Choosing a Platform for has outlined plans for a distributed network of telecentre
network sites around the world, which will include a site for
itself. Mark Surman engaged me to help specify the platform requirements
for creating a distributed network of sites that will share and exchange

This document outlines the process we followed for choosing a
web platform; the platform we ultimately selected was Drupal. For the
specific requirements and overall web strategy that guided this process
please see the separate online strategy document. The overall
vision is of a network of sites that will likely run on a variety of platforms,
including a growing number of sites that run on our Drupal-based “support
net in a box”.

RSS offers the obvious means of sharing and aggregating information across
the sites in this network. Because telecentre end users are often accessing
the Internet with low-bandwidth or intermittent connectivity, and RSS-based
strategy also offers options for getting content easily and storing it locally for
later reading. By tagging (assigning keywords to) as much of the sites’
content as possible, it will be easy to organize content across sites and even
across multiple languages. The implementation of RSS and tagging was thus
central to our review of software options.

Our search for the optimal web platform for the support-
network-in-a-box (SNIAB) focused on options that might combine content
management features (like the ability to easily create and edit web pages,
register users, and automatically create navigation structures) with
community and collaboration features (like RSS, blogging and wikis).  We
initially expected to choose a separate (though compatible) platform for the
event-in-a-box (EIAB), with some overlapping functionality. As our vision for
both SNIAB and EIAB grew more nuanced and concrete, we concluded that
there would be significant advantages to selecting the same platform for both
purposes. The primary advantage would be the ease of incorporating event-
driven content into the flow of content among telecentre network sites; a
secondary consideration was that it would be easier for telecentre partners to
become familiar with a single tool, rather than two.

We gathered preliminary candidates by reviewing the tools used to create
sites with community features, reading online discussions of CMS tools for the non-profit sector, and soliciting suggestions from colleagues. We wanted to find a tool that wasn’t just a CMS with a bunch of blog-like features
attached to it; we wanted a tool that was fundamentally suited to a distributed network in which content would be continuously exchanged
among sites.  We also wanted to ensure that sites that were not built on the
core platform would still be able to access content from the sites that were;
we recognized that RSS was the only standard that could serve this purpose.

The goal of establishing a distributed network that circulated content via RSS
led us to three core questions that served as a filter on our potential

1. Has this platform been used to rapidly deploy a large number of
interlinked sites from a basic template?

2. How widely does the platform integrate RSS into its structure – both in
terms of creating outbound RSS feeds and in enabling easy, flexible
aggregation of inbound RSS feeds?

3. Does this platform support blogs or wikis, which are the most common
tools for online community and collaboration?

These three questions provided a litmus test for whether a platform had
“community DNA”, and allowed us to quickly narrow a long list of
possibilities. Some of the initial options that were set aside due to lack of
community functionality included:

Ekton: no blogging
Kintera: minimal RSS orientation
MCMS: no blogging
Red Dot: blogging not core
Sharepoint: no blogging
SiteRefresh: RSS feeds are not core to software

We took a closer look at seven options:

APC ActionApps: The distributed network model is central to the design of
ActionApps, which lets users share “slices” of content with other ActionApps
sites. The limitation of the slice model is that it is a content distribution
scheme that is specific to ActionApps, so any telecentre network sites
running on other systems would not be able to participate in the content-
sharing scheme. While there is some RSS support it is not the primary
mechanism for content-sharing, and both blogging and wiki functionality are
still under development. We were also concerned that the small developer
community for ActionApps did not promise significant growth on the

Mambo: The user and administrative interface for Mambo was one of the
best-designed options on our shortlist. We were also interested to note the
emergence of Soapbox, a Mambo toolset geared towards the nonprofit
community. The Soapbox toolset is however limited (at this point) to
integration with the Democracy in Action CRM, and to single sign-on among
sites. The information architecture of Mambo itself proved incompatible with
the project, since it is structured around categorization (rather
than tagging), which in practice imposes such limitations as precluding
multiple categorization of inbound RSS feeds. Since much of the network’s content will need to be distributed to multiple
categories (e.g. a story on a Bolivian wifi project needs to be tagged “wifi”
and “Latin America”), the categorization structure was a deal-breaker.

Plone: As a CMS based on the Zope platform, Plone offers much greater
programming extensibility than other CMS options we considered. The flip
side of this virtue is that Plone’s relative advantages are much less
compelling for a project that (like specifically wants to limit its
custom programming commitments. Ultimately our biggest concern was that
Plone’s RSS aggregation capacity was not part of its standard install; while
adding an aggregation module is a trivial technical challenge, the lack of
native aggregation support spoke to the platform’s orientation towards
single-site content management rather than distributed community.

SocialText: We used SocialText as a platform for circulating our
requirements, which gave us an opportunity to try out the software in action.
SocialText was appealing primarily as an EIAB option, and once we decided
to focus on choosing a single platform for both EIAB and SNIAB, SocialText
made little sense. In particular we found that its pricing model – based on
per-user or per-day pricing – made little sense for our purposes, and
reflected the fact that it is really a collaboration platform rather than a
content platform.

Userland Manila: As a CMS that began as a blogging platform, Manila seemed
like a promising option for a community-oriented web platform. However it
lacked many key features we required, including wiki support and flexible,
native RSS support. While it would be possible to extend Userland with
scripts that allowed (for example) aggregation of different RSS feeds to
different areas of a site, the extent of custom-scripting needed to effect the
kinds of RSS control we’d like indicated that Userland was oriented to single-
site CSS rather than distributed network community.

TIG (Taking it Global): Taking It Global is an NGO that runs both its own TIG
community on a homegrown platform, and offers that platform to other users
(such as the Digital Divide Network). The platform is specifically oriented
toward supporting multiple sub-sites, but its model for supporting multiple
sites is based on storing all sites on a single server (and in a single database)
rather than as a truly distributed network; this would make it difficult to
integrate non-TIG sites into a TIG-based network. While we  were confident in TIG’s ability to quickly and efficiently deliver additional
programming as needed, the relatively long list of features that would
require custom programming for our purposes (site-wide tagging support,
separate aggregation pages, wikis) again suggested that the TIG platform
was not fundamentally oriented towards an RSS-based distributed network.

Drupal: With a fast-growing user base in the non-profit sector, Drupal’s
strong online community focus made it an appealing prospect.  Nonetheless
we were concerned about documentation and interface issues and its wiki
support. Our wiki concerns were resolved by a demonstration of a Drupal site
with installed wiki-like features that fully met our needs. Documentation
remains a concern but appears to be a priority for both Bryght and
CivicSpace, two major players in the Drupal community. Likewise an
improved administrative interface is high on the development agenda at
CivicSpace, and may be partly manageable in the shorter run by
implementing a custom theme for administrators.

Most importantly, Drupal was alone among all CMS options in its
compatibility with a distributed network approach. The platform is essentially
built for exactly this kind of approach: it supports ubiquitous outbound RSS
feeds, complex aggregation of inbound feeds, per-feed or per-item non-
exclusive tagging, and native support for blogging. Compared to the other
options, which are virtually all CMS platforms that have developed distributed
community features, Drupal is innately oriented towards community
networking and distributed content creation. The following outlines how we
anticipate using particular features of the Drupal platform to support core
elements of the web strategy.