contains a lot of good information presented in a sensible way. But it’s also stuck in 2005, and could use a cosmetic and functional overhaul.

And coincidentally, I am working on a WordPress site for a client right now that included the need for a basic calendaring and ticketing system. I had identified a plugin, Events Manager, for them that wasn’t quite right for that project; but it almost perfectly fit Jessica’s needs, especially if she was willing to upgrade to the “pro” version.

And then, by coincidence again, Kelley Muir — who coordinates the projects at GiveCamp — emailed me to say that she had asked this year’s nonprofits to identify possible second projects, and TEA said they’d like to have a content management system and general site redesign, too.

Jackpot! No need to reinvent the wheel; no need to even resize the wheel. We’re gonna put them in the Honda of the Web — good ol’ WordPress — and slap some 20-inch rims (Events Manager) on it.

Meet TEA

TEA logoI talked with Jessica and Christopher Timmel, TEA’s communications director, on the phone on Wednesday, to go over their needs and expectations, and knew instantly that I had lucked out a second time.

I’m a big fan of green space. You can’t live in Augusta, Maine and not like trees and rivers, after all.

But as a simple matter of public policy, I don’t think parks and open spaces get enough credit or resources, in spite of being a huge factor in quality of life. Understandably, because trees and grass pretty much grow on their own, it’s easy to put government dollars and effort elsewhere.

So when I see a group like TEA, I’m already a huge fan of their work.

Even better was that Jessica and Chris had a very clear picture of what they actually wanted. Even more rarely, what they wanted was actually what they needed. (It’s strange, but often, clients pitch requirements that don’t resolve their problems, or do so in ways that only make the problems worse or create new problems. Not so with Chris and Jessica.)

Plus, they’re personable, sincere and nice people. No coddling, wrangling or placating was in my weekend forecast. Not that it’s been a problem for me in past GiveCamps; just that any time you can get a client that’s positive about its problems, you need to celebrate.

Meet The Team

So I asked Kelley to assign a designer and a couple PHP people (since WordPress skinning requires a little knowledge of PHP, and I figured we might need to adjust some of the Events Manager code via overrides) to the project.

That’s how Christina Yung and Jason Dufour were assigned to the project, and they were my third stroke of luck.

Christina primarily works in print, signage and branding, but has recently expanded into Web design. Jason is primarily an ASP.NET developer, but has PHP experience, and very strong jQuery and CSS skills. As anyone who’s ever skinned a WordPress site knows, the hard part is getting the CSS right, and the things you can’t quite get right in CSS, you can usually fix in jQuery.

An even better perk is that Jason and Christina work together at their day jobs, which means there would be no need to worry about chemistry or communication. And the weekend bore out that both were take-initiative-and-ownership types, which fits my management style perfectly: I like to provide an area of responsibility and a goal, then let people figure out, and do, what needs to get done to achieve it.

So two times I was a GiveCamp project lead, and two times Kelley assigned my team members who were skilled, friendly people who knew what to do and got done what needed to get done.

The Project

Even when you have a superior platform (WordPress); the right tools inside that platform (Events Manager); a client with full buy-in, all collateral organized and ready, and authority to make decisions on the fly (Chris and Jessica); and a team that’s got the skills and drive to get the job done (Jason and Christina), putting a Web site together over a weekend is a frenzy.

There were a few points where I thought we wouldn’t make it.

In addition to the usual bumps in any project road — misunderstandings, mistakes, unforeseen complications and unintended consequences are the hallmarks of every Web project — there were many, many steps in getting the content right.

Because of the kinds of information TEA needs to communicate, this WordPress site wasn’t header-footer-sidebar-index-css-and-we’re-done.

They needed fairly complicated page flow, and the calendar itself mutated a couple times as it became clearer what events would need a registration component, and which events they simply wanted to let people know about. And their information required a few different page templates and a couple extra sidebars, to ensure it showed up properly.

Additionally, I had the objective to use as few plugins (aside from Events Manager) and as little code as possible (especially in the templates themselves), because I wanted to ensure whomever helps them with technical needs going forward can make heads and tails out of what we did. So that meant every error we made in terms of approach, taxonomy and content was magnified, since we couldn’t simply find a plugin or write some code to fix the issue.

In the end, we would up with only eight plugins, three of which are standard in all my WordPress installs:

  • Bluetrait Event Viewer (BTEV), which logs system events and is very useful for debugging, intrusion detection and the like;
  • Category Posts Widget, which — as its name suggests — allows you to show posts in a specific category as a sidebar widget;
  • Events Manager, a calendar and booking system I simply cannot flog hard enough;
  • Google XML Sitemaps, to help with site indexing;
  • HTML Page Sitemap, which automatically generates a sitemap based on wp_list_pages();
  • Simple Lightbox, for slideshow functionality (TEA has lots and lots of pictures);
  • Single Post Widget, which — as its name suggests — allows you to show a single post in a sidebar; and
  • WP Super Cache, to reduce server load and improve site responsiveness.

The Results

Update, 6 June 2012: This Web site is now live at http://www.esplanadeassociation.org

Jessica and Chris are happy with their new site. They’re going to take a week to finish migrating content, come up with a list of questions and tweaks, then present it to their board of directors for feedback.

TEA Redesign
The redesigned esplanadeassociation.org website.

As I quipped at the GiveCamp closing presentations, it looks good because Christina made it that way; it works because Jason made it that way; and it’s not done because I made it that way.

The site needs to go live still; a fair amount of content remains to be migrated in, there are a few cosmetic tweaks needed, and we didn’t run a complete walkthrough / debugging of the site because all the elements are not in place.

But that is not to detract at all from what was accomplished. While I intend to help TEA go live with this site, really it can be finished by anyone with basic HTML / CSS knowledge. Anything short of complete disapproval of the skin won’t be difficult to accommodate, and that skin is not going to be rejected. Not by sane people, anyway.

So I hit for the cycle: Great project; great client; great team; great results. GiveCamp 2012 was a complete success.

A Round Of Applause

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note, once again, what a great experience GiveCamp is on the whole.

There’s just something reaffirming and enjoyable in being around capable, motivated, positive people who are in it for the love. Sincerely, you meet the nicest and best people at GiveCamp.

You get fed well. (Thank you Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Naked Pizza, b.good catering, Whole Foods, Cape Cod Chips, Rip van Wafels and Cakes By Kelli.) You get all kinds of great swag (that’s generally true of any event hosted by Jim O’Neil, New England GiveCamp’s host and driving force, but is certainly true of GiveCamp). And you get to be in Cambridge, which is an amazing place.

I should also mention, after the disappointment of the Royal Sonesta hotel last year, that the best deal in town for a stay near MIT has to be the Hampton Inn on Monsignor O’Brien Highway. Even though I figure I paid about $30 per hour to sleep there (11 hours of sleep @ $340 for two nights), it’s very clean, the bed is awesome, the staff is friendly and efficient, it’s 100 percent geared toward serving business travelers (free WiFi, lightning-fast checkin and automatic checkout), the hot breakfast is actually quite palatable and it’s only a one-mile walk up Third Street from NERD, where GiveCamp is hosted.

So, everybody who’s taken part or helped make it happen, thanks. You done good. Real good. And if you couldn’t make it this year, GiveCamp 2013 is April 26-28; mark your calendars now!

All links in this post on delicious: http://delicious.com/dougvdotcom/tea-time-new-england-givecamp-2012-recap

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