How to use Google Moderator to crowdsource your questions (almost)

Crowdsourcing describes the act of outsourcing a task to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call.  Moderator is a new tool from Google that facilitates this practice by posing your question to the entirety a select portion of the Internet … almost.

What do I mean by almost? Glad you asked

First, let’s go ahead and pose the question “What about Church Website design drives you batty?” as part of a topic that includes good examples of bad design which in turn is part of a larger series of questions on Church Website Design … documenting the steps in the process along the way.

  1. First we login using our gMail account – sorry no screenshots of passwords today kids.
  2. Then we click the “Create Series” button conveniently located near the sign in prompt – both towards the upper left of your browser screen.
  3. Fill in the form to create the series keeping in mind that what you’re doing is entering the title, description and ownership that will categorize and/or group one more questions we want crowdsourced.

    NOTE – only OWNERS, identified by email can post a response to your questions – so I’ll add more later when I get things all-the-way figured out.
  4. Now change the top description from “Questions” to something else:

    in this case “good examples of bad design.
  5. Now write in your question:

    in this case “What about Church Website design drives you batty?.
  6. Then it’s a matter of sitting back and allowing others to vote you on or off the Island, that is:

    Questions on the Google Moderator page are automatically ranked based on how many positive votes they have. If a question has 100 total votes of which 50 are positive and 50 are negative votes, it will be ranked lower than a question with 90 total votes, of which 85 are positive and only 5 are negative.
  7. Goto TinyURL and create a link (to the series, topic) you can hand-out:

    In this case http://tinyurl.com/mod-church-website-design.

What’s next? Glad you asked … confusion.

Perhaps it’s just me and my 25 years experience – that includes working for a Wall Street concern in October of 2007 – but I’m thinking Moderator is not quite ready for prime time. Here are some questions and points where things break down for me:

  • Step 3 – The ownership thing is tricky, it is how you invite others to “post a response” – otherwise all they can do is post a question. At least provide a mechanism whereby others can request to be “owners”; though I think it might be more useful if Moderator had a role of “participant.”
  • Step 3a – Again – why can’t I use my current Google Address book to add owners?
  • Step 4 – The topic description thing, meaning without knowing there is a hierarchy of Series->Topic->Questions, then the default “Questions” for the Topic is quite confusing.
  • Step 6 – How do I share this question with you? That I had to goto TinyURL bugs the mess outta me. Okay, so if I make you an owner – you get notified – still, I dunno this bugs me.
  • Step 6a – Also – I’m not entirely clear as to the utility of usinga “digg like” voting system for the questions as it makes more sense to me to rate and rank the answers!
  • Step 6b – BBS – that is, if responses are limited to my circle of friends, why not just skip all the hassle and employ bulletin board like services via Drupal and/or phpBB? At least they have notifications and RSS already built in. Search too.
  • Step 7 – Yeah, I know, there is no step 7 above, but it would be nice in a day an age of syndication if there were an RSS, or since this is Google, an ATOM feed to keep me posted of updates.
  • Help – yeah, the online help, or should I say FAQ, is a bit hard to find in context of what you’re trying to do. Don’t make me hunt for it, I may never come back!
  • Responses – so wait, I can let strangers vote, but I can’t let them enter responses? Sorta takes the crowd out of crowdsourcing don’t ya think? How about making uninvited responses “pending approval?”
  • Search? – as part of Google, I’m thinking that it might be useful to better employ said engine to find series, topics and questions of interests … perhaps with it of mind-mapping thrown in?

Bottom line?

Google Moderator truly earns it’s “Beta” moniker in its current incarnation, offering moderately utility for “crowdsourcing” for individuals wishing for limited results from a limited audience.

That and I’m not so sure my almost 80 year old mom could make sense of this system – nor would many senior church members I suspect.

Hopefully in time it’ll work out the above kinks and we can create a truly usable and collaborative crowdsourcing tool that doesn’t dissolve into a BBS-like magnet for trolls, nere-do-wells and spammers.

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Politically active on your church website? Kiss your tax exemption goodbye!

In case you didn’t know, since 1954 there has been a federal ban on political activity for tax exempt, 501(c)(3) organizations such as charities and churches.  A lesson Atlah World Ministries may be learning the hard way when this past February, pastor James David Manning stood in the pulpit of his little church on 123rd Street in Harlem and denounced Senator Barack Obama as a “pimp” … an event that soon afterward went viral on YouTube.

Now, according to the NY Times, a watchdog group the church’s tax exempt status may be at risk after a formal complaint from “a watchdog group.”

Another example is a case concerning the United Church of Christ (UCC) whom back in 2006 invited Barack Obama to its annual Synod in Hartford Connecticut in 2007. Before the Senator’s appearance, the Synod made it clear that this shouldn’t be a campaign event – none-the-less it got politicized  – inspiring an investigation by the IRS.

There are other such stories, easy enough to find, but my point here is not to aggregate such stories but rather to remind pastors, church web masters and even Sunday school teachers that they need to take a moment and make sure everyone is aware of the July 28, 2008 memorandum from the Director, Exempt Organizations Examinations, describing how the IRS will analyze political campaign activity issues involving websites of section 501(c)(3) organizations.

In it you’ll see that it’s not just overt acts like the reckless and financially suicidal ‘die by the sword‘ “Pulpit Initiative”  launched by the Alliance Defense Fund, but things that can occur in the normal operation of your church and/or charity website such as:

  • podcasting a sermon that favors a candidate
  • posting a Sunday school lesson that opposes a candidate
  • distributing emails that props up one candidate over another
  • links to another website that endorses a candidate
  • fails to monitor a link that subsequently endorses a candidate

At least that’s this layperson’s, non-legal, untrained understanding of the IRS Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations and what they communicate on their websites.

That said, and with my likely ignorance of some aspect of the law in mind, I’ll list below some links to sites that seem smarter than me on this tricky topic:

And from the blogosphere … these thoughts:

Remember, violating this ban may result in denial or revocation of your organization’s tax-exempt status and the imposition of an excise tax on the amount of money spent on the activity …

… that and the loss of the many freebies and discounts your church currently enjoys with its 501(c)(3) status (think Google Apps for starts).

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5 things we can learn from the Twitter UI do-over

Now that the new Twitter user interface (UI) has had a few days to shake itself out, here are 5 things I think the webmasters of church and charity websites might learn from Twitter’s simple, yet effective changes:

  1. Top tabs to the right – this allows for more room for reading tweets “above the fold.” An approach to consider when someone tries to convince you to take up the first 800×600 pixels with a Flash animation of your congregation.
  2. Ajax to reduce refresh – meaning, they’ve employed Ajax so the whole page doesn’t reload when you hit the “Home” or “@Replies” tab. A good use of this technology that could also be used to speed up the load of sub-pages or category pages on your own site.
  3. Less Clutter – through better use of character and line spacing and logo and update resizing. Meaning, while I don’t like the mini-mystery meat approach to their icons, I do think the more effective use of whitespace is something all church websites should consider to make their noisy sites a bit more readable.
  4. Clarity in clicking – by removing the “Archvive tab” Twitter has removed a link that effectively did the same thing as the profile page. Removing multiple links that lead to the same place is always a good thing as it will reduce user confusion on your own sites as well.
  5. Marketing Change – Twitter also takes advantage of a nice little annoucement box they’ve implemented that is short-n-sweet yet highly effective. Likewise, rather than taking up one’s entire page with upcoming annoucements, keep such information conspicious but brief, linking to pages of gory details for those who want to know the rest of the story.

Now the big question is, will Twitter knock-offs such as Gospelr for Christians and/or Yammer for corporations follow in suit?

BTW, of course you can follow me on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/deanpeters – glad you asked.

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5 things we can learn about password recovery questions from Sarah Palin

Imagine waking up one day to this news flash: “Your pastor’s private e-mail hacked, family photos raided; cesspool blog gloats; feds investigate!”

No lie folks, when I wrote my post yesterday entitled ‘5 simple steps to stronger passwords‘ it was well before the Palin story got out – I just set the ‘Publish’ timer later in the day to catch the lunch crowd.

That said, the hack of Sarah Palin’s email account via Yahoo’s password recovery system serves as a wake-up call that screams that no matter how strong a password you use – if you have weak password recovery questions – you’re open for an attack.

So before I can offer my famous list of 5 ways to strengthen your email recovery security questions, let’s quickly look at ‘The story behind the Palin e-mail hacking‘ via my plain English account on how they hacked Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account over at blogs4God.com.

  • Last week, the Washington Post published an article about Sarah Palin’s use a private Yahoo e-mail account , allegedly for State business.
  • gov.palin@yahoo.com is published for public consumption by ThinkProgress.org and  CommonDreams.org.
  • A hacker identified as rubico10@yahoo.com spends less than an hour obtaining the personal information about Palin to successfully fill in the blanks to the following Yahoo Password Recovery questions:
    1. Birthdate: via the WikiPedia (15 seconds)
    2. Zipcode: All 2 of Wasilla’s zip codes via the U.S.Postal Service online
    3. Where did you meet your spouse:  “Wasilla high” after said hacker spent about 40 some-odd minutes chasing down various Google stories on Palin’s personal life.
  • rubico  – posts the above on a bbs entitled /b/ hosted at 4chan.org.

And there you have it, a public person whose birthdate is going to be published, from a small town with only 2 zip codes, need only wait for someone read one of 1,000 accounts that she married her high-school sweet heart.

But Dean, I’m not a public figure. Should I worry? Glad you asked …

Yes, you should worry quite a bit. Put another way, using nothing more than Google’s blog search and perhaps the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:

  • find a blog post, a sermon, a Twitter tweet, or an RSS feed cache that talks about your birthday and/or place of birth;
  • use a domain search, a Facebook, StumbleUpon or MySpace page that lists your city of residence;
  • use either of the above techniques to find out:
    1. city of birth due to a reference to your childhood, favorite sports hero, church or school reference, a biographical write-up for an award, article or other citation
    2. your mother’s maiden name through a genealogical reference, or perhaps a past discussion of your wedding
    3. the name of your pet via a Flickr or Picassa gallery entry
  • any of the above through clever social networking – such as a phone call to a friend, a ‘coincidental’ meeting, a dive through the dumpster, mailing you a bogus contest entry or setting up a seemingly benign web service that collects the same information for malicious purposes.

As you can see, it’s not that hard for someone determined enough to get your data.

Okay man, I’m freakin’ out, what do I do? Glad you asked …

Here are 5 things you can do to overcome the security flaws associated with information submitted to an Internet service (or even cell phone provider) during registration and/or its associated self-service password reset services:

  1. select something that can’t be easily guessed
  2. select something that can’t be easily researched
  3. select something that won’t change over time
  4. select something that is not complicated and easily remembered
  5. select something you haven’t used elsewhere

Now in some cases, it is not possible to enter your own security question. In those cases, you can possibly enter information about someone else you can remember – like a family member, a fictional character from a favorite book, or a historical figure – just so long as you don’t mention online said family members, books, etc …

In those cases where you can select a security question, I’d recommend taking a trip to resources such as “Examples of Security Questions” where you can either copy – or better yet – derive a question that’s easy for you, and impossible for others.

Otherwise, you may find yourself splashed all over the news the same way Sarah Palin did, the hard way:

Get the picture?

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5 simple steps to stronger passwords

Just as good fences make good neighbors, strong passwords make secure users. Put another way, if your pastor is using his first name as a login, and his last name as a password, it won’t be long before your website and/or email system begins spewing spam for various online services not usually associated with a church … or worse.

What do I mean by worse? Glad you asked.

All a hacker need do is to figure out the login and password to one privileged  account and that’s usually enough for them to then quietly get into the rest of your system and begin discovering sensitive information about your organization and/or its members.

I mean imagine the emotional impact and legal/political ramifications that could arise by the publication of private data and/or identity theft resulting from a system compromised by weak password practices.

Okay I’m freaking out, so now what? Glad you asked.

Here are five things you can teach your users to do in creating and using stronger passwords:

  1. Avoid passwords based on repetition, dictionary words, letter or number sequences, usernames, or biographical information like names or dates;
  2. Include numbers, symbols, upper and lowercase letters in passwords;
  3. Password length should be around 12 to 14 characters;
  4. Don’t write down passwords where prying eyes can see them, like a PostIt note taped to the underside of one’s keyboard; and
  5. Avoid using the same password when registering with other online services.

Easier said than done Dean. Yes, I know but …

Unfortunately, getting laypersons and staff to use strong passwords is indeed easier said than done because by their nature, such passwords are harder to remember and guess.

That said, one technique I’ve seen used with success is employing passwords based on easy-to-remember mnemonic phrases such as:

  • mYd0gh@sFleaz – or My Dog Has Fleas
  • @0ne4all2C – at 1 for all to see

There are also a number of free online services that will generate a strong password if you’re having trouble thinking up one of your own, here are just a few:

Along with that, here’s a link to a rather nice free online service that will rate your password’s strength against a number of the criteria mentioned above and then some:

And if you’re too chicken to tell your church secretary that the name of her prize poodle isn’t going to cut it, just send him a link to this article. I can take it from there.

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5 things we can learn from the SiteMeter debacle

Filed under “If it ain’t broke don’t Fix it,”SiteMeter, a webpage tracking service popular with pundit blogs, was compelled to roll-back a deployment and issue a public apology after they messed-up badly when they deployed new features that inflamed the blogosphere more than the myth that Palin and Obama are the pawns of an upcoming alien abduction to convert both Christians and Muslims to tenents of XENU. The end result were a number of prominent A-list political bloggers voicing dissatisfaction with the new SiteMeter reminiscent of the New Coke disaster of 1985.

A situation well described by  The Reference Frame’s LuboÅ¡ Motl,  who provides a detailed enumeration of the issues afflicting the new design, including:

  1. significantly slower due to Flash infusion
  2. fonts are too small, and not scalable
  3. does not associate the domain with IP
  4. requires left-to-right scrolling
  5. harder to quickly see the number of visitors to one’s site

What catches my eye are points #1 and #5 as they indicate to me the possibility that the good intentions of the folks at SiteMeter may have been paved without the benefit of Usability Testing; or at least if SiteMeter did engage in Usability Testing that they overlooked the use cases common to their client’s workflow.

So what has this got to do with my church and/or charity website? Glad you asked …

First, let’s talk about some common pitfalls that I’ve seen ensnare more than one church webaster in upgrading a site:

  • if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
  • you are not your user
  • even if it is broke, don’t fix it unless you have engaged in some form of usability testing
  • don’t engage in some form of usability testing until you understand how your users consume your system
  • just because someone else does it, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for your demographic

Notice how none of the points have to do with technologies such as Flash, HTML, Ajax, etc … Instead, they all have to do with understanding the objectives of your website – and how your users consume the services your website offers.

And just how do you understand how your users consume your services? Glad you asked …

While one could spend hundreds of thousands on hiring/renting out a Human User Interface lab the likes of Carnegie Mellon and/or University of Maryland – there are also ways of getting “good-enough” results at about 1/1000th of the cost by engaging in some home-grown usability testing that include the following steps:

  1. test 3 or 4 users that range in age, gender, and geekness
  2. setup the tests in a classroom or conference room
  3. provide the user 2 or 3 real-world actions based on services your site provides
  4. only assist the user if they are entirely stuck, otherwise observe how the work around a problem
  5. have both a developer and non-developer in the room, with only the non-developer issuing the test and providing any assistance

The keys to successfully engaging in the above is to:

  • understand what it is you are trying to do with your site (conversion goals)
  • understand who your users are and how they consume your services

Here are some links to some of the other sites not-so-happy with the recent SiteMeter change – listed here to provide a clue as to what type of objections one can meet by pushing out changes without completely understanding the site’s conversion goals and user workflow:

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Pastors and Lay Persons and BlackBerrys, Oh My!

With the debut of the now consolidated Google Mobile Apps for BlackBerry also arrives yet another reason why your church and/or charity should consider moving off the desktop and onto the web space.

This is because yesterday Google has officially launched its Google Mobile Apps for BlackBerry, which integrates all those separate applications on your handy handset into a single interface that provides single-sign, single-click access to:

  • Google Mail,
  • Google Maps,
  • Google Sync,
  • Google News,
  • Google Reader,
  • Google Calendar,
  • Google Docs,
  • Picasa Web albums, and
  • Google notebook.

So what has this got to do with running your church and/or charity website? Glad you asked

Think of it in these terms: you get an idea for a sermon, study, budget, and/or praise song while standing in the line at the grocery store. You start your outline document on your trusty BlackBerry – then email your wife, your co-teacher, your committee chair that you’re now sharing this new document with them and that you’ll be able to work on it in about an hour.

You get home, fire up your browser, and now your great outline is on its way to becoming a great presentation that you’ll also post on your blog-driven church website, without you having to worry about floppy disks, USB keys, FTP depots and other vestiges of the ‘sneakernet‘ technology that desktop applications have used to chain us to our desks.

And for those of you asking, but I’ve already got the individuals apps on my BlackBerry, why upgrade? Glad you asked, here’s why …

  • Fast Google search – enter queries without waiting for a browser to load
  • Search history – easily access and amend your previous queries
  • Google Suggest – complete queries with less typing
  • Easy access to Google products for your phone – click once to download and install our applications for BlackBerry, and get immediate access to our web-based services
  • Google Apps support – get direct links to your Google Apps Calendar and Documents/Spreadsheets (select Menu, Options, Use Google Apps Domain: yes, and then enter your domain name)
  • Update alerts – learn about new versions of downloadable Google mobile applications and upgrade with just one click (Google Mobile App replaces Google Updater for BlackBerry)

If you’re a BlackBerry owner, go to m.google.com to download the conoslidated office ‘sweet’ …

… as I will this weekend, hopefully reporting nothing but good news later next week.

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Pastors – wouldja please stop using WordPerfect 5.1?

Too many pastors are still tethered to their office via their desktop word processor – at least if we can assume the numbers from a recent ReadWriteWeb are any reflection of how too few are taking advantage of online options such as Zoho Writer, ThinkFree Write, or Google Docs.

In fact, according to the recent RWW poll & analysis entitled ‘Word Processing: Most of You Still Use Desktop Software,’ less than 25% of their tech-savvy readers use an online word processor as their main documentation tool.

Here are the results from RWW‘s 2008 poll:

  • OpenOffice 16% (374 votes)
  • Microsoft Word 50% (1162 votes)
  • StarOffice (Sun) <1% (11 votes)
  • Another desktop word processor (please comment) 5% (109 votes)
  • A Text Editor (e.g. Notepad, Emacs) 7% (166 votes)
  • Buzzword (Adobe online wp) 1% (28 votes)
  • Google Docs 16% (374 votes)
  • ThinkFree 2% (42 votes)
  • Zimbra <1% (5 votes)
  • Zoho 1% (26 votes)
  • Another browser-based word processor (please comment) <1% (11 votes)
  • Other tool (please comment) 2% (36 votes)

Results made all the more interesting when compared to a similar 2007 poll taken this time last year, which indicates use of MS Word is up 2%, while Open Office is down 2% … that said, Google Docs enjoyed a bump up from 11% last year to 16% this year.

What has this got to do with my church and/or charity website? Glad you asked …

One of the questions I would have like to have seen answered was “what version of Word are you using?” I ask this because the poll reminds me of the frustration I had at one church where I’d get weekly sermons to post online … sent to me by a pastor stuck on WordPerfect 5.1 … until later he got stuck on another loser in the desktop arena, WordPerfect for Windows.

I’d spend an hour or two per sermon banging it into something resembling HTML , unable to convince the this excellent student of Scripture that the world was chaning, his word processor along with it.

All of which makes me wonder here and now, I wonder how many of you out there are dealing with old operating systems running old versions of old word processors? Then I wonder, how much time is lost in getting the important and compelling content in sermons that could draw in literally draw in thousands of visitors and dozens of new members … if only it weren’t so doggone hard to get them from the old desktop application to the webspace.

If you’re feeling the same pain or wondering the same thing, here are 5 quick points to consider:

  1. online word processing systems such as Google Docs have a publish feature, that can send a document straight to a sermons blog using any publishing software that supports XML-RPC;
  2. several online word processing systems have a shared/collaboration feature – meaning a pastor with a Windows 2000 based PC can work on the same document as his editor layperson equipped with a Mac at their office;
  3. moving from the desktop to the webspace means avoiding the confiscatory licensing and upgrade costs associated with desktop applications;
  4. a number of online word processing have import and export capabilities, allowing a pastor to revise an old sermon written in Word back in 2002, saving the new version back to their hard drive in Word, HTML, PDF or Word;
  5. you can go home for dinner … meaning staff need not stay at the office all night to work on a church budget, but instead can save the unfinished document just before leaving the office … then pick up right were they left off from the comfort of their home computer and browser.

Yes, there are some concerns about privacy, ownership, and backups – but there are similar problems that exist with desktop applications as well – meaning there’s no SaaS substitute for good contingency planning.

Oh and one other argument I might pose a pastor permanently stuck on dead desktop apps … “what % of the features on Word do you actually use?

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non-profit guides – grant-writing tools for non-profit organizations

Here’s a resource-filled website that may help your church, charity and/or lay-ministry garner some much needed funds: non-profit guides. This site hosts free Web-based grant-writing tools for non-profit organizations, charitable, educational, public organizations, and other community-minded groups.

As the site says:

If you are an individual or start-up organization, try our links to related Web sites to find additional grant & fundraising resources …

… Successful grant-writing involves solid advance planning and preparation. It takes time to coordinate your planning and research, organize, write and package your proposal, submit your proposal to the funder, and follow-up.

… You might also visit your local library, contact a nearby college or university, and/or research federal, state and local government resources.

It is with that in mind that the site provides guides are designed to assist established US-based non-profits through the process of grant-writing, by offering:

  • sample inquiry letter
  • sample cover letter
  • sample cover sheet
  • sample budget
  • sample proposals
  • sample foundation rfp
  • sample foundation grant application
  • sample government grant application

Sounds like a worthwhile resource to me – and just in time for a rainy weekend. Well at least for me as Hurricane Hanna pays a visit.

Your mileage may vary.

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Cartoon: Flash Intro Screens – like setting fire to your money

Looks like some people with a great sense of humor took my August 25, 2008 post entitled ‘Don’t turn your front page into a splash page‘ to heart. As demonstrated by the following Signal-to-Noise cartoon of Rob Cottingham that appeared on ReadWriteWeb this past August 31:

And thanks to the quick commenting skills of HYCW cult member 1st Class, Bill Siddall, we are also privy to the following ReadWriteWeb commentary that accompanied the cartoon

Just when we thought the [darned] things were dead and buried, I ran across another Flash intro screen the other day. And like practically every other one I’ve seen, it was half useless puffery about the organization behind the site, and half lookit-this-kewl-effect self-indulgence by the designer

See, it’s not just me – so please, enough with the distracting and bandwidth-consuming arts-n-crafts front pages. Let’s get back to delivering the compelling content seekers and members want and need.

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