I’m excited to share the news that the 2016 Plone Conference will be right here in Boston! Save the dates October 17-23 for a solid week of excellent training, informative talks, inspiring keynotes, and productive sprints like we’ve come to expect from a Plone conference – all for one reasonable (not yet finalized) price. The Microsoft New England Research and Development center has graciously agreed to host us, and we’ll be spreading ourselves liberally around Kendall Square and the MIT campus. (Yes, that’s technically Cambridge, not Boston, but that’s a distinction most non-New Englanders don’t make.)
At this conference we plan to extend the Plone community’s greetings and space to the larger Python Web community which many of us are also involved in. This happened in San Francisco several years ago; in Boston we hope to integrate these threads rather than having separate tracks. We want to include talks, trainings, and sprints on a variety of Python web frameworks, but we especially want to encourage talks and activities that compare, contrast and encourage learning and sharing across systems. (Not to mention socializing.)
The week will start with 2 days of training for developers, designers, and integrators, which will be included in the conference registration fee. Attendees will be able to mix and match full day classes on theming and development in Plone and other Python web technologies, with shorter workshops on a wide variety of topics.
The next 3 days will start with a keynote where the whole community will come together, and then we’ll break into 3 simultaneous tracks of talks. (Choosing between them is always hard!) We will be inviting talks on specific topics to give clarity and shape to the conference’s agenda. The rest will come from an open call for talk proposals. We’ll be continuing the Bucharest tradition of encouraging new speakers to present – so start jotting down your ideas.
After the talks there will be 2 days of “sprints”, focused development sessions that everyone, regardless of skill level, can participate in. This can include everything from core Plone through documentation. We plan to include Pyramid and other Python Web sprint topics to make this an event that can be shared with members of the sizable Boston Python community.
So I hope to see you all there! The Plone Conference is like a family reunion – we all look forward to it every year. I’m really excited about sharing those good vibes with Boston.
Like the cobbler’s children who have no shoes, Jazkarta’s website was long overdue for some major work. We began working on a redesign last winter – some modest improvements that morphed into more major changes. When we were ready to move into development in the spring, the Plone 5 release was in beta, so we took the plunge and used this new and shiny Plone on our new website. We’re glad we did! We lived through some growing pains in the early months, but the software got more and more solid as the summer progressed. Plone 5 was officially released just weeks before our new website launched in October, so we have 2 things to celebrate.
Years in the making, this new version of “the ultimate open source CMS” has many, many improvements over its predecessors. A few high points:
- Out-of-the-box responsive and improved tools for custom theming, including LESS integration (a big win for us since responsiveness was a high priority)
- An improved content editing experience with a new toolbar, bulk editing, and TinyMCE 4
- A new templating engine (Chameleon) which gives improved performance
- Automatic CSRF (cross-site request forgery) protection
- Improved accessibility, as described in a previous post
- A new event type that supports all day, open ended, and recurring events
- A full transition to the new “Dexterity” content type framework including support for migration of old content – better for editors (through-the-web customization) and better for developers (reusable behaviors)
And of course it’s still 100% open source and developed by our favorite community of volunteers. You can read all the details at plone.com/5.
Starting with the very first version, Plone has been a leader in accessibility, allowing people with visual or motor impairments to use and navigate Plone sites. As I said in my previous post 6 Reasons Plone is Great for Higher Ed, Plone was the first CMS to be compliant with the W3C’s WAI-AA and the U.S. government’s Section 508 standards.
Before I published that post, I asked Paul Roeland (Chair of the Plone Foundation Board of Directors) to fact check the Accessibility section, since he has been a champion of Plone’s accessibility efforts for years. He replied that it was OK (“although a bit underselling it”) for Plone 4. However for Plone 5 he informed me that the situation has improved dramatically. Here are the accessibility features that are coming soon in the Plone 5 release:
- Support for WCAG 2.0 (level AA), WAI-ARIA, and even more exciting, ATAG 2.0 which is aimed at content creators, not just visitors of a website. Full support of all three is the goal. Some WCAG 2.0 guidelines are somewhat subjective, but we are doing our best to achieve full support.
- All new themes, widgets, and editors are strictly checked against those guidelines. That includes, for example, checks on contrast, color blindness, and widget and navigation support for the mobility-challenged and people using screen readers.
- The new version of Plone’s WYSIWYG editor has much improved accessibility for other-abled content editors, and it is also easy to include add-ons that will ensure the content in your site will remain accessible over time.
Content accessibility is technically outside the responsibility of Plone – it needs to be done by the organization’s content editors – but site administrators will have the option to configure the site to strictly enforce accessibility guidelines such as making sure all images have an “alt” tag. Plus language helper tools are available to help editors create clear content, which is also a guideline in WCAG.
In summary, while some guidelines are subjective and some can only be guaranteed by the content editors of the site, Plone will give you the best tools available to make, and more importantly keep, your site accessible. For both visitors and staff.
If you are interested in ensuring that your website is accessible, here are some tools that can help:
- The WAVE extension for Chrome which allows you to evaluate web content for accessibility issues from your browser.
- The A11y Command-line Tools provide web accessibility audits powered by the Chrome Accessibility Developer Tools.
In the end, however, no automated tool is a substitute for working with other-abled developers and users. And keep in mind that web accessibility is evolving – blind users use smartphones too! So staying at the forefront of accessibility is more about having it fully integrated in your thought process than about simply ticking boxes. Plone has taken that approach, and the result is that Plone 5 powered websites will offer a better experience for every user, regardless of abilities.
Another one of our websites is in the running for a seriously amazing award. Literally. The North American Orchid Conservation Center and their Go Orchids site has been nominated to compete in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown, where the public votes on the “most seriously amazing” thing at the Smithsonian – and they have made it to Round 2! Click here if you’d like to add your vote to help them make it to the final round. You can vote once a day, now through Tuesday.
And hey, if you just can’t resist voting for the earth-sized Event Horizon Telescope instead, I won’t hold it against you. It’s all amazing stuff. But my heart lies with the exotic plants.
Many academics in technical fields use Python (the programming language) because of its extensive math and science libraries. Python is also a popular language for teaching introductory computer science at top-ranked universities in the U.S. Less well known is the fact that Plone, Python’s most feature-rich CMS, is extremely well suited for academic websites. Here are 6 reasons why.
1. Security and Workflow
Plone’s advanced security model and strong workflow system make it particularly well suited for sites where many content editors collaborate to maintain a website. This is typical at universities, where staff and websites are often organized in hierarchies. Plone administrators can assign roles that define editing and workflow permissions to different groups of users, so some can add and edit content while others review and publish. These roles can apply to the whole site or to sections or to individual pages, making it easy for a work group to collaborate on content. Tracking and auditing of who did what, when, provides accountability. Plus, Plone has an excellent security record with a minimal number of CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) entries compared to other systems
3. Enterprise Search
University websites are often broad and deep, and it’s important to provide excellent search capabilities so users can find what they’re looking for. Plone provides basic search out of the box, but add-ons provide integration with the state of the art Solr open source search engine. Solr makes the power of enterprise search accessible to organizations that could never have afforded it 10 years ago. In addition to ensuring highly relevant results thanks to its excellent algorithms and tuning features (including synonyms, spelling suggestions, and metadata, content type, and phrase weighting), Solr can combine search results from disparate data sources. For example, a departmental website’s search could provide results from the website plus research databases and external sites that faculty or other groups have created. For more specialized searches about academic subjects, Plone provides an excellent environment for defining content types with detailed technical metadata. With the help of another add-on, such metadata can be used in faceted searches – see for example the search for Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks.
4. Faculty Directories
Academic institutions typically have need of a personnel directory, with different levels of access (to telephone numbers and email addresses for example) for internal versus external users. The Plone add-on Faculty Staff Directory implements the typical academic organizational model – faculty/staff/student, department, committee – and integrates these groupings with Plone security, making it easy to assign personnel different editing permissions on different parts of the site depending on their department or committee. It captures lots of academic profile information and provides a place for faculty to add their own web pages and other content. It has been honed for use at universities since 2007.
All academics accumulate bibliographies of published work in their field, and provide relevant references when they publish their own work. The venerable Plone bibliography add-on (born circa 2005) lets content editors publish bibliographic references on their websites. For a great example, see The University of Minnesota Press’ extensive bibliography of references about the MMPI (a personality inventory test), which can be browsed with a faceted search. Ten years of development has resulted in a ton of features and a whole family of related add-ons (we created one to support Citation Style Language two years ago.) There’s even an integration with Faculty Staff Directory that allows faculty to easily add bibliographies to their profiles.
Plone makes it easy to create many sub-sites within one installation. There are several add-ons that provide this feature, the most popular being collective.lineage. This is great for giving a university’s many schools and departments a degree of autonomy while administering all the sites together. Each department can have its own staff, content, and visual identity, while easily sharing and linking to content in other departments. Administrators have just one Plone installation, with a global set of add-ons and configurations that enforce consistency.
Many universities around the world use Plone (which supports 40+ languages out of the box) – here are a few of my favorite examples.
I attended the Nonprofit Technology Conference last March and was inspired to submit a session proposal for next year’s conference. So much of our work here at Jazkarta helps non-profit organizations do their jobs better – through their websites and back office systems – that I feel we have lots of useful information to share. So I proposed to tell the story of the major website redesign project that Jazkarta and Percolator Consulting did with The Mountaineers. The story would cover the full project life cycle, from strategy definition through support and ongoing changes. It would be told from 3 perspectives: the team responsible for the front end CMS, Plone (that’s us), the team responsible for the back end CRM, Salesforce (that’s Percolator), and the team responsible for defining, funding, managing, and coordinating this massive project (that’s The Mountaineers). And it would give us the opportunity to highlight the practices that made this project so successful. Things like:
- How we defined requirements, content types, and data model
- The importance of user experience (UX) design
- The agile process we used to manage implementation
- Coordinating a large number of volunteers testing the new site
- Planning and executing a complex launch process involving front end and back end data migrations
The session is called Anatomy of a Major Website Project and if you think this would be a good addition to next year’s NTC and to share with the non-profit community more broadly, please head over to the 16NTC site and upvote it!
A content-driven website can look like an intimidating pile of information to the average visitor. You want to help your visitors find what’s important to them. How can you ensure that the right content is easy to find?
The first approach most websites take is to offer a “search” bar.
This can be a good approach for research reports and other types of text-heavy content, but it doesn’t always work well. The trouble is that full-text search is a hard problem – Google for example spends millions on its search software and millions more tuning the results. Even if you have a great text search, your user still needs to know something about what they are looking for in order to find it. Text search depends on your visitors entering the right words into that little box.
Another approach to helping visitors is to use the way your site is organized, the “information architecture” to guide people to the right materials.
This can be quite effective, if your site has materials that fall into clear categories, like types of content, or subject, publication date, or author. But it suffers from a few drawbacks.
First, you can only expose so many layers of architecture before it overwhelms the user with too many choices. If what they seek is nested too far down, or located in too big a pile, they might miss it. Second, it depends on an agreement in terms between the label you make for an option, and the word the user has in mind. This agreement is fragile, and dependent again on visitors knowing something about your material. Finally, architecture is forever. If you’re lucky, you might get to re-organize once every few years. You’d better make the right choices the first time.
Department stores have solved this problem in an interesting way. You walk into the store, head to the women’s section, find the slacks, look for a color you like, then try them on. Bam! You’ve got what you’re looking for and you are on your way to the checkout stand.
E-commerce sites have adopted this approach as well. It’s familiar and comfortable for visitors.
But it’s not just for e-commerce. Imagine you run a non-profit like The Mountaineers that offers courses in outdoorsmanship. Perhaps I come to visit your site. I would like to take a class, learn something new. I’ve never been climbing before, but it looks fun. I am an absolute beginner, never climbed a mountain in my life. Oh, and I know I’ve got some time off later this summer! Cool, in three clicks I’ve narrowed the selection of hundreds of courses offered by your organization down to just a few! I can read about each, find the one that fits me best, and head to registration. We call this “faceted search”.
So how can you get such a wonderful feature for your website? You’ll need to start with a content management system of some kind. This is where you’ll create, store, manage and display the “products” your visitors are looking for. We think the open source Plone CMS is the best choice for large sites with lots of editors and rich content.
You’ll need a robust search engine. This is where the information about your “products” is stored. A good engine will produce lists of facet values for you, give you counts of matching items, and allow for lightning-fast lookups. We work mostly with Solr and elasticsearch, two products built on the open source Lucene search engine. But Plone also has a fine index for faceted search built in if your needs are straightforward.
Your CMS should allow you to edit “metadata” or information about your content. Here is where you can determine what facets, or aspects of this information you want to use. With a powerful CMS like Plone, you can customize the metadata to suit your needs.
Or, you can work with an external service to capture metadata. Perhaps your offerings are stored in Salesforce. We can index information from Salesforce into a search engine like Solr or elasticsearch, and use your CMS to display the search interface and results.
Finally, you’ll need a plugin for your CMS that supports faceted search. Plone has a great one thanks to the folks at the European Environment Agency: eea.facetednavigation. It lets you easily experiment with different facets, optimizing your search based on analytics about your traffic. This means you can shape the search according to real visitor needs, frequently and with little or no developer time required.
With a solid faceted search experience, you can ensure that your visitors will find those “hidden treasures” they seek. Contact Jazkarta to discuss whether this feature would be a good addition to your website.