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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Colombia Support Network Website Undergoes Site Redesign

Colombia Support Network has just completed a re-design of www.ColombiaSupport.net finishing a nine month effort.  Unless this is your first visit to this site you surely have already noticed the difference!  But the effort really began about 18 years ago when the Colombia Support Network launched the very first website on Colombia’s human rights, becoming the oldest, continuing voice on the Web for human rights in Colombia.

During the current design process, Cecilia Zarate told of us of the time in 1995, when board member John Fournelle, a Geologist and former resident of Colombia proposed a website for the organization.  Not really understanding the implications, the board gave John the go-ahead.  Not long after, Cecilia noticed an upsurge in phone calls and contact to the CSN office from around the country.  Asking one of the callers how they had heard about CSN, she learned that the interest was being driven by the new web site.  “What is a ‘web site’?” she responded.

Well, Cecilia’s technical acumen has grown a bit since then, but she still relies extensively on the guidance of others to try and keep CSN up-to date.  Following John Fournelle’s pioneering work; the website was managed for several years by Rolando de Aguiar, an activist from Philadelphia.  Rolando worked very hard to expand and maintain the site’s month-to-month coverage and his efforts can still be seen in the CSN “old news archive” section covering the years 1995 to 2004 where over a thousand news articles are still maintained.

Rolando’s efforts to keep the site updated were continued by Cliff Jones, an activist with the Kansas City CSN Chapter who became webmaster for several years leading up to 2004 when he asked the board to start looking for a replacement.  At about that same time, my wife and I participated in a Dane County Chapter delegation to San José de Apartadó.  My wife had attended college in Colombia in the 1970’s and the trip gave us an opportunity to meet her “family” there, as well as carry out all the usual delegation visits, listening to communities and reporting to Colombian and US government officials.  It goes without saying that participating in a CSN peace delegation is a life-changing experience.  Looking for ways to help, I did not hesitate when Cecilia Zarate asked if I would help with the web site.

Without getting into too much technical detail, I will just say that Cliff Jones’ work to automate some of the processes made the initial update to the site rather easy but changes in web technology required that settings on about 200 pages be manually changed.  But the interim redesign in 2005 was considered temporary and we were just laying the groundwork for the full re-design.  Looking at this 1995 news-post, we envisioned “A gradually changing new look to a bold, contemporary design”, as well as “More regularly updated news features”.  The latter goal was quickly realized in 2005 by connecting the news page to a “blog” account that allowed the CSN Staff to quickly post articles to the CSN news page via email.  This accounts for the treasure-trove of over a thousand news articles that were posted to the site in the ensuing seven years. 

The transition to a “bold new look” took much longer than we envisioned.  Now a huge site with a complex structure, links to hundreds of documents and over two thousand news articles it was no longer a job for a weekend volunteer.  In 2010, the CSN board acquired a generous grant for web-site redesign and technology improvements.  At that time, I was asked to look for a student intern who could manage the change-over.  Bright and talented student Emalee Reeder, made a gallant attempt at creating a new site based on a “content management system” or CMS, but it forced us to realize that the project was too large and complex and we needed to look for a seasoned developer.  In 2011, we began that search and found Tracy Apps, who indeed was the dedicated, compassionate and seasoned web developer that we needed.  She tolerated all of our back-tracking, added specifications and internal disagreements on design and structure with grace and wisdom.  You are now looking at the fruits of her nine months of work.  We are also grateful to Steve, Brice and all the members of the UW-Badgers Student Chapter of CSN.  Their energy and social-media acumen helped connect the site to those new media and you’ll see that as a growing area of CSN outreach, thanks to their efforts.  A shout-out also goes to our new web host, www.dreamhost.com who graciously offer greatly reduced rates to non-profit organizations.

It should be noted here that maintaining and continuing a website of this proportion is not easy and should not be attempted “on the cheap”.  Many human-rights organizations have budgets in the millions of dollars to back up their websites.  With this redesign, we exhausted the grant and currently have NO budget for maintenance, upgrades, repairs or improvements.  I strongly encourage you to use the “DONATE” button at the top of the site to vote for continuing CSN’s efforts to engage technology in the fight for peace and justice in Colombia.

Very sincerely yours,

David Thomas, “Interim” Webmaster.



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