20 September 2018

A Flurry of Development

A bunch of things have pulled me away from blogging over the past few months - some house repair issues, Army MARS training, my wife's knee replacement surgery (she's doing fine, thanks) and most recently, a flurry of development to bring our local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group website into the modern age.

I got ambushed on this one. A few weeks ago I got an email from our county ARES emergency coordinator (EC) asking if I'd like to serve as the assistant emergency coordinator for digital activities. Since I can barely spell 'digital' I asked him what was up - why the sudden interest in digital stuff. After all, this ARES group has existed for decades blissfully ignorant of most digital mode operations and developments.

As it turns out, there's a new emphasis on the use of Winlink in the emergency communications community (EMCOMM). He wanted to get our ARES group up-to snuff on the basics of Winlink and how to use it to support a served agency. Since I had already given a few talks on Winlink, shamelessly stealing material from others to cobble together presentations, I guess he figured I knew what I was talking about.

I told the EC that I'd take the job, but from a digital perspective our ARES group has other issues that we need to address. First, we can't just stop at Winlink. We also need to get everyone up and running on Fldigi with some level of proficiency. Second, our ARES group web presence was... well, we really didn't have a web presence. We had an old website that held ARES info for our county and the adjoining county that we work very closely with, and we had an email reflector that had been run for almost 15 years on Yahoo Groups. Yeah I know, you're not the only one who's surprised Yahoo's still around.

The EC gave me carte blanche to get our web presence up to snuff, but it had to be done on the cheap. Real cheap, since our local ARES group has no budget. This meant free stuff, or as close to free as I could find. The first thing to tackle was the email reflector issue. Yahoo is one investor fire sale away from going under forever. That means its vast email reflector service is in danger of either going dark or, more likely, being folded into something like Google Groups. We needed to move off of Yahoo's increasingly ageing reflector technology and move to something more up-to-date. The reflector service offered by Groups.io was a natural choice, and a lot of Amateur Radio groups have moved to Groups.io over the past few years. In setting up our Groups.io account we made the decision to not migrate the old Yahoo Groups member list and content over to the new Groups.io environment. There were a lot of 'dead' email addresses in the Yahoo Groups account and we figured it was better to start with a clean slate and have currently interested members make the deliberate choice to sign up.

Next, I had to tackle the website and information portal issue. I do some web development for personal use, blogs, websites and the like, and I manage a good bit of commercial web development at work. I've got a good idea of the costs involved in website development, maintenance and hosting. Good web development isn't cheap, and cheap web development usually isn't very good. But again, our ARES group had zero budget - zip, nada - so I HAD to find something that wouldn't break the bank (ha, ha).

What I turned to was Google's G-Suite environment. G-Suite is Google's business focused upgrade to the free GMail/Google Docs environment. A single G-Suite account costs $60/year and includes features and capabilities not available in the free Google Docs environment. One of those features is Google Sites, a fast and easy website development environment designed for building lightweight internal work group and project websites. But with a few clicks of a button you can publish a Google Sites site on the public web. I use a personal G-Suite account to do web tool development for work so I was fairly confident that Google Sites could fit the need. The configuration options are few. You essentially have a single web template to develop against and you have very limited layout, graphics and text style options. You are also tightly locked into Google's ecosystem. If Google doesn't offer a function or feature it's not going to be available in Google Sites. But the trade off makes Google Sites ideal for our ARES needs - easy development, easy maintenance, fast performance, good integration with the Google Docs suite of tools (word processing, spreadsheet, photos) and dedicated data storage (Google Drive) that can serve as single information portal for all types of records.

Plus you can't beat the price. Really, you can't. Sixty bucks a year (that's $5/month) for use of an environment like this is dirt cheap when you consider all that it offers - website development and hosting, office automation tools, data storage. Since I'm already paying for my G-Suite environment I was able to provide use of this service free to Fayette ARES. All I had to do was go out and reserve a domain name to tie this new site to. After 10 days of development, testing, getting feedback, making changes and developing a how-to video, it's done.

So here it is: www.fayettegaares.org

Fayette ARES is now ready to be dragged into the 21st century! (Yes, I just said that 😄)

W8BYH out

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