Gary McLachlan, Change and Represent Manager at University of Exeter Students' Guild explains how they use the MSL news widgets in this first article of a series on supporting the Guild’s democratic systems.
Gary McLachlan, Change and Represent Manager at University of Exeter Students' Guild explains how they use the MSL news widgets in this in depth article about supporting the Guild’s democratic systems.
Frankly, our democracy wouldn’t work without the News system which MSL provides – it is the backbone of everything we do.
Using MSL News to support democracy
There are currently two separate and interlocking uses of the News widget and News admin/feed currently made in the Guild – around our democratic systems.
There are a few points that make the News feed appropriate to the job:
- It is easy to create and maintain News stories, and to set archival, expiry and visibility directly on each story.
- News can be zoned, and belong entirely to a particular membership grouping so that it can be tailored to deliver content only to members.
- News stories can either be generated from the content entered directly as a News item, or carry an absolute URL.
- News stories contain a tagging system, which the widget can utilise to display only on the basis of certain tags (a positive include) or the widget can be used to block display on certain tags (an exclude)
- The tags can also be added to in terms of complexity by adding a “must contain” field in order to display only certain types of story rather than all which match the primary tags.
It is our experience that between the membership categories and tagging fields, what you can actually develop from the News feed is a highly complex and self-regulating indexing system which is the equivalent of any top-level Content Management System used elsewhere.
Using Student Ideas
Our Ideas pages are indexed in one place and, currently, we use tags for the “status” of each Idea page in the following way:
- Every Idea contains a reference to itself – based on the poll ID# which is the voting mechanism for each Idea. i.e. Idea675 – the Idea which contains poll number 675
- Every Idea for the current year is tagged 2016
- Every Idea has a status tag which is either Open (voting live), Fast (Fast Ideas – a different voting mechanic and turn-around time), and Large (denotes Ideas which are the preferendum element of our voting system.)
- Once an Idea has been voted on it is scored (manually) from the poll, and then given the status it achieved through voting – win, withdrawn, complaint, second, third, dropped or failed – these tags are used to display archives of what happened to the Idea after it closed. Inprogress is also used for active projects which are still being delivered.
The Idea index on the live page takers Ideas which are Open, Fast or Votes – with the additional check that they also contain the tag 2016. These are the ideas listed for students to click through (URL-based navigation) to vote or comment live.
Each Idea also has a “Related Ideas” news feed; which uses the same News source but searches instead for the tags relating to ‘topic’ by which we content manage Ideas – there are currently 52 topics which come up often enough to inter-relate; and each News story when it’s created gets one or two topics attached to it so that the internal referencing works.
For the Related Ideas News feed; we exclude the Idea on the page which is pulling the list – i.e. Idea 675 would exclude the tag Idea675 from its feed to prevent circular references; and would also exclude the Open, Fast and Votes Ideas which are currently live; being a list of closed Ideas on the related topics.
The is also an archive of Ideas for each year, categorised by those Ideas which passed, those which are still in progress and those which failed – and the status tags are used to display all Ideas which are not Open, Votes, or Fast (i.e. still active) in the appropriate list for navigation.
In this example, positive inclusion, absolute requirements, status and topic are all managed purely from tags used within the News widget, and each Idea has its own permanent URL indexed from the News feed – we have found this to be far more accurate for our daily use of Ideas since it means:
- We manually control the status (and therefore display) of every element in the indexes without ever having to edit the HTML which makes those indexes.
- Intervention is only ever done in one place – on the tags attached to each News story, meaning if mistakes are made we can correct them immediately and know that the entire index system is correct.
The use of the News system to write all indexes and Related Ideas lists on the fly saves staff time on every Idea or change – in the first year of operation an estimated 10 minutes per Idea was spent simply keeping the indexes up-to-date and editing HTML; where a mistake (i.e. forgetting to close a /div) can quickly break the page and take hours to hunt down, or lead to Ideas being removed from the index entirely. Using News to automatically create new indexes by the addition of a news widget has cut administrative time considerably, to the point where we estimate that our upper limit for a single staff member to manage the system is around 800 Ideas a year – whereas in our first year of operation we would have struggled to achieve 200 had we received that many.
The second use on our democratic systems is the new method used to display our student Council – where the tagging system again helps us by controlling content where we are indexing whether a particular News story relates to a person (elected Rep or Officer) a role description (for the Rep or Officer) an election link to the post (when an election is open) or a Specialist Council to which the elected Officer belongs – in this way we are able to enable cross-navigation for better ‘journeys’ through the information.
The news feeds in particular are useful in terms of journey-based (or story telling) navigation since each persons’ individual biography page (indexed as person/role) can then pull in the role description for that post, and any other indexed relevant information. The group pages for each Council are able to pull in the members of that Council; role description links and election links – and so on – the navigation built from a set of pages gives indefinite ‘journey-based’ navigation where students can look at a group, find a person, navigate easily to a role description, find another person (and so on.)
This flexible navigation prevents ‘dead-end’ journeys through the Representation system; and also allows us to have a single page for each Role Description which can be linked or indexed from Elections – meaning we don’t ever have to remember to update two identical role descriptions (Election based and Information-store) but can rely on the links always showing the correct master (single page) copy.
On top of those methods, our separate but linked Change Agent system and Students’ Green Unit project-management systems are also integrated or capable of almost immediate integration by the simple method of using the existing news feed with a widget that pulls in project-based tags which we already use, and displaying things that relate to either active projects or for the Green Unit those Ideas and projects that carry the sustainability tag.
In this way what looks like highly individualised content relating to a single service can actually be conglomerated from several sources using consistent tagging methods – making a new page with existing content very easy to create extremely fast and with active relevant content from inception.
While we haven’t yet reached the limits of what we intend to use the interactive tagged News widgets to achieve, the uses we already have made have:
- Made our work faster and more accurate
- Give us the ability to create new dynamic content on the fly
- Give us the ability to create ‘journey’ navigation with existing content without having to make major structural changes to our code or indexes.
If you don’t currently use the News system because you ‘don’t do news’ – give it a try anyway; with creative use of tags and widgets you can create very effective content-based navigation extremely easily, and work with a set of templates to make adding new pages to your site much easier and less prone to mistakes.