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by the Omnipotent Web Czar

The vision is that someday we'll click on a link like the above, and up will come the PBCRRT web site on our favorite browser. Members can do it, family and friends can do it, even little kids in Chezkoslovakia can do it. Click and view what we do. Just like www.oceanwatch.org, or www.reef.org, we are a real organization and deserve a real web site like those groups.

A web site has many purposes for the team:

  • Introducing our team to the public.
  • Explaining the team goals.
  • Maintaining our calendar.
  • Building team esprite de corps.
  • Training the organization.
  • Publicizing our results.
  • Providing an online reference source.

All content on our website should work toward the above functions. Sensitive pages can be password protected, but the rest the public should see.

The parts and the process.

To create http://www.pbcrrt.org, we need a few ingredients. The name has to be purchased, at about $35 a year. Next, select a host, from literally thousands of choices. Quality hosting of a non-commercial web site runs around $20 a month, so choice revolves more around services provided than cost. Once the host is chosen, passwords and interface protocols are set up by some knowledgeable web master, then the files that make up the site are loaded for the world to see.

More important than all that is that we need some content. Blank pages are don't impress even the most ardent member. My guess is around 500 hours are needed to bring the vision to fruition, all fraught with author's cramp and coding errors. After that, only some monthly updates should be necessary.

The chicken and the egg.

Seeking funding for good ideas is a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first? If the team puts up the money for a web site, the volunteer webmaster finds himself listening to fingers tapping on the desktop as the team stares for months at a screen with an under construction sign. Similarly, if we go to the environmentally friendly, well heeled citizens of the Palm Beaches for sponsorship, we need content in hand to show them. No example, no sponsor. I concluded from all that to just build a prototype site, adjust it by comments from the team, and then find funding. I expect no problem with that once the site is built.

I like the line from the baseball movie...
......."if you build it, they will come".

Testing, testing....

The process of building is iterative, especially for new sites. One designs, then posts on the web to test it and get comments. Then adjustments are made, and it's posted again.

I'm using a private corner of my own site as the host, since the team has no web site. It's free, the interface familiar to me, and it has spare bandwidth and disk space. It is a common practice among free lance web developers to post to their sites when clients don't have a site of their own. It lets the client see the material without actually having to pay for anything. No one else can view it unless they are given the link. This is the same method used for the team database site, except that the club had to pay for the space. In that case, a private piece of an otherwise public site is being rented.

Backup insurance.

The key to any web site is it's files. Similar to .DOC files from Microsoft Word, HTML files hold the page's content and tell the browser how to format it. If you have the files, you have the web site. It can be hosted anywhere, or transferred to another web master.

Since there's a reasonably high risk that I could be kidnapped by aliens while wandering the jungles of Papau New Guinea, I've made sure the vision continues by regularly giving diskettes with all the files to Ben Harkanson, our Fearless Leader. I've given him 3 batches, starting in November of last year. He should have the entire emerging web site, except for this weekend's additions, running on his personal computer, and could pass the files on to a substitute web master until I make good my escape.

Along the same lines, should there be a need to stop the display of PBCRRT material on my site while I was in captivity (to keep old data from staying around) just contact my daughter Dana (danapemberton@edanapemberton.com). She can update my site in an emergency.

Bigger things to come.

With introductory material, team action photos, fish quizzes, and the news letter, we're only about 25% done. However, they all seem to be popular. They get far more page hits than we have members, so I suspect they're being sent to friends and family, a good thing. We get esprite de corps and publicity in one fail swoop, and I buy time to work on the other stuff.

On the other hand, as Yogi would say...."you ain't seen nothin' yet.!" I firmly believe in the web at a training mechanism. It's open 24/7, doesn't require we burn out the few instructors we have with the many recruits coming in, and can be utilized by individuals at their own pace. We now have the fish quizzes, and they get several hundred hits as the time for annual testing arrives.

Wait until we get to the other good stuff. Some wide angle photos of the reef benchmarks to augment the maps, and a few virtual dives, with panoramic videos to train fish counting at the real fish ID stations? Study from the comfort of your computer chair. Our bylaws and procedures library for reference. The possibilities are limitless.

Q & A on things webbish.

Q: Can't we use GoPBI.com as our host?

A: GoPBI.com is a free web site targeting those in the Palm Beach area who want to hang a shingle in web space, but either do not desire a full web presence, or use the GoPBI.com site to point to their existing web site.

They earn revenue by putting banner advertising and links to businesses on the page with our material. The entire top of the page, much of the left column, and the entire bottom (roughly 50% of the total page area) is dedicated to their stuff, with the remainder available to us. This is fine for a general community announcement of who we are, but the space limit makes designs like the page you are currently viewing impossible to post there.

I keep GoPBI updated with our introduction message and calendar, and have the training announcement ready when the dates and topics are settled. Even when we get our own domain site I recommend we keep GoPBI alive, since the local community may find us that way.

Q: What about other free web sites?

None of the free hosting sites are very good, and some are pitiful. All have some sort of advertising banner they put on the page, taking up space and detracting from the design, and crashing some browsers. All limit site size and bandwidth, as they split a real site into parts. There is no access to the web control functions of a real site, like CGI. They can't afford to give full service sites to non paying customers. It's like those sampler ladies in the grocery store. You don't get the whole chicken, you just get a toothpick and a little piece. Since they also sell web hosting, and really want you there, not in the free hosting aisle.

Free site hosts have a poor history of survival. Banner ads don't generate much revenue, so the company dies, and it's assets are bought by another. I've watched one web site on Shark_L , whose link list I maintain for Fiona Webster, move 3 times in the last 2 years as their free host companies went belly up. I expect more free sites to disappear over then next year as portals explore how to cut losses.

Q: What about news letters and the web?

A: First, I believe the club should have a printed newsletter, mailed to the entire active roster. All this web stuff might look great, but the club demographics are likely close to the nation's. Just over 70% have web access at all, and only a third of those are regular users. The rest check email once or twice a week, if that, and visit a website occasionally. I expect this percentage to grow, but why disenfranchise half the club who don't access regularly?

Having said that, I believe the news letter should be included on the web site, and have posted it here.

Our news letter breaks into a recurring part (dive schedule, officer list) and a non recurring part (monthly minutes, articles). I posted the dives and officers back in February, but waited for the March news letter to post the most recent minutes and articles. You can see from the menu on the right. Many knew this was coming, and that may have prompted all this discussion about news letter editing. It is not my intent, however, to generate the content of the news letter. Just post it up when it's ready.

Q: What about originating news letters
     on the web?

A: I'm not against someone trying it, but I believe success is unlikely, for several reasons.

  • It still won't generate content itself.
  • Once generated, the printing will be ugly.
  • We'll lose some of the already scarce authors.

I know of no web site that will edit, print, and mail a news letter with the touch of a key.

The hard facts of news letter generation is it's laborious cuts and pastes, and probably some typing, from a variety of sources. And that's the easy part. The tough part is getting the content. The news letter editor has to beg, beat, and prod folks to write articles, write them himself, or lift them from other locations. It must be laid into some template, sized so that it'll print on the desired paper size, and proofed. Then printed, folded and mailed and emailed.

The web master takes that electronic version and also cuts and pastes it into the web template. Things tend to layout vertically in web space, but horizontally on a printed page. As an example, this month's news letter looks good on the web (select Minutes or Articles on the menu at the right), but if you hit the print key, it'll print the page in vertical segments, to fit on 8 1/2 by 11" paper. It'll look like you took scissors and cut across the bottom at line 56, causing the reader to have the tape it back together to read it. Depending on the printer, it'll also shear off the last inch on the right, at column 84. More scotch tape. The transparent gifs will print as blotches. Not a pretty sight. The moral of the story? Even if it looks good on the web, it can be ugly in print.

Another problem with generating web based news letters is that the authors have to become mini web czars or czarettes. It's tough to get people to type an article in their favorite word processor and forward it as an email attachment, never mind get them to push the PUBLISH key and make it go active on a website, for everyone to see. Fear of hitting the wrong key and wiping out the work of 5 others ahead of them will cause some to decline participating. We're an organization of volunteers, so the easier something is to do, the more willing people will be to do it. We have an excellent MS Word Template to create the newsletter in printed form, and I'd recommend we keep doing it that way.

Q: Tell me again why do we have web
    and print versions?

We reach two different audiences. The printed version reaches all our members, not just half. The web version reaches folks who don't even know about us. Remember those little kids in Chezkoslovakia?