Australia’s Drupal procurement: you’ll never guess who won

From the ‘tying up loose ends’ department… I mentioned a while back that the Australian government was procuring Drupal services for the development of a government-wide (and non-mandatory) content management system.

The winning bidder was announced last week. And guess who it was? Acquia. Would you believe it? Contract details will be published online within 6 weeks, if you’re curious. The platform will be ‘broadly available to Commonwealth Government entities from February 2015’.

Australia wants Drupal-based gov-wide CMS

Canberra is planning on doing a GOVUK: developing a single ‘Whole-Of-Government Content Management System’ for Australia. And they’re very clear on what they want: ‘The solution must use Drupal open-source software‘.

Why Drupal? They’ve published a detailed report (PDF) on their decision. They had two key requirements: that it must be ‘truly Open Source’, and very much unlike GOVUK, that it ‘must not be a .NET or Ruby based solution’. Well well well.

There were 18 options on a long-list:

Australian Gov CMS longlist

which they assessed using various criteria, and came up with the following scores:

au-gov-CMS-assessment

The top three were then considered in more depth, with Drupal actually coming out third of the three in most cases, and its user experience coming in for particular criticism. But in the end they’ve opted for Drupal primarily, it seems, because of the availability of extension modules and (local) developer resource.

Obviously it’s more than a little disappointing to see WordPress ranking so low: but not entirely surprising. Nobody is currently tasked with representing the WordPress platform as, say, Acquia does for Drupal. (By the way – have a look at the list of open job vacancies at Acquia, including many in the UK. And compare that to the equivalent Automattic list. Quite a contrast in approaches.)

But it’s a victory for Open Source nonetheless – and an explicit recognition of the value of the sizeable community behind the Drupal platform. It’s exactly what I talked about in 2011, when I took GDS to task for building the GOVUK platform from scratch, ignoring the benefits (immediate and future) of working with an established external platform. And took a fair bit of flak for it.

It gets better: they’ve posted an explicit commitment to feed back into Drupal core. ‘It was unclear whether GovCMS intends to give back to the community,’ they admit: ‘it was always a clear intention of GovCMS to do this, we have made the statement more direct, and the Draft Deed of Standing Offer document clarifies this requirement further.’

If you fancy the work, tender responses need to be in by the end of the month.

Matt WordPress vs Dries Drupal

If you have any interest in WordPress and/or Drupal as a technology, or open source more generally, I urge you to find (at least) half an hour to watch this video from a conference in Houston, Texas a couple of weeks back: it’s Dries Buytaert, the project lead for Drupal and Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress sharing a platform for the first time ever.

If you’re hoping for fisticuffs, you’ll be somewhat disappointed. But it’s fascinating to hear the two luminaries explaining their perspectives – the many things which unite them, and the few aspects on which they diverge. It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the differing philosophies, structures, businesses and approaches behind the two world-leading platforms… and the strength of the open-source model in general.

There are some audio problems at the start of the recording, but do please bear with it. You won’t regret it.

White House contributing back to open source projects

Just over a year ago, I noted how the French government had contributed code back to the open source community, enhancing the Thunderbird email client for military purposes. I failed to not(ic)e that a few months later, the White House had done likewise – contributing a number of new modules for Drupal, based on development work done for its own Drupal-based site. And this week, they’ve announced the release of a few more modules:

Today’s code release constitutes a few modules we developed for ourselves, as well as a recognition of our sponsoring the development of modules widely used in the Drupal community, which improve the administration of our site in a variety of ways… We also recognize that there are really good projects already embedded in the Drupal community and reached out to help support their development.

In other words: not only are they recognising that off-the-shelf open source code is good enough for deployment at the highest conceivable levels… not only are they recognising the opportunity to build on top of it, to suit their own requirements… but they’re also getting actively involved with existing projects, in this case Open Atrium:

Prior to launching its internal site on Open Atrium, the White House helped strengthen the platform’s core by investing in key modules … Investment like this increases efficiencies gained by government agencies utilizing a common platform like Open Atrium … It’s really exciting that the White House team is so committed to giving back to open source communities with code contributions and smart investments like this.

It’s amusing to see the deliberate, repeated use of the word ‘investment’ in the piece: clearly, it’s in the interests of the product’s backers to do so, but I don’t think it’s an unfair choice of words. It’s public money being spent for greater long-term benefit.

I don’t have a problem with open source being initially ‘sold’ into government on the £0.00 pricetag: and in the case of WordPress at least, and probably also Drupal, that argument was won some time ago. We’re now entering the second phase, as departments realise that it can be customised to suit their specific needs: we’re moving from ‘can it do this?’ to ‘can it be made to do this?’. But the campaign won’t be complete until we’re going full-circle, contributing back to the projects we’re using.

Tories’ new packaged website service

I see the Conservatives have followed in the footsteps of both Labour and the LibDems, in offering a ‘website in a box’ service to local constituencies. Known as Bluetreenot to be confused with website developers bluetree.co.uk* – it’s based on Drupal (plus multi-site management add-on Aegir) and was developed by the UK’s self-proclaimed Drupal specialists, ComputerMinds. It promises ‘state-of-the-art technology … at a cost well below market rate’ – although there’s no (publicly visible) indication of precisely what that cost is.

It’s taking a little while to find its feet, judging by the first few examples I’ve come across – including WitneyConservatives.com, the constituency of one David Cameron. But the basic structure is obvious: about, events, news, people. Everything’s on brand, naturally, with promo boxes for the (national) party’s Twitter and Facebook accounts; and there’s a nice little arrangement, presumably RSS-based, to pull national news in from conservatives.com. The design is clear, if a little lacking in warmth.

It’s a reasonable idea, but they need to be careful not to fall into the same traps as the Labour and LibDem party offerings: both of which have had widespread takeup, driven primarily by rock-bottom pricing, without winning the hearts and minds of party members and activists. Remember this tirade against Labour’s retained agency, Tangent? And I’m told there’s disappointment among LibDems at Prater Raines’s last relaunch, although it hasn’t seeped into the public domain.

In case you’re wondering, the Tories’ last grand Drupal project, myconservatives.com, has been displaying an ‘under construction’ message for at least the past few weeks.

* I did get in touch with bluetree.co.uk to ask if they were aware of this; but didn’t get a reply in time to include it here.

Cabinet Office heralds shift to Drupal

Make no mistake about it: today’s launch of the new Cabinet Office website isn’t just a much-needed facelift for the least usable departmental site in Whitehall. It’s a signal of things to come.

The new site is pretty, modern, and at first glance, very well put-together. There’s evidence of planning for re-use, with the simultaneous launch of a nearly-but-not-quite identical website for the Deputy Prime Minister. Good integration of social stuff, and multiple RSS feeds. And all built on an open-source publishing platform. Specifically, Drupal.

I’ve been sensing a steady shift towards Drupal at the Cabinet Office (and in its immediate vicinity) for some time now; and in fact, I’m told this project has been running since before the election, not always smoothly either. But things can only have been accelerated by the arrival of the Conservative team – including Rishi Saha, who masterminded the MyConservatives.com system, also built on Drupal.

Now the Drupal platform is in place, don’t be at all surprised to see Downing Street going down the same road; ‘practise what you preach’ and all that, given Martha Lane Fox’s pronouncements on the desirability of (total) web convergence. And then?

I’m delighted to see them coming over to open-source: a move, of course, effectively announced by Francis Maude back in June. Of course it would have been nice if it had been WordPress rather than Drupal, for reasons I’ve written about before. But that’s no reason not to welcome this as another step forward. Good on them; and I hope it works out. We’ll find out how much it cost in a matter of weeks, no doubt.

Thoughts on Drupal 7

Things are happening on the Drupal front. There’s a new drupal.org website up today; and the first beta of the long-awaited v7 emerged a fortnight ago. I hear talk of Drupal-based projects and proposals in the vicinity of Whitehall, including various staff moves. There may be big announcements on the immediate horizon.

It’s been a while since I ventured into Drupal – so I downloaded the v7 beta, to give it a spin. And whilst it looks a bit prettier than previous versions, it still feels like the same old Drupal underneath. A rather tortuous installation process, requiring much chown’ing and phpmyadmin’ing, and manually shifting files from folder to folder. And at the end of it, an empty shell, with little guidance as to what you might do next.

Let’s just imagine for a moment that you want to start creating a page. You click on the ‘Add content’ button, which now lives in an admin bar across the top of the page. This generates an overlaid window offering various content types: choose one, and you end up on an authoring screen – with no WYSIWYG text editor. That’s right – out of the box, you’re expected to code your own pages in HTML.

Of course, you can have WYSIWYG: but you need to add it as a plugin – er, sorry, module. You can choose from a dozen different WYSIWYG editor functions, all of which have various benefits and drawbacks. And then, you’re probably going to have to put them in the right folder manually.

This rather encapsulates the Drupal mentality. Perhaps you’re someone who gets very worked up about the use of one particular WYSIWYG component over another: well, Drupal gives you the choice. And for a certain type of person, that’s just what you want.

The WordPress mentality, on the other hand, favours sheer simplicity. Install WordPress, and a WYSIWYG component is already installed. (TinyMCE, since you asked.) It’s more than satisfactory. There are certainly a few things it could do better. But it looks and feels like Microsoft Word – and for the vast majority of my clients, that’s precisely what they want.

Geeks love Drupal; people love WordPress. The Drupal guys know this. In kicking off the Drupal 7 user experience process, Drupal founder and project leader Dries Buytaert wrote:

Drupal’s steep learning curve filters out far too many smart, motivated people who could benefit from Drupal. We see it all the time in the Drupal.org forums, in my “State of Drupal” surveys, on Twitter, when talking to customers, and on the web. Even though we’ve made significant progress with making Drupal easier to use, a lot of work is left to be done. With other content management systems such as Joomla! and WordPress making strides to catch up to Drupal in terms of development flexibility, if we want Drupal to remain competitive, we have a challenge we have to face: we need to create a user experience that makes it easier for people new to Drupal to discover all of its richness and power.

Oh – and which platform did the Drupal 7 user experience team use to blog their work? You’ll never guess. Leisa Reichelt writes:

We know Drupal is amazing and we love it … but unfortunately, for the time being, it is too broken for us to be able to do the work we need to do on this project at the pace that we need to do it. We don’t have time to ‘learn’ Drupal, nor the skills to bend it to our will (and make it look acceptably pretty), we can’t even get a blog post on the homepage. We appreciate all the offers of porting this blog over to Drupal, but to be honest, I really like using WordPress and nothing I’ve seen of Drupal makes me want to switch over at the moment.

We know that Drupal is not WordPress, and we have no intention of making it so, but using WordPress helps us get our work done faster and easier for the time being, and it helps us maintain perspective and distance – and for now those things are really important to us. But if, this time next year, this blog isn’t running on Drupal and if it doesn’t look amazing – then please come and shout #fail as loudly as you can. Because then you’ll be completely right, we will have failed.

That was written in March 2009. The blog is still on WordPress, by the way.

Leisa later hints at some of the underlying tensions in making Drupal more human-friendly:

Drupal developers are … the most important audience. What this audience wants is not Drupal as a product that (ordinary users) can use out of the box, they want a developer toolkit that gives them more and more flexibility and capability to build cool stuff, and to push Drupal way beyond the realms of a simple Content Management System. And so we have this tension. Drupal as a ‘Consumer Product’ and Drupal as a ‘Developer Framework’. Currently, the official direction is that the project is going to attempt to be both. I think this is a serious problem.

I know that for many people the idea of making a Drupal that (ordinary users) can love, making something that can actively compete from a UX perspective with the likes of WordPress, is a grand aspiration. So it is, but unfortunately I also think it is the wrong aspiration for Drupal core. The sooner we focus on the core target audience of Drupal core – the developers – and commit to making a user experience that supports them in their use of Drupal, the sooner we’ll really have actually achieved a really Great User Experience for Drupal.

Now let me be absolutely clear. Drupal is an excellent platform. Great things can be done with it. And on some levels, comparisons between Drupal and WordPress are pointless. They are currently aimed at different types of people, and different use cases – so it’s ridiculous to say that one is materially better than the other. Besides, they’re rapidly converging: Drupal with its UX improvements, WordPress with its custom post types etc. They can both do clever things like multisite installs. They both have thousands of user-created plugins/modules. They can both be whatever you want.

But if I were contemplating a large-scale decentralised publishing platform for mainly text-based information, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind: it has to be WordPress. Our recent work with Defra is a perfect case in point: multiple independent child sites, with tweaked themes as appropriate to the subject matter, giving relatively non-tech-savvy authors considerable creative freedom and flexibility, within bounds permitted by a central administrator.

If you’re listening to the users of that platform, you’d build it in WordPress. If you’re listening to the geeks, you’d build it in Drupal. It’s your choice.

BNP switches to Drupal

I’ve written here before about the British National Party’s website, and its impressive use of WordPress – and more recently BuddyPress, the add-on which turns it into Facebook. So it’s only fair that I note how things have changed in the past few weeks: the site now appears to be running on Drupal, and has – for now at least – abandoned most of the social features which made it so interesting.

The circumstances of the migration seem somewhat, well, chaotic. Webmaster Simon Bennett reportedly pulled the website down a couple of days before polling day – why? It very much depends which account you read. Intellectual property infringement, personal vendettas, a jar of Marmite, commission payments, far-leftist collaboration, a South West Conspiracy… make of it what you will. I’m staying well out of it.

Such warmth in the snow

snowycoi
Pic by Andrew Lewin - flickr.com/photos/draml (Creative Commons)

If there’s one lesson to draw from the unveiling of Directgov’s experimental School Closures site, it’s the sheer goodwill of the community towards them.

Quick précis for those who missed any of it: at 11.50pm on Sunday night, Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson publicly throws down a gauntlet. With the country facing snowy armageddon, could Directgov change their homepage to the only information people would care about – namely, ‘a host of travel info feeds and up to date advice’? A domain gets purchased before dawn, and within 24 (ish) hours, a School Closures mashup site is live. Happy Minister.

The site is, in effect, a dump of Directgov’s own Schools Finder data, uploaded into a Drupal CMS, with each school getting its own page; users are invited to find their local school(s) via a postcode or town name search, and then comment (blog-style) on whether the schools are open or not. It’s been put online using a uk.to domain, obtained from the FreeDNS service – presumably to get round the procurement process (and, one has to assume, the Web Rationalisation people). The precedents are duly noted. 😉

It’s really only a ‘proof of concept’ build. As commenters on the new Directgov blog have noted, we’re several significant steps – and a lot of public interaction – away from having a breakthrough service here. But just look around the web at the excitement and encouragement generated by the move. Harry Metcalfe, for example, recognises the same weaknesses I do, and yet still concludes:

It’s pretty rough around the edges: there doesn’t seem to be much RSS support, and there’s no access to the underlying data, and — well — it doesn’t tell you whether your school is closed… but it is still useful, and it’s very impressive that it appeared so quickly, and with such little prompting. Kudos to all involved — this is a fantastic and very encouraging start.

I don’t see this site ever being (properly) finished, certainly not in its current form. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it can (ever) tell me whether my local schools are actually open or not. But that wasn’t the point: as Brian Hoadley puts it in the blog post’s comments – ‘This prototype was the first in a series of efforts to create a process around which we can develop rapid ideas.’ (Followed up later by Paul Clarke: ‘its existence demonstrates an attitude, not a magic solution to a very difficult information challenge.’)

It was a concrete fulfilment of the principles Paul Clarke described at the weekend’s Barcamp, proof that it wasn’t just talk. Proof – to itself – that government can actually do this sort of thing. And just as importantly, it has proven how much we, the wider web community, have been longing to see this happen.

DCSF’s new Drupal site

Hooray for another high-profile UK government website based on an open source content management system: the new National Strategies website from DCSF, built on Drupal. It’s big, bright, bold, and once you’ve registered – a remarkably painless process for a government site, without any apparent checks on your membership of the target audience – it offers significant social functionality: commenting on articles, bookmarking pages to your own personal homepages, group discussion, page rating, sending links to Delicious and the like. Nothing exceptional for a Drupal site, perhaps, but pretty impressive for HMG.

There’s particular significance to this particular launch, though. The National Strategies, and much of this ‘2.0’ functionality, were due to be part of Schoolsweb, the ambitious plan to rationalise all schools-related sites into a single mega-portal, to be built on the same Stellent-based infrastructure as Directgov (known as ‘The Club’). It was initially scheduled to launch in late 2005, with eight-figure budgets quoted; the last public reference I’m aware of was in February 2008, when Jim Knight responded in a PQ: Work is currently being taken forward to bring these sites into a single new website for schools – ‘SchoolsWeb’. (Note the present tense.) And as I noted some time ago, the guys who did the visual design work for Schoolsweb are still quoting it in their online portfolio, with the caveat: ‘We are currently supporting the project through a challenging build phase pending the full launch of the website shortly.’

To paper over the cracks, a temporary signposting website was launched at www.schoolsweb.gov.uk, labelled ‘Schoolsweb Locate’ – but even that has been taken away now, replaced by a slightly clumsy redirect to the long-established ‘Standards Site’.

On this evidence, one would have to assume that Schoolsweb, as initially conceived at least, is dead. In its place, we have a feature-rich online community built on open-source tools, and making use of pre-existing functionality – either in its core platform, or via plugins. My understanding is that the Drupal site came together in a matter of months, and seems to offer most (if not all) the functionality envisaged for Schoolsweb.

Somewhere in there lies a great case study just waiting to be written.