John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
Comments from the Associate Editor
During the last two years an attempt has been made to solicite guest editorials covering a wide segment of cyberspace. I remain fascinated by the Houston Geological Society. This large organization, located in the world's largest concentration of geoscientists, truly functions by the volunteer method.
This months guest editorial is supplied by Dave Crane and should be valuable reading for any organization in which things happen (or don't happen) via volunteers.
The experience of the Houston Geological Society (HGS) on starting a web site is probably both typical and instructive for those just now starting a web site for a professional society. The author and Ken Aitken, both members of the Computer Applications Committee (CAC) of the HGS, first recommended that the HGS establish a web site in 1995 and we were immediately nominated to do the work. We had no other charter, no funding, and relatively limited experience in creating web pages or writing in HyperText Markup Language (HTML). During the next two years we learned a lot. While some of our experiences may be predictable, we hope that by relating them we can assist another society taking these important steps. The HGS web site is located at http://www.hgs.org.
We had none. The CAC more or less "winged it". We still have no formal policy in place but are working to recommend one to the board of directors. The group making that recommendation is called HIPS, the HGS Internet Publishing Steering subcommittee. Meanwhile, we are working under a simple guideline designed to minimize errors.
The CAC will provide oversight and suggestions as needed. Nothing will be published on the HGS web page that has not been cleared by an authorized representative of the HGS. Material published or planned for publication in the HGS Bulletin is acceptable, as are committee announcements that come from committee chairmen or their designees. Any elected officer of the HGS may request postings appropriate to their office. The web page manager has no authority to authorize additional material.
We had none. The testing space was made available by CAC members. The first "official" web page was made available by a local Information Services Provider (ISP) at a special rate for non-profits of $25 per month. Domain names at that time were free, though "dot ORG" names now cost approximately $50 per year, with the first two years due in advance.
We had none - other than ASCII text editors. Two years later we still use text editors because no HTML editor we have tested is worth the aggravation that comes with it. The only real requirement is that the pages be meaningful and available to all varieties of browsers. For example, when a graphic is displayed, it should have an "ALT" designation that explains that graphic to browsers incapable of seeing graphics. That facility is also of benefit to handicapped visitors. ASCII editors have another benefit: they force the page designer to understand HTML and encourage him or her to find efficient ways to standardize the design of all pages. We used a standard template and are in the process of designing a set of standard templates, one for each major area of the site.
We have depended on volunteers all along. We started with two "web site managers" but soon discovered how difficult it was to coordinate changes involving the same file. I now do all the basic site management and updating but I delegate specific pages or areas to others. No page has more than one person assigned to make changes to it.
From the beginning, the Executive Committee of the HGS has been very supportive. We have been allowed to make progress as fast as we could do so, and they have responded positively to every funding request. It helps, of course, that we have asked for almost no money. Our budget for 1997-1998 will be about $1,000 which includes acquisition of a more appropriate domain name and a move to a more expensive services provider. We continue to have an all- volunteer web-page staff.
We had none. Well, we had no internet expertise and still have no Unix expertise from the CAC. Obviously, we all had computer experience of one kind or another and a willingness to learn.
All you need to start is a volunteer and web space. Most people with internet access also have private web space where they can begin developing the web pages. If you can start with an experienced developer, so much the better. In either case, you will need an oversight group.
After the basic material is entered, it's time to look for a domain name and a permanent ISP. Look for an ISP willing to make special arrangements for a non-profit society and also willing to help establish the new domain name on their site. You will need at least two megabytes of web space and will grow to need more.
Site management includes all the obvious details like password maintenance, ISP (vendor) relations, InterNIC communications, overall design, and delegation, as well as some that are not so obvious. I find myself doing basic editing chores, advertising and promotion, and chairing the HIPS subcommittee. In short, the site manager is the focal point of all activity but cannot possibly do all the work. We are fortunate to have quite a few volunteers who help.
Our first site used a minimum of graphics because 1) graphics generally require a large amount of storage space on the web site and, 2) they also take a lot of time to download to the visitor who uses a modem. We are now looking a providing our web site in two versions, the original and another with a lot of graphics and advanced features like "frames" and perhaps some Java material.
Multiple sites soon became an obvious solution to a variety of problems. We appear to be contained on one contiguous site but, in fact, are spread over three or four sites all over the USA, with more to come. We have worked to keep those sites "seamless", meaning almost indistinguishable from the prime site, by using a common template for most pages.
Multiple sites not only offer additional web space, but make it possible to delegate sections of the web page to people at their own web sites. That means they have full access and password control to those pages. They are trustworthy and follow all of our guidelines, but I can always remove access to those sites by changing the links on the main site.
Multiple sites had several unexpected benefits when we started publishing "articles" on the web site. Some are unique, like the presentations on web browsing. But others are hypertext versions of articles to be published in the HGS Bulletin. In both cases we have allowed authors to make their articles available on their own web sites and we simply provide a link. That means the author has control over editing and modifying his or her article and that simple errors can be corrected without contacting me. It also means that if they have a great new idea, like putting their own picture with their byline, they can add it to their article without having to coordinate with me.
We hope to be innovative. Web pages that do little more than list other web pages are boring. Our response to that tendency has been to go to the other extreme. We refuse to list the Universal Resource Locator (URL) of another site unless that site is specifically relevant to our membership or to the context of the article in which it appears.
One of our current innovations is "Forums". We have established an area, actually a remote site, where we can hold BBS-like "conversations" through posted messages. Each Forum has a topic and a moderator, and most have a specific time limit beyond which the forum will be closed and perhaps edited and published as an article.
We will soon add a membership look-up feature. Data retrieval cannot be handled by a "markup" facility like HTML. It requires Unix-level programming by way of a CGI, or "Common Gateway Interface. For that matter, the Forums mentioned previously are implemented through a CGI. But our ISP doesn't allow use of CGI's unless they, the ISP, have written them. No matter. We were fortunate to obtain the assistance of Jim Esten at WebDynamic who not only provided the Unix CGI expertise, but also provided the web space for the Forums. The CGI's that we happen to be using are essentially "freeware". The Forums use one called WWWBoard and the membership list will use a CGI that was written for a sister society.
We hope soon to make the web site self-sustaining, much like the HGS Bulletin pays for itself. Our HIPS subcommittee will make recommendations regarding advertising and coordination with the HGS Bulletin's advertising staff and their needs.
It's fair to say that our new web page has had little impact on the organization so far, but probably will have some in the near future. Our major impact so far has been an improvement in the mechanisms of HGS information distribution. Previously, if anything needed to be published, it was enough that it found it's way to the editor of the HGS Bulletin. Not even the full- time office secretary of the HGS knew the schedule of activities for next month. We all got our information from the Bulletin, when published. We are changing that because the web page needs information as far in advance as possible and can publish it with far less lead time. The Society office is keeping the calendar of events.
In the future, depending on HIPS subcommittee recommendations and their approval, we expect the web-page editor to become an elected official of the society and the relationship between the web- page editor, the bulletin editor, the advertising manager, and other officials, to be more formally recognized.
I hope that you have gained some insight into what it takes to start a site for a non-profit society and I invite anyone who needs more information to contact me. My personal email address is firstname.lastname@example.org but I can be reached by sending email to email@example.com.
Since November 10, 1997
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