in technology

VCSSCamp 6

I spend a lot of time working with and experimenting with technology and then in turn, trying to encourage, enable and equip other people – essentially in small non-profit organisations – to make better use of that technology.  But sometimes you can get too close to an issue and unable to see whether you are using the right approaches or should be using a different tack.

So meeting up with others today in Birmingham for a VCSSCamp ‘unconference’ has been (again) a rewarding use of my time.  The discussions allow for sharing, for learning, for peer encouragement and more.

This year I don’t feel astounded by new approaches, but there was value in all our discussions and there were a good number of points for me to take away.

There’s always a range of digital tools to hear about – today’s top tool looks like Canva as a free, graphics publishing tool.  Definitely one I’ll be using and encouraging our team to play with.

There was lots of talk around Social Media (unsurprisingly), both on how to ‘listen’ and filter better on receiving social chatter, but also on creating new strategies.  This is timely for me, as we are working hard at the moment on using Asana to create an effective Editorial campaign coordination tool and experimenting with Hootsuite and scheduling posts more.  I’ll also look for ways to ‘follow’ our own Members social news better in the near future.

One session that fell flat was around Apps and App development in the sector. The consensus seemed to be that (with an exception of the well funded national and international charities), app development is really not happening, expensive, time-consuming, over technical and essentially not a good ‘return on investment’ technology.  This ties with my experience – it’s more than hard enough to get smaller non-profits to get their websites right without trying to get an app off the ground.  But at least having the discussion at VCSSCamp allows me the freedom to ‘park’ the App idea for the foreseeable future.

An interesting discussion was to be had around data, open data and linked data. It got technical and high-brow, but in essence data, when shared and combined, has a real power to transform understanding and potentially delivery in our sector. We had the sense though that we are at the point now where we were perhaps 10 years ago when proposing a move to websites for the sector.  Perhaps in 10 years time at VCSSCamp 16+ we’ll be talking about the successes of open data, but for now we’re at the start of this journey.

Hats off to open data pioneers, to DataCamps, to funders such as Big Lottery via the 360giving initiative who are opening up funding data and to others.  But our discussions highlighted lots of pitfalls at the moment. Technical skills, funding and resources, competition for results within the sector, ownership of data and more were discussed.  Getting funders to ‘push’ a need for open data sets to be a requirement from grant funded projects down to groups was one proposal that seemed to have merit. But overall, asking non-profits to do something so hard at the moment was perhaps a step too far for now. We need to work out what motivations we can find for non-profits to make these steps in the future.

I still see lots of potential in this – using real data to find gaps in local support and provision, perhaps avoiding duplication and finding new needs.  But this is the just the start of this technical transformation.

And a final area I personally spent discussion time on today was the area of governance, trustees and technology.  Trustee boards seldom get technical, nor really drive or lead on things IT.  So what to do?

We agreed on the proposal that every board should have someone (a Technology Trustee?) who ensures that technology is on the agenda and is led from the board. We also agreed that this is rare, unlikely and difficult!  The terminology was raised as an issue – IT, ICT, technology, digital. What to call it these days.

Sharing strong messages with boards about the benefits of technology is key. Perhaps using success stories from others when these can be found.  Making all trustees use email as a starting point was also strongly pointed out – to the extent that trustees that don’t use technology are doing a disservice to their charity!

We discussed that there is too much short term thinking rather than long term visioning and planning.  That there is also too much emphasis on the visible, front line work rather than back office stuff – which puts technology in a bad position.

A final approach to this aligned closely to work we are now doing.  Bringing younger people (under 25) onto boards.  This generation are digitally native and will bring a new and different perspective into the charities and non-profits.  So our Big Lottery funded Young Leaders project in Grimsby is going to be a great experiment in trying to do two things at once – increase opportunities for younger people to get onto charity boards, whilst increasing the technology understanding on boards with which they are involved.  I’m looking forward to seeing how this experiment unfolds.

There were even more discussions at VCCSCamp 6 which I was not party to, but everything learned today will allow me to think afresh about how VANEL and I support our local non-profit sector.  Thanks to the organisers for making today happen.

New charity site for Shalom

I’m very pleased that today we’ve managed to make the new website for Shalom Youth Project go live.

This has been one of our typical approaches to web development.  I build all the technical bits, do the design planning and implementation and project management, but the other large factor is training and supporting the group themselves to learn the skills necessary to edit the site themselves, add content, stories and so on.  It’s a cost-effective and collaborative approach and the charity/group learn skills and have ownership of the final site.

The site is WordPress (as always), uses the Themify Ultra theme and very much uses the Builder functionality – which in this case the client has really managed to get to grips with.  Most of the content and many design decisions came from them.  A great result all round.  Still needs more work but Shalom are happy with where we’ve got to.  And it’s also all down to one of their team who volunteered to do a sponsored run (in the rain, it turned out!) to raise money to pay for the site.

The websites I’m doing via VANEL are so much more about the process, the support, the training and the skills transfer and empowerment.  So pretty pleased this one is now live.


“The View from the Top”

“The View from the Top” is my newish e-bulletin dealing with governance and trustees matters which now goes out every few months to trustees and committee members across our patch. More and more it was getting hard to get trustees (who are all volunteers) to attend networking and support meetings in person, but I needed a way to share information, news and advice with them. “The View from the Top” was born.

The first issue went out in October 2015 and there was a return of positive feedback, so I’m really pleased that I’ve managed to pull together another edition (for January 2016) which has just gone out. It’s an exclusive support tool to VANEL member organisations, their boards, committees and trustees, and I’m hoping I’ll keep being able to publish this regularly. Another big thumbs up for Mailchimp as always in making this easier to manage.

It also amazes me when I start researching the newsletter, just how many important reports, pieces of research and news and other interesting subjects there are circulating out there – each of which I’m genuinely concerned that trustees of smaller charities and organisations are missing out on. “The View from the Top” is my latest approach to sharing this knowledge.


Does the Raspberry Pi zero change anything?

The Pi zero is a full computer for £4. Obviously if you use it as a traditional computer then you’ll need screen, keyboard, USB hub, mouse, SD card, wifi dongle, cabling and so on. But the computer bit is just £4.

So for cash poor non-profits does this change anything?

“We can’t afford computers”. Does this mean they are more affordable?

What might you replace with these new micro machines?

They’re also a different flavour. Linux that you setup yourself. There’s no Windows or MS Office, but alternatives that you might not be used to. For a hobbyist this might not be an issue, but for a small non-profit is this a technical/skillset boundary still to be overcome despite the reduced cash outlay?

What about specialist uses? Uses for the Pi have always had a hobby feel. Yes everyone can create a media streamer or a cloud server or something to monitor whether the pot plant needs feeding. Fun, interesting, clever, but any use to a struggling non-profit looking to utilise computer power?

So I’m interested in what could be done with the Pi zero that is really useful.

What about running a looping presentation on a screen in your reception? A screen and a Pi zero doesn’t tie up another more valuable computer. What about casual use web surfing for your clients? But at this price could you supply them as part of a project to users/beneficiaries to do something that couldn’t have been done before? (what?)

So the £5 computer might be finally here. But what does that really equate to as a benefit for groups and non-profits looking to innovate or cut costs and do clever things?

Debugging a WordPress O2 installation

I like O2 – the WordPress theme and plugin combination from Automattic that replaced P2.

It’s a useful way to build a collective communication tool within WordPress. Automattic like it too as they use across the board to run their company.

But I’ve just had a few problems installing a version of it, so here’s my quick share of why and how…

They make the point that O2 is a little bit experimental – only use it on live sites if you know what you’re doing. I can see why. Anyway, a straightforward installation on a site (like my Digital Mapping initiative site here) is easy.

You upload to wp-content/themes the P2-breathe theme.
You upload to /plugins the O2 plugin.
You also upload the Genericon’d plugin via WP dashboard and activate (only necessary if you’re not using Jetpack).
Switch via the dashboard to the P2 theme, active O2 plugin and you’re done.


The O2 plugin needs to come from the Github repository. If you download the .zip, upload to your hosting and unpack it, don’t forget to rename the directory to “O2” – don’t leave it as “O2-master” as it comes from Git.

The P2 theme needs to be left called “P2-breathe” in the directory, but you might need to get the files via an SVN tool (such as Tortoise). I did this the first time around and created my own .zip to use.

My problem this week was that this 10 minute process didn’t work. As much as I tried, every time I enabled the O2 plugin I got a WP “white screen of death”. Nothing. Disable the plugin then the theme worked, but the plugin failed.

It took me a lot of hours to figure it out. Reminder to myself next time to be quicker in turning to WordPress debug mode. Switch it on via the config file and as soon as I visited the failing site I got a useful debug message telling exactly which file, line and call my fatal error was coming from. A quick Google search told me what I wanted to know.

O2 is very clever. So much so that it needs a very specific level of PHP on the server to provide a mb_string function which needs to be enabled. So our main VANEL server hosting account is up to date and has everything in place, so O2 installations work. BUT the cheaper, simpler hosting for the client site I was trying to prepare is less up to date on PHP, so O2 fails! No matter how much I try, I’ll not get O2 running in that hosting setup. Warning to myself and others to check the hosting setup before embarking on O2 installations.

For now I’ve worked around, solved my problem and know how to approach.

Good customer service makes up for technical errors

A technical problem with Spotify nearly had me cancelling this week. But after 24 hours their customer support came to my help via email, sorted my problem extremely efficiently and politely, made me happy and kept me as a customer.

Via the Spotify website I swapped from a monthly card payment to PayPal only to discover soon after that I’d been charged twice but had also lost my Premium ability on all the devices I was running Spotify on. Out of pocket with no service of value.

Help pages, customer support contact form and a number of email exchanges later and everything working again and my double payment credited.

We/you are always going to have problems with your service or product. But if you put the right customer service in place then you’ll go a long way to making your customers more tolerant of those faults.

Well done Spotify. Not for the problem in the first place (you still need to fix that). But because of the way you dealt with the issue and kept me as a customer.

Tracking your visitors

Google Analytics may be the ‘gold standard’ approach to tracking who’s visiting your website, but sometimes I just find it’s a bit over the top.Some sites just don’t need another google account to be setup, nor the efforts to configure google analytics – even with the availability of a range of good WordPress plugins these days.

So I’ve just discovered WP Slimstat. A simple plugin that does it all from within WordPress. Not external accounts.

Just used it on our Annual Report website and on a couple of very simple client sites. Works just fine. Quick and easy and does the job.

There are extensions of course and ways to make it even more powerful (at a cost). But out the box it seems to do what I need.

So that’s today’s WordPress plugin recommendation!

Evernote failure is just a symptom of something bigger

Evernote failed on me this week. And I rely on it every single day working between all of my devices.
I reached the 250 notebook limit via the Windows app (why it’s as low as that, I don’t know – that’s another story).

So I deleted some old notebooks. Several in fact. Until I had 235. I know I had 235 – Evernote told me. It also told me I had exceeded the 250 limit and had to reduce to below that. I’m pretty certain that 235 is less than 250, but Evernote wasn’t really sure about this.

So stalemate. No synchronisation. No faith in the product to keep all my notes updated between devices.  

After three days I solved it. Thanks to Google, a variety of forums, links to answers and suggestions and a lot of playing. Solution was to use the online version of Evernote. Create a new notebook there & play around a bit online. Except to start with the online version wouldn’t let me even create a new notebook. Next day it did, so more playing. I added notebooks & notes. Moved them. Deleted them. Closed down Evernote on the PC. Restarted. Repeat until bored.

Day 3 – it worked. It recognised my lowered number of Notebooks and everything is playing nicely again.

Lesson 1 – to Evernote

If you code in your own restriction (250 notebooks), then it’s incumbent upon you to deal with that properly. Not have it fail like it does. And watch your own forums and the chatter about failures. These forum conversations went back a while – the problem is not new. So get it fixed and don’t do it again.

Lesson 2 – the bigger issue

I hear people say regularly, “I don’t like computers. They don’t work”. And I agree. When they work, fine. When they don’t, how will the average (non IT administrator competent) user fix it. Googling solutions, experimenting, using all kinds of troubleshooting techniques is not a norm – it’s an advanced IT technique. And end users shouldn’t be required to do it. 

So a lesson to the general public must be – be prepared and find someone to help you!

And a lesson to the IT industry must still be the same one that has been there for years – get it right. Get the technology to just work. All the time. The first time. Otherwise it’s only the IT geeks who will be happy.

Back to Trello…

It’s a while since I’ve used Trello, but it’s evolved and I’m back to experimenting with it again. It’s a great tool for managing tasks etc in a very visual way, and in general use it is free to use.I have a couple of specific use-cases in mind – the primary one is managing smallish web/technical development projects with external (generally non-technical) clients. Trello has a short learning curve and is very visual and drag and drop. So for a smallish, manageable number of tasks I think this is going to work. Time will tell.

Main competitor for me at the moment is Asana, so I’m going to be looking for differences and pros and cons.  

Asana is the more power user type tool. Very long task lists are more easily handled – they look like they’ll become hard quickly in Trello. Also tasks can be in multiple projects simultaneously in Asana, which means it’s possible to mock up a pseudo CRM system (as we are doing at present) in Asana. Can’t see this working in Trello.

But for „boards at a glance“ I can see the advantages of Trello – especially where interaction is useful with other people.
I’ll probably be posting more reviews and feedback over time, but some of the areas I’m looking at with tools such as Asana, Trello, Podio etc…

– cross platform editing and tools
– reporting (especially from search subsets)
– exporting data
– publishing to websites (might be a lot to ask!)
– access by third party collaborators
– field data (Podio wins this one)
– linking data entry and tasks together
– managing multiple, complex, different projects and so on.

If you’re not using Trello at all – give it a go, it’s great.

I’m interested to see where I’m going to be able to use each of these tools most effectively…