MIT Drupal Group
Working more efficiently will be critical for improving web development at MIT. The following screencast presents a basic way for new sites to take advantage of what is already available. The fact that there aren't terms to describe this indicates how much of paradigm shift this is. But basically, the idea is to shift energy from pre-launch development to post-launch development. And to improve the 0 maintainibility of our current situation to 100% maintainability.
|1. Start with any MIT website.||1 minute.||50%|
|2. Clone the site and strip out all content||5 minutes||75%|
|3. Create a second site.||1 hour to 2 days to migrate existing site; 1 day to 2 weeks to create new site.||100%|
|4. Create a third site.||1 hour to 2 days to migrate existing site; 1 day to 2 weeks to create new site.||100%|
In the screencast, I started with the MIT Energy Club website, which has complete documentation for all levels of user and contains the following feature set:
- MIT event management
- Media galleries for slideshows and videos
- Integration with MIT News Office Feeds
- And a lot more.
What is important to say here is that within 5 minutes you have an MIT distribution that can be used to build any other site at MIT. And every feature of the original site is not part of the distribution. And every feature you add to any subsequent site is available to all the other sites. The advantages of maintainability and functonality are exponentially greater than the current silo development at MIT.
For my demo, I used my distribution to build a new site for MIT's Environmental Solutions Initiative, which seems to currently have a placeholder site built with Squarespace. The site has very little content, so it took little more than an hour to rebuild it. If MIT precedent holds, my guess is that ESI Has already contracted with an outside developer to build a new website, presumably using Drupal.
Like many center-based sites at MIT, the Environmental Initatives site has projects, principal investigators, and committee members. So I built some new features to handle this kind of content.
Next I noticed that ESI is somehow involved with the new Water initiative. This is a Drupal 7 site with great design and solid development. I would put this site in the top 3 at MIT for overall quality, including design, development, and maintainability. But as the JWAFS program unfolds, they will be adding the same kind of functionality that many center sites at MIT require, so why reinvent the wheel to achieve results that are already available?
This site is a bit of an outlier at MIT, in that most MIT sites are fairly simple and straightforward. A calendar of events, a headline or two, and a list of who's who. Mission accomplished. The Deshpande Center site doesn't do much more than that but it has a breathtaking visual design. I've never seen an academic site more beautiful than this. And the quality of the development under the hood is just as high-quality. As a work of graphic design, this is my idea of heaven. Just the way the orange has been added to the top half of the background, and the sidebar rollovers extended so that they match. As design, I find that thrilling. And the technical skill required of the developer who implements these idea -- well, this is as good as it gets.
And that's where the good news ends. The only communication going on here involves money. Give us this bit of money, the center says, and we'll give you this chunk of money back. And that's the extent of the transaction. What's happening with the
This was an award winning site back in the day. It must be well over 10 years old. It's a Drupal 6 site. They may actually be in luck with the release of Drupal 8 at the end of the year, because one of the built-in strengths of 8 is migration from 6 to 8. But was it really necessary for this site to stand still for so many years? My years with the Energy Club tell me that the most active and public-spirited students at MIT are the engineers in the School of Engineering, and of those, the students in CEE are in a class. I know there are a bunch of student blogs listed somewhere on the site — timely content from students wrotingh about things they're passionate -- but I'll be darned if I can find it right now. Ten years andnot a pixel has changed on this site -- oh, I think afterthe first five years the slideshow photos were updated.
I find the web development situation at MIT incredibly depressing. Everyone seems to be working in isolation. This work is too difficult and fast-changing for that kind of approach. We have to be working in teams. It's true for every other type of development -- why would it be different in web development?
I worked for five years for Institute Professor Penny Chisholm, and one of Penny's favorite expressions was, "We're going backwards." That is indeed true in web development at MIT. In some sense it doesn't really matter. MIT is booming, and improving how MIT communicates its work online is not going to make it boom any bigger.
But the world isn't booming, at least not for the better. It's actually doing quite badly.
After working five years for Penny, I went to work for Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, to build websites for his Air Pollution in Megacity Program. No links because I'm not sure the program exists anymore. It certainly doesn't exist at MIT. Mario was given millions of dollars to lead a type of program that was popular ten or so years ago, an "integrated assessment." The idea was to bring together such people as politicians, doctors, city planners, scientists, the business community, city residents, and others, to determine among thsemlves what could be done right now, with the information that we know right now, to improve the disastrous air quality in megacities like Mexico City, Shanghai and San Paolo. After five years, the program conducted its first in situ study.
If a program led by someone as passionately brilliant as Mario Molina could go off the tracks, how much easier for so many others?
At MIT, the consensus seems to be that web development means posting your events, your news, and your group members. That's tricky enough, as any encounter with Drupal Cloud will make you aware. But that isn't isn't web development. Web development is communication. It's a complicated dance between your message, the tool you're using, and the community. Twitter and Facebook don't dominate because people love Twitter and Facebook. They dominate because they're easy to use. And that easiness is extraordinariy difficult to achieve.
Let's take a look at some websites to see how things have gone wrong.
In any case, I think MIT should give undergraduates the option of picking up freelance work as hourly Drupal Cloud developers. They'd hit the ball out of the park with this one. And they would bring the kind of innovation that Drupal Cloud needs.
Also, a hidden power tool within Drupal Cloud is the import functionality that comes with the Feeds module. This allows you to quickly populate a site with content (group member bio and contact information, etc; research projects and dates and publications, etc) pulled in from a csv file that has the information laid out as a table. UROPers would fly through projects like this and it would be a tremendous service for getting new Drupal Cloud sites up and running.
MIT Libraries should be a fundamental partner in web development at MIT. Whenever I go to a developer's event in the Boston area, someone from MIT Libraries is there. They're engaged, smart, and have an extraordinary culture of user support. From first to last they are simply in a league and a class of their own.
And they're also campus-wide. Drupal Cloud is not particularly difficult but little things can trip you up badly. Having a walk-in help all over campus would be a very powerful help.
Beyond that, major changes are coming down the pike in regard to metadata and tagging content so that it shows up in search results and can be re-used in countless new ways. This is work that MIT Libraries should absolutely be leading for the rest of the Institute.
Finally, publications and citations are a key part of many websites at MIT. Drupal Cloud has the biblio module, which is a start, but using it effectively, and integrating it with all the citation resources that are coming available, again, needs to be coordinated through the libraries.
I became interested in Drupal only because of my work as webmaster for the MIT Energy Club. That started in 2007 and gradually expanded to Energy Night, the Energy Conference, and now the Clean Energy Prize. All of that has been its own reward, but the original thought, which remains true, is that communication is fundamental to improving this world. In the early years of the Energy Club, a successful MIT alum would treat the two dozen members of the executive committee to a meal in the Italian North End. The dinner was so lavish that even Nero would have blushed, but it was clear what the alum was gaining from the outlay. He would spend the evening rotating among the students, asking each in turn what they believed to be the fundamental key idea in their field. When he came to me, I would do my Chicken Little routine and say that everything was getting worse. He would nod and move on. But one year he surprised me by saying, "I agree. What do you think we need."
"Better communication," I said. "Better ways of communicating information, of reaching consensus."
I still believe that. I'm the only non-student on the executive board of these groups because students are not interested in communication. But their work and their ideas need to be communicated. For better or worse, online discussion is shaping our world, and MIT and its students have to be a part of that.
It is difficult to know what would be the most constructive input to offer to the new Drupal Cloud management team. But here are five recommendations to get the work started:
- A five-year commitment from IS&T to maintain and extend Drupal Cloud.
- Complete documentation.
- Default content and features specific to MIT.
- A functional user community forum site.
What I see when I look at Drupal Cloud is a snapshot of the ideas that were current when Drupal Cloud was conceived back in 2009 or so, using modules that were essentially ported from Drupal 6. These have long since been replaced by more powerful modules, so that Drupal Cloud feels more like a Drupal 6 platform to form. With Drupal 8 due out at the end of the year, it's necessary to understand how Drupal Cloud intends to evolve in this rapidly evolving climate.
More significantly, the lack of documentation and lack of default content specific to MIT forces every site builder to reinvent the wheel, after first learning how to do so in the first place. Providing this documentation and default content would take no more than a week, two at most. The fact that years have gone by and this hasn't happened raises red flags. Drupal Cloud was originally intended as, I believe, a self-service platform for student groups and small research group websites. But now entire departments have begun to migrate themselves to Drupal Cloud, so the consequences of its success and utility are relevant for every aspect of MIT's communications effort.
Someone emailed me a few days to ask that question. I didn't know, so I emailed its Dev/Ops maintainer, Camilla Fox, who replied to say
"...the Drupal Cloud team is under new management, and we are working on our direction/strategy; most of us identify primarily by other titles, but the project is very much supported."
Good to know.