GOA, India, 04 August 2006
When Partha Sarkar of APC-member BytesForAll decided to turn the South Asian volunteer-driven network he co-founded into an even more participative affair, he opted for Drupal. “We are planning to shortly make an announcement about www.bytesforall.net, and the RSS feeds it offers,” he said in a recent discussion. But Sarkar is not alone. Other members of the APC network are also finding this a convenient tool through which they can achieve collaborative-functioning, content-creation and creating awareness about their activities.
It’s a modular content management system and blogging engine, which was originally written by Dries Buytaert as a bulletin board. Today, it is used by many high-traffic websites. It comes from the world of free/libre and open source software (FOSS) and can make possible collaborative creation of documents and other types of content.
“Drupal is an excellent choice for online community sites. It is fairly easy to learn, and easy to modify. It has a large community, and a large part of that community are NGOs sharing a common set of needs,” argues Zoltan Varady of APC.
“Web Networks built and currently maintains www.ndp.ca on a Drupal platform and it was used by that political party during a federal election campaign in Canada, standing up to huge traffic. We also use it for our work supporting the Inuit, a Canadian indigenous group and to build an e-commerce course sign-up module for a large Canadian teachers’ union,” says Oliver Zielke, Web Networks Executive Director.
In addition, APC’s Toronto member Web Networks is working with their partner Enlace Quiche in Guatemala, providing training and a Drupal-based hosting environment. This allows them to assist nonprofits organisations and indigenous in Guatemala benefit from Drupal’s empowering content management features.
How APC uses Drupal
Incidentally, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) itself started planning in 2005 on the ‘ActionKit’, a Drupal-based toolkit, to address the needs for an integrated toolset aimed at meeting the special needs of civil society campaigning for the ‘developing’ world.
APC’s members Alternatives, GreenNet, Pangea and Web Networks are building upon the foundation that Drupal and CivicSpace [CMS derived from Drupal] developers already build. “We found most of the requirements we had for a campaigning tool were already met by CivicSpace, we just need to contribute some effort to make it more usable in APC’s international setting,” says Zoltan Varady, ActionKit coordinator.
“We will be improving the translation of modules, and adding support for mobile phones
like text messaging and voice integration to better support the needs of development NGOs,” he explains.
“The ActionKit project has also provided an opportunity to breathe new life into ActionApps, APC’s open source content management system,” says a recently-prepared APC technical report. It is “looking at how ActionApps can share content with other content management systems, which will help strengthen the tools as it seeks to establish a new niche in the evolving CMS terrain”.
Work on ActionApps itself started in 1999, in response to calls in the civil society organisation (CSO) sector asking for the toolset to support automated web publishing and share information across websites. Seven years on, with many more FOSS content management systems (CMSs), set of tools to create easy-to-update websites) now available, APC says that ActionApps “continues to drive” many sites inside and outside the APC network.
“Within the ActionKit project we’re aiming to extend CivicSpace to better accommodate the development sector’s needs – such as better translations and internationalisation, mobile phone integration and usability reviews. We’re also developing ways to share content between ActionApps and Drupal, combining the strength of both systems,” confirms Zoltan.
Omar Bickell agrees and makes a case in point in saying that CMSs need to complement each other, as communities like Drupal for instance, rely on a much larger pool of developers and code base. One way to help do this is to develop ActionApps-to-Drupal migration scripts, he believes.
Omar is a co-founder of the Montreal-based Koumbit.org, a non-profit that brings together some twenty ICT and design professionals, to promote “appropriation of FOSS by community groups in Quebec” and create space for pooling of skills and resources “for progressive-minded autonomous IT workers”.
“NGOs, non-profits and the development community have been discovering Drupal for years now but the rate seems to have dramatically increased recently,” he says.
He argues that while, in the past Drupal was “just another CMS to experiment with, it has now emerged as one of the most powerful and versatile available in the market. It has advantages that are particularly suited to our needs.”
What Drupal has to offer
As its slogan demonstrates, the Drupal community has sought to provide “community plumbing” since the very beginning. Some of its features include multi-user editing, an advocacy component, flexibility and configurability, multi-lingual support, a strong and dedicated developer community, as well as a vibrant community of users. [For more details, see our summary page on Drupal’s main features.]
Some Drupal tools include possibilities for multiple user blogs and aggregator; forums and mailing list integration; new media such as podcast and videocast; project tracking; citizen speak and customer management; ecommerce and donations; event and volunteer management and; a centralized information repository.
“Support comes in the form of the Drupal handbook (also known as the The Drupal Bible), active mailing lists, the Drupal developers’ chatrooms, and consultants,” he points out.
Says Oliver Zielke: “Drupal’s advantages are the quality of its code and its overall modular architecture. Website work equals constant customization. Drupal allows developers to build modules to meet client needs without affecting the ‘core’ code.”
Web.net spent a number of years evaluating open source cms alternatives before “hitching onto the Drupal wagon”, as Oliver puts it.
“We are very pleased about its overall flexibility and performance. The development community is huge, growing, and very vibrant and productive. Throw in CivicSpace and CiviCRM … wow!,” he adds.
Drupal, CivicSpace and their friends
There are variations on the standard Drupal arising too, some specifically meant for nonprofits. CivicSpace is a distribution of Drupal that includes additional Drupal modules and comes with a “configuration wizard”. It tends to be easier to install and configure than standard Drupal, at the expense of sometimes having to wait months in order to use the “latest and greatest” developments within the Drupal community.
CiviCRM stores information on the universe of people associated with a non-profit organisation and on their interactions (emails, donations, petitions, events, etc.).
Says APC’s Zoltan Varady: “I see Drupal as increasingly being a platform of choice for NGOs, especially if they are trying to reach a large audience. It is best suited for highly interactive community sites. The CivicSpace and CiviCRM projects have strenghtened the focus on online advocacy, especially in Northern America where it is best known.”
CivicSpace is a set of modules developed for Drupal that can aid the development of advocacy sites, says Zoltan. Among others, they offer event calendars with volunteering support, surveys and petitions, private and public forums, mass mailings, donations, and a full-fledged relationship management system.
That said, he admits that it is “not a panacea”. Large international NGOs like FOEI or Oxfam with complex internal structures favour Plone, for instance. Others might benefit from the new agile frameworks like Django or Ruby for Rails.
“Every site is different, and with the several hundred [free software and] open source CMS systems available, you are almost certain to find one filling your needs,” says Zoltan.
Awareness of free software boosts use of Drupal
Omar also points to another issue explaining the popularity of Drupal and open source CMSs in general. Awareness of FOSS within non-profit and non-governmental communities “has been steadily increasing for years now”.
With almost twenty years of experience working with information and communication technologies (ICTs), Omar says his primary interest lies in the use of FOSS to empower local community groups and international solidarity movements with sophisticated coordination, decision-making, communications and mobilisation tools.
Zoltan echoes Omar’s stand in arguing that people working for non-profits “often have anti-corporate and anti-commercial sentiments, and so they are more open to the idea of free software”. But ultimately they also need something they can use well, that suits their goals -and he sees FLOSS as “getting better in this regard every year”.
Says Omar: “These organisations increasingly understand the basic value proposition at the heart of the FOSS production model. Perhaps even more significantly, however, they have also come to appreciate the synergy that results from the overlap between their core values and principles and those of the FOSS movement in general,” he adds.
Warren Brian Noronha, site maintainer, developer and evangelist for Drupal of Indian origin, agrees: “Yes, Drupal has always been big with non-profits. Most of them already know about Drupal and have used in some way.”
Warren, who represents Drupal on the organisation ‘Software in Public Interest’, believes that non-profits love Drupal because “its easy to manage, flexible, feature rich, and most of all free as in (free) speech. They are not vendor-locked when they use Drupal.”
In his view, “the relationship between Drupal and the non profit community has always been symbiotic.” Non-profits he worked with appreciate the spirit of free software, and have been willing to donate all their code back to the community.
“Non-profits can hire Drupal developers, and donate the code back to the community,” he suggests. “Drupal benefits because of that extra hands, and the non-profit will benefit because there will be others who will contribute and improve that piece of code in turn,” he argues.
For instance, APC members are developing the ActionKit modules in typical free/libre and open source fashion, they are being contributed back to the Drupal community to benefit others as well.
“Sometimes, unfortunately, people expect the services around free software to also come for free,” Warren rues. “But nothing can’t be fixed over a cup of coffee and a small talk on its philosophy,” says he.
Websites in Drupal made by Web Networks:
‘Introduction to Drupal for Non-Profits: Build Powerful Communities’, Warren Brian Noronha
* Drupal website
* Directory of websites using drupal
* Drupal Theme Garden – gallery of visual designs available for Drupal
* Documentation for developers