The Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo and Free Software
Free software solutions for a web site meeting the needs of the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo - a Free Software Case Study from seed).
- 1 Background
- 2 Implementation
- 3 Impact
- 4 Future perspective
- 5 Acknowledgements
The Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo.
The Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo, founded by Mons. Massimo Camisasca in Rome in 1985, is a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical right. Its members lead a life of community, mainly staying in houses in which three or more members live.
The Fraternity originated from the charisma of Father Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation.
It aims at evangelizing and educating faith by exercising the priestly ministry, especially in those environments and in those countries, where an unchristianising society and the need of the Church for a new evangelisation are more evident.
In 1985 six priests, united by the friendship with Father Massimo Camisasca, joined the priestly association, acknowledged by cardinal Poletti. In the same year an education center was established in Rome with ten seminarists.
In 1989 the association was acknowledged as Society of Apostolic Life of Diocesan right. That year the priests were thirteen and the seminarists fifteen. The first mission of the Fraternity is in Latin America: the first priest ordained as a member of the Fraternity was sent to Brasil (diocese of Petropolis).
In 1999 the Fraternity was acknowledged by the Vatican as Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical right.
The Fraternity currently counts one hundred and four permanent members.
The Fraternity of Saint Charles is currently operating in Italy, in the diocese of Porto-S.Rufina (where the education center and the headquarters of the Fraternity are located), besides the dioceses of Bologna, Chieti, Frosinone, Grosseto, Milan, Pesaro, Pitigliano, Rome and Trieste.
Since 1989 the Fraternity has established houses in Europe: in Vienna (Austria), Cologne (Germany), Fuenlabrada (Spain), Alverca (Portugal), Prague (Czech Republic), and Budapest (Hungary).
In 2003 the Fraternity started operating in Moscow, with Father Paolo Pezzi, who is now the archbishop of the Mother of God in the same city. In Africa the Fraternity has houses in Nairobi (Kenya), while in Asia it has been present in Novosibirsk (Siberian) since 1991 and in Taipei (Taiwan) since 2001.
One of our priests has recently gone to Jerusalem (Israel) to collaborate with His Beatitude the Patriarch Fouad Twal. We are also present in North America, in Boston, Denver and Washington, DC (USA) and in Montreal (Canada).
Finally, the Fraternity operates in South America, in Asunción (Paraguay), in Santiago and Conception (Chile), and in Mexico City. In September 2008, by request of Father Julián Carrón and the movement of Communion and Liberation, we opened a house in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Father Julián de la Morena was initially sent.
The members of the Fraternity carry out their mission in parishes, schools, universities, prisons and hospitals. In developing countries the missionaries face the needs of the local population; in Paraguay and Kenya there are several charitable works: a clinic for terminally ill patients (hospice), a medical dispensery, an Assistance Center for disabled people, schools and kindergartens.
The missionaries collaborate to the new evangelisation, started by John Paul II, also by contributing to the rediscovery of Christian origins in European countries, whose enduring Catholic tradition seems to go on with difficulties.
The challenge posed by education is fundamental. Several priests work in schools of any order and grade, both abroad, in Boston as well as in Nairobi, and in Italy, in Bologna and Rome.
Finally, some priests also teach university classes; specifically, they teach at: the Pontifical Lateran and Urbaniana University in Rome, the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, the Catholic University of Asunción, the Theological Institute of Gaming in Austria, the Catholic University of Budapest, the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (in Washington, DC), and the Fu Jen Catholic University of Taipei.
Prior to the technological update performed by the association Seed, the Fraternity of Saint Charles had a website that had been realized with internal resources and that showed some problems, which Seed tried to fix:
- Difficult updating. There were only a few areas in the website that were completely modifiable through an administration profile; the process for updating the pages not included in such areas was thus long and complicated;
- Difficult navigation: the structure of the website was not easy to explore: on one hand several pages could not be reached because of links situated in hardly visible positions; on the other hand users could easily lose their way while searching for information. Furthermore, an internal search tool lacked to support users in finding contents;
- Obsolete technology: the website had been produced with an “old” technology, which, although still effective, appeared to those used to surf the Internet as lacking features of web 2.0 common to all portals, like photo galleries, videos... Moreover, it had been optimized in terms of SEO in order to favor the inclusion of contents in search engines;
- Lack of a multilingual platform: the Fraternity of Saint Charles, as the introduction reported, operates in the whole world. Only part of the contents of the former website were not translated in different languages; therefore, non-Italian-speaking users were disadvantaged and not willing to visit the website repeatedly;
- Manual mailing list: the mailing list used to disseminate events and news about the Fraternity was managed manually through a software that was installed on a computer of the Foundation for this particular purpose. Contacts had thus to be added and deleted manually by a person in charge of such task, and the risk was run of producing lists with mistakes and lacks; besides, e-mails could only be sent by one location.
When the analysis of the technological characteristics and changes of the Fraternity of Saint Charles was completed, that of the new requirements began.
The initial stages of such analysis was conducted without considering the technological features of the platform, to avoid posing limits. Only during the following stage were the available technical resources taken into account.
For the website to be effective in presenting the Fraternity and its activities, which is, its main goal, it was necessary to identify the ease and speed of updating as the first requisite, together with the possibility for several people to perform such activity, even without having particular technological skills.
An up-to-date portal attracts new users and keeps them interested, whereas there is no motivation to regularly visit a static one, after having explored it the first time.
Once the contents have been inserted in a website, they need to be organized, made easily reachable, and given a logical structure. Also this task has to be simple for the person in charge of updating contents.
If data are well organized, it is easier for the user to find relevant topics, avoiding to get stuck among uninteresting ones, which would lead him/her to leave the portal.
After the activities of adding and organizing contents, the third fundamental requirement, which is also the most important one from a technological point of view, is definitely the realization of a useable product.
Such feature has been rated as more important than a captivating graphical interface, which would have made the website more pleasant, but harder to be fully exploited for a number of people. It is important to keep in mind that the portal's target group is numerous, and it includes America and Europe, which are technologically advanced, as well as South America and Africa, where the Internet connection is slow and unstable.
Another important requisite related to the website usability has definitely been the focus on informing the users about the addition of new contents, in order to enable those, who do not check the portal everyday, to be aware the main events and activities of the Fraternity.
A further requirement has been finding a tool allowing the implementation of all the other necessary features at a low price; an open source one, if possible.
Finally, given that the Foundation is a non-profit organization, it was useful to include some self-financing tool in the portal.
To sum up, the main requisites of the portal are:
- Easy and quick update
- Organization of the contents
Following the definition of such requirements, the decision was made to design the platform with WordPress, CMS (Content Management System) open-source, using the existing plug-ins that could fulfill specific needs, and writing new code to satisfy the new emerging ones. We will go through WordPress and its main characteristics in the following pages.
A mailing-list realized with MailMan was associated to the platform. Also the production and management of the list will be explained.
WordPress is a platform of “personal publishing” that originally worked as a blogging platform. It was created by Matt Mullenweg and distributed with a GNU General Public License. It thus generated a huge international community of users interested in the development of the application itself, of the plug-ins (extremely useful instruments, through which extra functions can be added to a website), and of graphical templates.
Thanks to the growth of such plug-ins and templates, which have been more and more demanded, WordPress changed its status of blog and became a platform for the thorough management of website of different kinds, but it has kept its ease of management and configuration.
The use of such platform made it possible to match the first two platform requirements, which concern the contents’ update and organization.
WordPress platform includes a complete administration area, where users can add material through a form of addition WYGIWYS (What You Get Is What You See): uploading or updating contents is as easy as writing with a common text editor.
They can then be classified through two parallel instruments: categories and TAGS. The first ones relate to the main topic of the content; it is a sort of macro container. TAGS are instead more difficult to understand in the beginning: they can be described as a keyword describing the content.
The organizing function of the categories is easy to understand: they subdivide subjects in a kind of chapters, whereas a search based on tags returns all the topics related to a given keyword.
The use of such platform also matches the requisite regarding costs: since WordPress is distributed with a GNU license, it does not have purchase or renewal costs. The expenses are limited to maintenance, updating and domain rent.
As soon as the WordPress platform is installed, the graphical outcome is a simple list of articles, sorted by decreasing date of creation. This kind of visualization prevents from fully exploit the instrument, reducing it to a mere blog, when it could be based on a full CSM.
WordPress has been designed to allow anyone to create plug-ins, new graphical templates and to improve its features. Existing plug-ins were thus reviewed to check whether some of them were feasible to the website.
After having analyzed the contents to be uploaded in the portal, it was clear that, in order to make the users learn about the main activities of the community, the template should have highlighted the latest news and videos, and should also have included an area in the homepage, where to insert particularly relevant links.
Besides, in order to meet the platform's requirement of usability, the template had to be correctly validated in accordance with WC3 norms, but could not be too heavy to upload, also with slow Internet connections.
One of the advantages of WordPress is the possibility of adding plug-ins to the basic template. They are parts of code used to implement an extra function to be added to standard ones.
The list of the plug-ins used in the platform follows, together with a short description:
- All in One SEO Pack simplifies SEO operations: those, thanks to which contents can be found and organized by web search engines;
- Category Order. WordPress automatically sorts everything in alphabetical order. This plug-in supports the classification of categories in the order chosen by the author;
- Exclude Pages from Navigation. All the pages are usually listed in the menu, but this plug-in allows to exclude some of them, making them accessible through a direct link only. Such function is particularly useful for the pages of confirmation of users' operations (donations, subscriptions, mailing-list registration);
- Exec-PHP. Existing plug-ins performed many of the functions required by the platform, but it was necessary to write new code to fulfill some peculiar functions, as donations, subscriptions, or mailing-list registration. Thanks to such plug-in it was possible to add the code from the administration interface without working with WordPress code;
- Featured Content Gallery. Through this plug-in an eye-catching homepage was designed, with a spinning sequence of images related to the articles;
- Google XML Sitemaps creates a simply codifiable map of the website, which is useful for the inclusion and positioning in web search engines;
- Lightbox Plus is a simple plug in that creates a pleasant graphical effect every time an image is visualized;
- Reveal IDs for WP Admin. The administration area of WordPress is very easy and intuitive, but this plug-in makes it even simpler by showing the ID associated to the articles, pages, categories and TAGS;
- Sociable. Word of mouth has always been the best way to communicate. This plug-in helps users to share the contents of the portal in the most famous social networks;
- StatPress Solution. The best way to check the quality of a website (both in terms of content and SEO) is monitoring the number of accesses. This plug-in manages the statistics of access and gives reports;
- Wordpress Backup. It is very important to manage and update a website, but it is also fundamental to have a backup, in case of problems. This plug-in produces a backup of the portal that is sent to a given e-mail address;
- WordPress Database Backup. Linked to the previous one, this plug-in produces the backup of the database, the core of the data of CMS WordPress;
- WP-Cumulus is more visual than functional, and it is useful to create a list of TAGs, visualized with a 3D interface.
It is extremely important to disseminate the uploaded topics, since the quality of a portal depends on the regular updating of the contents, but also on the number of accesses. It would be otherwise useless to design a complex structure.
The standard installation of WordPess includes a tool to inform about new updates: RSS Feeds, also called Flussi RSS.
What is a feed? Quoting Wikipedia, a web feed is a “unit of information” formatted in conformity with XML statements. The main goal is to make the contents interchangeable among different applications or platforms. Thus, users only have to subscribe to the portal RSS Feeds to receive updates on real time on the RSS reader.
Nevertheless, several web users do not know the potential of RSS Feeds and, in order to reach such group of people, the decision was made to create a mailing list, besides a portal. A user, who is interested in being informed, can subscribe to the newsletter through the portal and receive all the updates via e-mail.
The requirements of the website were also the guidelines that influenced the choice of the platform to send the newsletters, which is, MailMan, a professional open-source platform.
GNU Mailman is a software of mailing-lists management, developed within the GNU project.
MailMan is mainly written in Python and distributed with a GNU General Public License; it is thus a free software.
It works with mail server Unix, sendmail type, Postfix and qmail. It has a web interface for the organization of lists, messages and anti-spam.
A very important feature of MailMan that is worth of being highlighted is the automatic ability of recognizing wrong or inactive addressed, deleting them or reporting them to the administrator, in order to have an efficient database.
Given the lack of plug-ins supporting the subscription to MailMan, a short PHP script was written to send users an automatic subscription confirmation.
To make MailMan service work, it is enough to send an email to a predefined address, since the system will then forward it to all the subscribed users. It thus makes it possible to perform the task easily from anywhere.
The website requisite of self-financing has not been explained yet.
There are several ways to achieve the self-financing of a portal, like the inclusion of direct sponsors’ advertisements, or the enrolment in large advertising networks, or systems of online micro-payment.
The option of advertising banners was immediately excluded, on the one hand because it would have damaged the website’s image and credibility, and on the other hand not to appear to stick to one particular sponsor.
The decision has thus been taken to count on online donations, especially micro-payments, which are largely used on the web.
Another important choice to be made was the service on which to rely. Although WordPress has several plug-ins that allow micro-payments through known online services (PayPal, Google CheckOut, PostePay...) it was better to use a service. It was necessary to write an ad hoc plug-in to support the operation, and to give the opportunity to subscribe to the hard copy magazine.
After the stages of design and development, the last step was to check the efficiency and efficacy of the work done.
The first fundamental goal was to lower maintenance costs: a platform like the new one can be updated directly from the secretary of the Fraternity that manages communication, taking a step out of the whole process.
Moreover, the very large community of web developers that constantly evolves is very important, since it offers two benefits for free: on one hand it solves security problems as they emerge; on the other hand it continuously produces innovative plug-ins and templates to offer new and unpredicted services. A community of open-source web developers bring the same advantages as a big company, but without requiring the same budget!
Finally, it is worth noting that the access to website from foreign countries are constantly increasing (thanks to multi-lingual contents) and that the number of certified subscriptions to the mailing-list keep on increasing.
After having completed the design, development and check of the website, its future perspective needs to be investigated.
Given that it is supported by an open-source platform, it certainly can cause difficulties with maintenance.
The main one is that some updates may cause modifications, which could make it necessary to redesign the system in some of its components, or as a whole.
Although it is unlikely, the core development of WordPress could stop, causing security updates to lack and the portal to freeze.
To conclude, it is useful to stress the versatility of this project: a feature that makes it applicable to any type of activity, with low prices and without requiring particular informatics competences.
A list of projects produced with the same method is reported below: it helps clarifying the potential of the tool, since it shows very different results obtained by starting from the same basic structure.
- seed - managed the design and implementation process in close collaboration with Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo, authored and released this case study as a free cultural work.