‘See a mess’ to CMS – part one

Recently Te Ara made the biggest change since it launched. However, on the surface little has changed. This is part of a series of posts that will try to explain why it’s exciting for us and why we hope it’s exciting for you. We’ve broken the story into three parts: Te Ara past, present and future.

Te Ara past

Te Ara past

Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand landed on the internet in February 2005. It contained 106 stories and 3,000 images. Over the past four years we’ve added over 300 stories and over 9,000 images, but few new web features. Why did we focus on richer content and not on the surrounding website?

I came to work at Te Ara a year after the launch, and heard the stories of late nights attempting to get the content ready for launch. But the Te Ara I got to know was the new Te Ara, a well-oiled, encyclopedic machine. Everything at this point was about Earth, Sea and Sky, a theme that included 117 more stories. The team worked feverishly on writing, checking, editing, researching images, clearing copyright, optimising images and designing maps, graphs and diagrams for the somewhat bare encyclopedia. Away from the busy production line, the team excitedly discussed new features and changes that they’d like on the site. However, few ideas could slip past the barrier that quickly blocked that exciting future.

The existing content management system (CMS) made changes to the site expensive, overly complicated, time-consuming and dependant on external developers. Compromises were made when adding new features so they were independent of the CMS. Important changes like improving our search engine became too hard. However, this blog, our Flickr group, @Te_Ara on Twitter, and the ability for users to submit their own stories were created almost overnight because they were managed outside the CMS.

So, when it was time to upgrade to the latest version of the existing CMS (at great expense), we leapt at the opportunity and began searching for a new one. I won’t bore you with process; it involves scoping, proofs of concepts, RFPs and lots of other phrases and acronyms. The short story is, we found Drupal. It’s nice, friendly, and free (i.e. open-source). Unfortunately our old CMS had one last trick up its sleeve: it was going to hold onto all the content as tight as possible and we didn’t have the key. (Sorry editors, if you let me write a blog post, I’m going to mix me some metaphors.)

Te Ara past

A long, complicated project to migrate Te Ara’s 2 million elements came to an end several months ago. It was more complicated than anyone expected, and involved long stints of testing and the creation of a new authoring system. Also ,we took the opportunity to make a few changes … more about that in part two.

On 25 August 2009, the new Drupal-driven site started delivering web pages to you, the user. Then it stopped for a few hours. Then we got it going again. But that’s not important. What matters is that a huge barrier has now disappeared and Te Ara can start evolving.

Subscribe to Signposts to make sure you don’t miss Part two – Te Ara present, a look at the new features.

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