Civic Media Tech 2011

We have several high traffic blogs in the Civic Media department of OpenPlans:

Over the past while, the technology and design of the blogs have become somewhat outdated, we have tolerated some technical performance problems, yet still their readership continues to grow.  During 2011, I plan on improving these things in the hopes that doing so will foster continued community growth in both quantitative and qualitative ways.

The Plan for 2011

Here are the things I would like to do, in this order:

1) Standardize the infrastructure

Currently, the various blogs run on different versions of WordPress, between versions 2.7 and 2.9.  I’d like to move all these to one version, probably WordPress 3.1.

The codebase the blogs are running on have some edits to the core WordPress code.  This has been necessary in the past to customize blog behavior.  I would like to try and get as many of these modifications as possible out of the core files to facilitate upgrades in the future.

The GothamSchools blog runs on an apache web server while the others run on a lighttpd server.  The blogs use plugins like SuperCache and MobilePress that are finely tuned to work with their particular web server.  I’d like to standardize this setup so that all blogs run using the best possible server infrastructure for both speed, stability, and easy of upgrading in the future.

Even though lighttpd is a faster web server, tuning it is more difficult because there is not as much help on the web compared with the industry standard web server, apache.  Also, plugins are built to work with apache, not lighttpd.  So I’d like to try building the new infrastructure using apache.  We can run benchmarks to see how this will affect performance on the blogs.

I would also like to experiment with the W3TotalCache plugin to replace the SuperCache plugin.  It is a more advanced cacheing plugin and should make the sites faster than they are with SuperCache.  Stay tuned for the results of this experimentation.

2) Improve the commenting system

An important part of online news is the interaction with the community members, commenting on articles, recommending articles to each other, etc.  To this end, creating identities for commenters helps to increase the quality of the conversation that takes place.  Commenters currently can create user profiles on, but we have stopped working on this platform and plan on retiring it completely.

To take its place, I’d like to experiment with the Disqus commenting platform.  I tried getting this to work last year but wasn’t successful, perhaps due to the old version of WordPress I was trying it on.  Hopefully, after we upgrade our version of WordPress, Disqus will work.  If so, I can then decouple the profiles.

The Disqus commenting system comes with a lot of advanced features out of the box.  See an example on this blog post.  Users can post comments using various existing authentication systems (like Facebook, Google etc), can “Like” comments, can see other comments posted by individual users, etc.  Since Disqus comments are hosted globally, a user’s comments will list not just the comments they have made on the current blog, but all comments they have made across all blogs.  So some users who comment on more than one Streetsblog will have their comments listed together when someone looks at their profile.  Hopefully, if the Disqus system runs smoothly, it will offer our readers a richer commenting platform.

3) Improve the mobile featureset

Currently our blogs do have some mobile themes.  When a user navigates to the site using a mobile browser, it switches to the mobile theme automatically.  Apparently smart phones are due to overtake computers this year as the way the world gains access to the internet.  For more info on this see here.  Whether we see this on our own blogs or not, we should make plans for accommodating this trend.

To that end, I’d like to switch to using a more advanced mobile infrastructure than what we currently have.  I’d like to use the WPTouch plugin or the WordPress Mobile Pack plugin.  These plugins have more advanced themes with features such as automatically rescaling images and content layout to support a mobile browser.  They allow for having ads in the themes and have an admin panel to allow blog editors to manage their blog from their phones.

4) Redesign parts of the sites

Requests have been made by our editors for various improvements to the design of the sites.  Here are some of the ideas:

  • allow for sticky posts (posts that remain at the top of the post listing, similar to the top three thumbnails at the GGWashington blog)
  • redesign the author pages on the Streetsblogs to better highlight the author, similar to how it is done on GothamSchools
  • a magazine-style redesign of the site, more like the NYTimes, rather than traditional blog post listings

5) Add other features

Other features that could be improved are:

  • replace the WordPress search with a Google-powered search
  • implement a Meetup Everywhere campaign across all Streetsblogs
  • correct and standardize the use of Categories and Tags across the Streetsblogs
  • add a jobs board to Streetsblog, similar to the one on GothamSchools
  • better integration with Facebook and Twitter

For each of these improvements, I am going to try and create standard ways of doing things that can be used across all sites in Civic Media.

Measuring The Plan

To judge the effectiveness of all of this, we need to develop ways of measuring the quantity and quality of the community involvement on the blogs and then plot how this changes as we roll out various improvements.  Stay tuned for a blog post soon about that.

5 Responses to “Civic Media Tech 2011”

  1. Anil Says:

    Chris, sounds like you have an exciting year ahead of you. I am looking forward to see how all of these projects will turn out. Please keep updating your blog as you make progress. I would love to hear about the challenges that you face for each part of the plan.

  2. Myron Davis Says:

    I grabbed a random log file and it translates out to about 6.8million hits a week, so around 900k hits per day, (sometimes a lot more, sometimes slightly less but usually at least 800k) with some nice burst traffic.

    all of the mobilepress code has been heavily modified as well as the supercache stuff; I was looking at totalcache and it looks like a lot of the issues in the past may have already been taken care of by totalcache. It will be fun to see the performance numbers as it is built.

    I know it kind of sucks not being able to update a lot of stuff without customizing stuff.

    Maybe this time wordpress will have advanced far enough where this won’t be as much as an issue anymore.

  3. Vanessa Says:

    Looks like a great plan, Chris.

  4. danlatorre Says:

    Dig the focus on mobile and social, totally agree. We just switched to Discus recently and metrics are still being gathered on how this affected site usage, will share with you once I have a POV on it.

  5. Chris Abraham Says:

    @danlatorre: I’d be interested to know what metrics you are gathering for this analysis. I’ve been thinking of that too… been thinking of mining some data on comment frequency over time to gauge the quality of the community interactions.