Kevin has asked me to write something about how we approached the initial creation of the site at westernlimb.org, in case it’s useful or of interest to others.

The technical side of the site was very straightforward. Working with a dedicated graphic designer meant I got to focus solely on bringing everything together.  The general principle I advocated was to enable contributors to take effective ownership of the site content as soon as possible.

It can be seductive to start by polishing the presentation before establishing a body of worthwhile content.  However, gathering a body good content from a variety of contributors is a long-term task spread over weeks or even months.  Producing a reasonable look and feel can be done by one or two people in a matter of days.  Good project management means starting such long, uncertain tasks early on.

Even before the initial design for the site was sketched out, I encouraged Kevin to start blogging here, on westernlimb.wordpress.com. This helped him organise his thoughts and ideas into a form where they could be used to flesh out the site and set the focus.  It will also be simple matter to integrate the blog more fully into the main site, now it is up.

The map draws geographic knowledge from several sources who needed to be able to start contributing without having to learn lots of new stuff.  By sharing a Google Map, I was able to start people on a familiar interface that was trivial to embed in the site straightaway.  This also ensured that the data could be easily ported to a more sophisticated representation at a later date.

The timeline was slightly more involved.  After a little research, I was pleased to find TimelineJS which could pull information from a shared Google Spreadsheet and present it beautifully. Being able to view the timeline as new information was being added let the contributor check it was working well within the timeline representation.

Having the site driven early on by live data source (i.e. Google Docs and Maps) avoided nasty headaches in conflicts, omissions and duplications from multiple authorship.  It also removed late surprises and kludges in terms of how the information appeared on the site.

This first iteration of the platform is still fairly sparse in terms of content but it’s ready to grow and adapt to future needs with a simple, loosely-connected approach which also accommodates future development from within the served community.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves.

(a version of this post also appears at shellsi.com/westernlimb)

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