As promised, here is a follow-up to my previous post about our test of the emergency alert system last week.

We advertised the test on the HSU home page during business hours with a red box in the “promo” area:

HSU's home page, with red box announcing that a test of the emergency alert system would occur that day.

Then, at the appointed time, I switched the HSU home page into emergency mode for 15 minutes. A notice was displayed that explained the test, and what HSU constituents should do during an actual emergency:

HSU home page with large, red emergency notice posted.

(These screenshots were taken by Karine Joly of collegewebeditor.com, who has many great articles about higher ed emergency communications. I forgot to take screenshots during the drill :/ )

What we learned

  1. Our chief of police rocks. Yes, we knew this already, but our Chief of Police, Tom Dewey, really needs to be commended. He has worked extremely hard on this system, which includes not only the web notices, but also notices on the campus NPR radio station, a telephone information line, text messages sent out to any constituent that chooses to sign up for them, and bells ringing, a recorded announcement, and signs placed around campus to warn folks of the emergency. He has been able to bring together staff from all parts of campus as key parts of the system, and his coordination has been amazing. Every part of the system worked on the first test, which is incredible. There is fine-tuning to be done, but Tom has done a great job pulling this all together.
  2. Our bells need to be louder. This is part of the fine-tuning— the bells couldn’t be heard on some parts of campus, so we are looking into amplification systems and ways to broadcast the bells from various parts of campus.
  3. Black text on red doesn’t work on the web. Tom has out together a color-coded system of signs for campus, and the intention is for the web notices to also use that system. There are 4 colors: red for campus or area closures and tests of the system, orange for tsunami warnings, yellow for national or regional incidents that don’t directly affect campus, and green for all-clear notices after an emergency. When I put together the styles for the web notices, I decided to scale back the background color from the really bright colors of the signs to aid readability. This unfortunately made the red notices kind of pink, which wasn’t really what we were looking for. So I made a quick change at the 11th hour to the colors you see above. That combination doesn’t meet accessibility standards for contrast, however. So, although the goal was for black text on red, we will have white text on red, which will be much more readable and allow a color of red that says “emergency” and not “be my Valentine”.

So, all in all, the test was a success. The plan is to have one of these tests per semester so that everyone is always up on what our roles will be if we ever have to implement the system for real.

Other refinements

We have added 20 boilerplate notices to the campus CMS for all kinds of potential incidents, from a forest fire in the campus forest to a shooter incident on campus. The notices include information such as whether folks should leave campus, whether classes are canceled, whether staff and faculty should remain and assist or leave, and whether the residence halls should evacuate. Public Affairs staff can choose the appropriate boilerplate notice to start from and adjust it for the particular situation at hand, saving time.

The CSU has also put together a roll-over system for all 23 universities to deal with situations where our web server is taken out of commission. If there is a major earthquake on campus taking out our server, for example, humboldt.edu will resolve to a server in Long Beach so that we can still use the web as a communication vehicle. I and several other folks on campus can log into that server and manage the site from there. If we are also out of commission, either from being physically incapicatated, or from our whole county being offline due to a major infrastructure failure (this happened last week…), we have a buddy campus that can also log in and make updates for us.

So, I feel that we are about as prepared as we can be for an emergency situation. Let’s hope we never have to actually put all this to use.

Oh, hello. Yes, it has been quiet around here for a while. There is work being done behind the scenes that is taking much longer than anticipated, but I digress.

I wanted to alert any of the university web pros that are interested to the fact that HSU will be testing its emergency alert system tomorrow, September 27, 2007 from 10:45 to 11:00 am Pacific Time. This will include switching our web site into emergency notification mode.

I have developed two emergency templates— one for low-level emergencies such as power outages, tsunami warnings for the county (campus itself is out of tsunami range), etc, and one for high-level emergencies such as campus shootings, major earthquakes and the like. The low-level emergency template will be used tomorrow, and retains HSU marketing messages and most functionality. The high-level template removes all images and marketing, as well at most functionality, in anticipation of high server loads. Folks from the Web Office and from Public Affairs have the ability to switch the main site to one of these emergency templates and post emergency messages.

I will follow up after tomorrow’s test with screenshots and an analysis of how well the system worked.

For the first article in my series about building the new HSU site with ExpressionEngine, I thought I’d write the compliment to my earlier article where I explained how I built HSU’s A-Z index with Textpattern.

Setting up the framework

The first thing I did was set up the framework: a weblog (EE’s name for a container for related posts) called “siteindex” with 26 categories named A-Z where I would publish the entries, and a template group also called “siteindex” with 26 templates named A through Z. Naming the template group and template pages in this way creates clean urls— the url of the page with the A entries will be humboldt.edu/siteindex/A.

Then I entered all the data for the index into the weblog, categorizing each entry under the alphabetical letter of the page that I wanted the entry to be displayed on.

Coding the templates

One of the great things about ExpressionEngine is that it allows for user-defined variables that can be used within EE tags. These become a really convenient way to manage a group of templates that are essentially the same, differing only in the category, weblog, etc that is called by the EE tags.

So, I start out each if the 26 template pages with:

{assign_variable:letter="A"}
{assign_variable:catid="54"}

The first line sets the letter of the index page, which I use in the </code> tag of the page and in the <code></p> <h1></code> tag:</p> <pre><title>{letter}: HSU A-Z Index

and

A-Z Index: {letter}

.

The second line sets the category id for the weblog category “A”, which happens to be 54 in this case. I use this within the EE tag that produces the table cells with the entries filed under A, with siteurl, dept-name, loc, phone and fax being fields of data entered in the siteindex weblog:

{exp:weblog:entries weblog="siteindex" category="{catid}" orderby="title" 
sort="asc" status="open" disable="member_data|pagination|trackbacks"}

{dept-name}
{loc}
{phone}
{fax}

{/exp:weblog:entries}

The template also includes all the the other code to layout and format the page, and is repeated 26 times. Luckily, EE provides include templates that allow me to write all this code only once and call it on each of the 26 template pages:

{embed="includes/siteindex"}

So, each of the 26 pages actually only contains the following:

{assign_variable:letter="A"}
{assign_variable:catid="54"}
{embed="includes/siteindex"}

with the letter and catid varying for each letter of the alphabet.

The real advantage of EE

The best part of the A-Z index in EE is that it is now the official repository for department names and urls on the main site. EE has an amazing feature called relationship fields, which allows you to refer to information posted in one weblog from within a second weblog. So whenever I need to list a linked department name, I can refer to this siteindex weblog rather than duplicating the information. This has already proved to be a huge time saver for me, as several departments have changed their name since we went live with the new site. I changed all the references to these departments in a few seconds by changing the name in the siteindex weblog.

I will be writing more about how I used relationship fields in the near future, so stay tuned.
——-

Just a quick announcement that I recently launched a redesign of the Humboldt State University main site. This pretty much explains most of my silence for the past month or two. The new site focuses on recruiting, which is a major goal of the university at this point, and has been in development for over 6 months.

Highlights include:

  • Back end powered by ExpressionEngine. This is a departure from my usual Textpattern; unfortunately our server configuration won’t work with the newest TXP version.
  • Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict, everywhere but where I had to tied into legacy systems. I am slowly working on fixing those.
  • Standards-based CSS layout (of course)
  • Kick-ass photos from our campus photographer
  • A new virtual tour where we got our feet wet with Flash
  • Better semantics, and a much more efficient back end structure
  • Writing from our Public Affairs department— up until now I’ve had to scrape together the content myself, and it showed
  • Thickbox used for supplemental stories for banner photos
  • User editable quick links

I will be writing more on some of the specifics in the near future, but for now, enjoy.

New Rule #1

A pile of lettuce is not a salad. Not even if it’s fancy organic lettuce.

New Rule #2

Faculty must stop asking staff members what they’re doing this summer. The staff members are working this summer, like they do every summer.

I have been thinking lately about how the whole Web 2.0 movement will affect University web sites. A lot of attention has been paid to Web 2.0 in terms of marketing to the “millennials” and public relations, for example see Karine’s excellent series about RSS at collegewebeditor.com. I am more interested in what Web 2.0 can do for me, however— I have a mountain of information I am responsible for, and constantly on the lookout for any tool that can help me manage it more efficiently.

The most intriguing new technology to me right now is microformats. And my interest seems timely, because today alone there were at least 3 articles about microformats in my feedreader.

I have to admit that I was skeptical about microformats when I first heard about them a year ago. I didn’t quite see their relevance to me, I think in part because they were really focusing on social software at the time. The emphasis was on XFN and VoteLinks, which were probably highly relevant to most of the blogging crowd in the audience at SXSW, but not to me. I am an antisocial blogger, without even a blogroll to use XFN on.

But after spending some time reading through microformats.org, I realize there are several microformats out there that have the potential to benefit an institution, if, and this is a big if, the tools get built to take advantage of them. I’m going to go over a few of them and how I see them working for us university web folks. If you have more ideas or brainstorms, by all means comment and share.

hCard

hCard is probably the most widely supported microformat at the moment in terms of tools available to consume them. hCards are analogous to vCards, holding contact information for individuals or institutions. The applicability of hCard to the university is obvious— the contact information in our footers, our phone and email databases, and the ever-present “Faculty & Staff” pages in academic department sites could all benefit from using this microformat. It would be great to be able to grab an hCard for my address book when I finally figure out who in HR can answer my question about benefits. The Firefox Tails plugin can recognize hCards on a site and if you’re on a PC, TailsExport will download them to vCards that you can use in your address book. It would be great if more browsers had plugins to do this; Jon Hicks proposes one for Safari here. There is even an hCard Creator that will build an hCard using information you enter, making it very easy to convert information to the correct format.

hCalendar

hCalendar is another microformat that Tails and TailsExport can comsume, and also another with obvious translations into the world of higher ed. It would be extremely helpful for me to be able to export our academic calendar, complete with all the one-day holidays I always forget about until it’s too late to plan a trip, into my iCal or gCal. Or how about dates of paydays from the fiscal calendar? There are also campus events, athletic events, fundraisers, etc. A prof could even put a calendar together for her course, leaving the students with no excuse for forgetting when assignments are due.

hResume

hResume is a draft that has some interesting potiential. One of the projects we’re always trying to get off the ground is a Faculty Expertise Directory; a place where public or the press can go to figure out who to consult about earthquakes or Native American culture, etc. If faculty published their vitae on their personal pages or their department’s web site, a parser could be written to search our site for hResumes and populate the faculty expertise directory based on information in the “skills” field. A directory that populates itself sounds like heaven to me. Which leads me to the next microformat.

Rel-directory

Rel-directory is a draft that “is specifically designed for building a directory in a distributed manner and for making links to any directory listing explicit.” We, like many universities, have an A-Z Index of web sites that is the preferred navigation method for people on campus. It is a nightmare for me to keep up to date. But if the authors of those web pages used rel-directory on links to the page of the A-Z index that they should be listed in, the magic parser could go through and find the sites for me, and pull the directory information from the handy hCard that they have published with all the contact information. There is not much advantage to publicly displaying a link to the directory, and this may be a stretch of what this microformat is designed for, but it is fun to think about.

Other Microformats

There are a few other microformats out there that would be extremely easy to implement and potentially have a payoff somewhere down the line. Adding rel=“home” to links back to the main homepage or homepages of sub-sites can be done in a snap, and these could be used someday to produce on-the-fly site maps. Adding rel=“payment” to links to online giving sites is easy and could potentially cash in (pun intended) on future technology that highlights ways to support site authors. Rel-license may be useful for disambiguating copyright issues for images and other materials used in class. XOXO which is used to mark up outlines, can find many homes in the halls of the university. There are also working groups on rel-citation and meeting-minutes, which our sites would eat up.

There was some talk on the UWEB-D and WASP Education Task Force listservs about coming up with a microformat for course content. I’m not sure where this discussion went— if you know, please leave a comment and fill me in. While I think a course content microformat may be too ambitious, I would really love to see a course catalog format. What other microformats would you like to see? Any ideas on other ways to use the existing ones? And, who wants to tackle writing a few parsers so these brainstorms can become reality?

We got the green light to launch our new University web site mid-August. Some people aren’t going to like it, because they are not our target audience, and I’m done trying to please everybody.

So, these words from Gerry McGovern may come in handy:

Great web management starts off with allowing the most important customers complete their most important tasks as quickly and simply as possible. Poor web management plays politics by giving a little of the homepage to every department. Poor web management tries to answer every question

During our weekly brainstorming session this morning, we hit that place that is all too familiar— the place where the project would be cross the cool barrier and the suits and faculty would complain that it’s “not academic enough”. Charles and I decided that we just need to do a Ballmer-esque dance showing the department how much we think of them, and we’d all live happily ever after. I have had the mantra of “Departments, Departments, Departments, Departments” in my head all day long…
——-

Gerry McGovern hits on a pet-peeve of mine and gives a great example of how internal needs may not work for your customers in Choose Customer Words, Not Organization Words. I love how he blasts the idea of publishing press releases on the home page, and scorns the “self-congratulatory waffle”. I’d also add “Welcome to the ___ Department Web Site” to the list of phrases that need to die…

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