Report on the website of the World Archaeological Congress
Internet and Global Communications Task Force Chair
World Archaeological Congress
Several dimensions of the website for the World Archaeological Congress have been under review and development for the past 18 months. There are several factors that have resulted in the much needed changes taking much longer than anticipated or desired. This report outlines some of the plans, challenges, and steps we are taking to build out the website and communication tools in service of the WAC community.
Current State, brief history of the WAC Website
The WAC website has been volunteer managed and operated for as long as WAC has had a digital presence. In late 2003, a small Internet and Global Communications Taskforce was created after WAC-5 was held in Washington, DC. A web designer/programmer was contracted to create a new web presence for WAC in 2006 and the website underwent a thorough review and redesign. More than just a cosmetic makeover, all of the content in the site was scrutinized, and the overall user interface has been designed to be much more accessible and user friendly (and multi-lingual). The site launched on 4th August, 2006. Some of the key features included:
* New server - The main site was moved to a major web hosting company that provides substantial speed improvements.
* Standardized and easy-to-use navigation - the content of every section and page of the WAC website is accessible using the navigation panel on the left side of each page.
* News updates - The top WAC news stories are selectable on every page in the site.
* Multi-lingual support - Due to the simplified and standardized code structure, the site is easily translatable to other languages. Initially, we are using Babelfish to offer translation.
While the site has been stable and served us well for these past few years, it has been the intent of the Internet and Global Communications Taskforce to completely update the site to take advantage of several 'Web 2.0' features, and to make the site a true hub of communication for the WAC community.
In late 2007, a members area was established on the WAC site to offer surveys, a forum tool and access to the Springer journal, Archaeologies. However, the members section of the site was really set up as a temporary measure (primarily to offer up a secure link for the Springer journal) until such time as some budget could be found to make the formidable changes required for the transmogrification.
In 2008, Paul Saeki was contracted to assess and develop an overall communications plan for WAC, including reviewing the mailing list, members database, survey and forum capabilities. The members section of the WAC site was fleshed out to include a survey tool, forum, documents management system, and several user access enhancements. A full report was submitted to the Executive in June, 2008.
Collaborating on the WAC members site. Michael Ashley (pictured), Cinzia Perlingieri (on Skype) and Achille Felicetti
WAC-6 and the Digital Heritage Working Group
At WAC-6, held in Dublin in July 2008, the Internet and Global Communications Taskforce held a set of public meetings solicit ideas for the WAC site, and to create a new group in service of WAC, the Digital Heritage Working Group. Over 50 people attended the meetings, and 36 people agreed to co-found the working group. Together, we worked on several resolutions to bring to the WAC plenary session, which were overwhelmingly approved. See the press release here.
The establishment of this group was essential in order to extend participation in the site development, but also in garnering interest and support for developing a digital community for WAC.
Immediately following WAC-6, plans to act on the feedback from the working group meetings were developed, modest funding approved, and work began. The plans include:
1. Server migration and optimization
2. Transition from static site to open source content management system, capable of multi-lingual and web accessibility support.
3. Migration of members database to web-based, MySQL system
4. Re-establishment of robust forum system
5. Establishment of secure survey tool
6. Integration of forum with mailing (discussion) list
7. Additional members services, including the capability to list/browse job postings, browse/download WAC publications, and vote/participate in policy polls.
Since WAC-6, the Digital Heritage Working Group has been tasked with very little, and this is my (Michael Ashley) fault, primarily due to changing jobs twice since July. Apologies to the group for radio silence, but this will be changing very soon.
The Task Force would also like to apologize to the WAC Community generally, since we should have done a much better job communicating the work being done to develop our digital infrastructure, as well as the difficulties and delays.
Security, Usability, Transparency
I would like to take a moment to address the complexities of this undertaking, and the concerns that have been raised about the forums and discussion list, at least in terms of the technical plans for WAC communications, and related policies for information and privacy protection. Perhaps the most critical requirements for the new site architecture, and why we have been slow to launch the new site, are our commitments to security, usability and transparency.
Developing a roadmap and technical implementation plan to serve 3,000 members worldwide in over 20 languages is a challenging, especially for a volunteer group. We have always moved slowly and cautiously with major changes to the site, and this is our largest (although much needed) undertaking to date. As we progress, we have filtered our decision making progress by considering
- Security: User privacy is a paramount concern. Web-based databases and content management systems are constantly subject to malicious attack. To date, we've kept the members database offline for this reason, despite the inconveniences of maintaining online and offline versions of user information. We will still maintain sensitive information offline (financial, personal email and other contact info), but we are pleased to have expert support to facilitate the establishment of online user services.
- Usability: It would be easier to define a members-only silo, but we have opted for the more community-friendly approach of pushing as much of the site into the public domain as possible. We've needed to establish several levels of access to achieve this, and it is far from perfect. But, we hope that over the next year, the WAC site will become an enjoyable portal for the WAC community, including support in many languages, community contributed news stories, and a thriving online forum and discussion lists.
- Transparency: The current WAC architecture lacks even basic tools for auditing, tracking and archiving changes to the site. The discussion list does not have functions for archiving discussions, or fine-level controls for managing content. In planning the new web services, we solicited expert advice to assure we would have these features built-in. For example, the new survey tool is actually a hosted, enterprise-level service that will provides full audit capabilities and will allow WAC committee members to set up their own surveys, and for users to see the results and process firsthand.
- Community Involvement: Above all, the new WAC services are designed with community involvement in mind. Policies, terms of service and user agreements are only as good as the community they serve. With the establishment of the Digital Heritage Working Group, consultation from other major archaeological societies (Society for American Archaeology - SAA; Society for Historical Archaeology - SHA; Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology - CAA; International Symposium on Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage - VAST), and some expert professional advice and development, we anticipate that the changes we are making together now will have long lasting and positive impacts for years to come.
Why Is It Taking So Long to Get This Done, and What Progress is Being Made?
We subdivided the work into three phases. The first phase, which would bring about the changes listed above, was scheduled to be completed by the end of the year (December 2008). Working on a small budget with otherwise volunteer effort, we ran into a few formidable obstacles that impeded the progress we hoped for. Our web programmer became gravely ill and needed to undergo treatment that prevented him from working more than a few hours per week throughout most of November/December, and while we muddled along, we were unable to move forward as we needed. He has since recovered and most of the difficult work is now behind us, including:
- Server migration, optimization, CMS installation
- Migration of members database to web-based system
- Establishment of forums
- Establishment of survey tool
- Establishment of document management system
- Integrated search capabilities (finally) for WAC site
- User management services
There is work to be done, quite a lot actually, but our best estimation is we should launch the WAC beta members section in three weeks, by the end of March. This is two months later than anticipated. Once launched, we will be requesting the WAC community to participate in a series of surveys and activities to help shape the site into something we will all enjoy using, and hopefully, depend on and be proud of.
Should you have any questions, suggestions or comments, please feel free to get in contact.