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Pleiades Wins an Award and Gets an Upgrade

January 30, 2017

Via Appia entry on Pleiades

Here at Jazkarta we’ve been working with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) for the past year on a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to upgrade and improve Pleiades, a gazetteer of ancient places that is free and open to the public. Thus it was very gratifying to learn that Pleiades is the 2017 recipient of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology. Congratulations to the Pleiades team, headed by ISAW’s Tom Elliott!

Pleiades is the most comprehensive geospatial dataset for antiquity available today, giving scholars, students, and enthusiasts the ability to use, create, and share geographic information about the ancient world. It was developed between 2006 and 2008 on version 3 of the open source Plone content management system. Pleiades allows logged in users to define geographic locations and associate them with ancient places, names and scholarly references. The system remained in place from 2008 to 2016 without significant upgrades to the core Plone stack, despite the addition of a number of custom features. Over that time, over 35,000 places were added to the system – and performance degraded significantly as the content expanded.

Our most important NEH deliverable was improving site performance, which we accomplished through an upgrade from Plone 3 to Plone 4.3 and the elimination of performance bottlenecks identified with the help of New Relic monitoring. As of last September we had reduced the average page load time from 8.48 seconds before the upgrade to 2.1 seconds after. This 400% speed-up is even more impressive than it sounds because bots (search engine indexers and third ­party data users) were severely restricted during the pre-­upgrade measurements, and all restrictions were lifted after the upgrade.

Performance improvement was just the start. Here are some of the other changes we’ve made to the site, which you can read more about in the August NEH performance report.

  • Process improvements that streamline content creation, review, and publication
  • UI improvements that facilitate the use of Pleiades data
  • Improved citation and bibliography management through integration with the Zotero bibliography management system
  • Enhanced Linked Open Data capabilities
  • Comprehensive daily exports
  • Bulk imports of Pleiades content

Because of Jazkarta’s high level of expertise in Plone and related technologies, we were able to deliver the Plone upgrade and related performance improvements 6 months ahead of schedule. This left more time for feature improvements than were originally envisioned. As Tom Elliott put it, “our investment in Jazkarta is paying dividends.”

Engagement Strategy, Agile Process, Trusted Partners

April 11, 2016

16NTC Logo

David Glick and I had a great time presenting at the 2016 Nonprofit Technology Conference with The Mountaineers’ Jeff Bowman and Percolator Consulting’s Karen Uffelman (here’s a link to our session page.) We gave a soup to nuts run through of the big website project we did together. Jeff provided some context for the project and showed off the final result. Karen described the development of The Mountaineers’ engagement strategy, which was the basis for everything we did. She also explained how user experience and graphic design was integrated into the overall project. David and I described technical discovery, our agile process, and the year-long implementation of the Plone website and back end. Karen and Jeff also covered how to survive project disasters (the consulting partner that The Mountaineers had carefully selected and vetted essentially went out of business after their initial round of technical discovery), and the importance of planning for ongoing support and development after the site is launched.

Through it all, we emphasized the keys to this project’s success, which were:

  • A solid engagement strategy guiding what we wanted to accomplish – Percolator’s superpower.
  • An agile process that minimized risk and adapted quickly to change – Jazkarta’s superpower.
  • Working with trusted partners with great communication skills who understood The Mountaineers and the technologies they were adopting – as Karen put it, “Choose your project partner like you’d choose a spouse.”

How successful was this project? In addition to all the oooo’s, aaaah’s and good feelings, we have some numbers about that. In the first year post launch, the site had 69% more unique visitors, 72% more page views, and a 23% reduction in bounce rate. That trend continues through the present day.

If you’d like to learn more, you can view or download our presentation on Slideshare. You can also view the Twitter stream for our talk at #16ntcwebanatomy and read the shared document where the audience took collaborative notes. I’ll share here the most fun item on the stream – Twitter user @fulltrucker‘s artistic and amusing session notes:

@fulltrucker's WebAnatomy Session Notes 1

@fulltrucker's WebAnatomy Session Notes 2


Plone Comes to Beantown

November 18, 2015


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.

New Website, New Plone

November 13, 2015 Plone Landing Page

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

So check out our new website! We especially like our new projects page, our sliders for related items, and the flexibility of our tiled landing pages. A huge thank you to the team that created it!


Accessibility in Plone 5

September 11, 2015

Web Accessibility Initiative

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:

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.

Plone 5 is currently in beta, we’re expecting the first release soon – and of course accessibility isn’t the only thing that has gotten better. The UI has gotten a major overhaul, theming is easier, the WYSIWYG editor has been upgraded in other ways, JavaScript integration and development is vastly improved, and it’s faster than Plone 4. We’re pretty excited about it!

Most Seriously Amazing

August 14, 2015

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.

Go Orchids!


6 Reasons Plone is Great for Higher Ed

August 7, 2015

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

2. Accessibility

Universities, particularly those that are publicly funded, need to ensure that people with visual or motor impairments can use their websites. Plone was the first CMS to be compliant with the W3C’s WAI-AA and the U.S. government’s Section 508 standards for sight and motor impaired individuals, and out of the box it continues to meet or exceed these standards, including WCAG 2.0 compliance. The latest released version (4.3) also has reasonable support for  WAI-Aria. Interactive JavaScript functionality comes with fallback modes that work in any browser. And even better accessibility features are coming soon in Plone 5 (but that’s a story for another day.)

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.

5. Bibliographies

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.

6. Sub-sites

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.

Some Examples

Many universities around the world use Plone (which supports 40+ languages out of the box) – here are a few of my favorite examples.

  • Smeal College of Business

    Penn State’s Smeal College of Business

  • Universidad Nacional de Córdoba

    Universidad Nacional de Córdoba

  • Dumbarton Oaks

    Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

  • UC Davis College of Agricultural and Engineering Sciences

    UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

  • Notre Dame College of Engineering

    University of Notre Dame College of Engineering

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