Why Maintaining Your Own Site Works

September 3, 2012

A few years ago, St. John’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island hired us to revamp their website. The original site was serviceable but, well, blue-ish and gray-ish, and not very welcoming. Here’s a screenshot, captured from the Wayback Machine:

St. John's website in 2008
St. John’s Episcopal Church website in 2008.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Unitarians Do a Website

December 26, 2011
Unitarian Church of Staten Island

Unitarian Church of Staten Island

Churches and other faith-based organizations often have wonderful websites, right up until the people who created them leave. Sometimes they move away; sometimes they burn out. In either case, the organization is left with a site that becomes more outdated every week, once a week.

The Unitarian Church of Staten Island was almost in this position. Their longtime webmaster was stepping down, but luckily, two members of the Communications Committee were willing to take on the job.

But let me digress for a moment: The Unitarian Church of  Staten Island, which was founded by abolitionists, has a long history of social activism. Their most famous member was Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment composed of freed slaves, in the fateful Civil War attack on Battery Wagner, Morris Island, SC. He was immortalized, along with his regiment, in the film Glory.

The 21st century members are no slouches either. Their Social Justice Committee is involved with the Staten Island Building Bridges Coalition and helped celebrate Food Day 2011. One of their Small Group Ministries has a fair trade coffee program, and the church itself shelters homeless men from Project Hospitality every night.

So it was obvious to us at Fast Smart Web Design that this group of people would have the intellectual, physical, and spiritual energy to maintain their own site. We showed one member how to use Adobe Contribute, and the other already knew how to use Adobe Dreamweaver. Between them, they’ve kept the site up to date and have solved most of the inevitable glitches on their own. Check out their Sunday Services and Upcoming Events pages to see how well they (as well as the church) are doing.

The web administrators said they’re willing to talk to other faith-based organizations about the process of redesigning  and then maintaining an organizational website. Not all the issues are technical, they point out — the team needs to be able to manage privacy, workload, and interpersonal issues as well. Contact us if you’d like to get in touch with them.

Designing Art in the Afternoon (fish in the morning)

December 26, 2011
Art in the Afternoon (fish in the morning)

Art in the Afternoon (fish in the morning)

Fast Smart Web Design has worked with Naima Rauam on her site, Art in the Afternoon (fish in the morning), through two design iterations. Both the first and current versions are notable for what’s not there: No colored backgrounds, no busy banner, no complicated navigational strategies. Instead, because the site is so simple, your eye is drawn to the paintings themselves.

Why is the site called “Art in the Morning (fish in the afternoon)”? Simple: When Naima started painting at the Fulton Fish Market, one of the fish mongers let her set up a gallery in his shop after the market closed at 11 a.m.

With Art in the Afternoon, we learned two things:

  • The more descriptions you include, the better search results you get. This is obvious, of course, but it’s time-consuming to write descriptions–and if you’re spending your time describing old pieces,  when do you get time to make new ones?  But as Naima adds more  text, her Google Analytics page shows more hits.
  • Simplicity is not for everyone. When we showed Naima’s site to Russians in our usability workshop in Moscow, they didn’t like it at all. But after we toured the Hermitage in St. Petersburg a few days later, we guessed why the minimalist style was so unpopular in Russia. If your ideal staircase looks like this, why would you like a plain white background?
Staircase at the Hermitage Museum

A staircase at the Hermitage Museum

What We Did for Meals on Wheels of Staten Island

December 26, 2011

Meals on Wheels of Staten Island

As a Meals on Wheels (MOW) volunteer since 2001, Victor has been delivering meals every Wednesday to about twenty elderly clients. He noticed that the Meals on Wheels of Staten Island website hadn’t been updated for years, and when he asked, he found that MOW didn’t have much of a relationship with their web developers. They had trouble contacting anyone at the company and no one from the company tried to contact them.

Fast Smart Web Design offered to redo the website and set up the new version in such a way that the (extremely overworked) volunteer administrator could easily update the pages herself. She now regularly updates the newsletters and tweaks the pages when rules or procedures change.

In the redesign, we also

  • connected Meals on Wheels with PayPal for donations, memberships, and events
  • created volunteer and client application forms with reCAPTCHAs to reduce spam
  • added an SSL certificate to make sure that no one outside MOW could access clients’ information without their permission
  • added a translation widget to make it easier for multilingual clients to understand what was on the pages
  • included a widget that made the type larger (or smaller) to help older adults read the pages

Rejected! Tattfoo Tan on getting rejection letters

December 9, 2011

COAHSI’s blog has a write-up by Tattfoo Tan on applying for arts grants, what it feels like to be rejected, and what to do about it. Perfect. Check it out.

The 1776 Celebration at the Conference House

September 7, 2011

The following describes the 2010 1776 Peace Conference Celebration at the Conference House on Staten Island. It is by Nicholas Zvegintzov, whose many interests and projects are visible here: http://www.maint.com/

I successfully but sleepily caught the 11:01 train in St. George, about 45 minutes to Tottenville, the end of the line, where the front of the train almost ends in the water at a long-abandoned ferry landing.

I first took this trip in 1979, when there were still some old wooden rail coaches on a siding and on the street approaching the ferry a boarded-up porticoed building, perhaps part of an old hotel. Both are gone, but otherwise it is very much the same – well, more clustered town houses on the far side of the Kill van Kull.

Reenactors with soup tureen

I walked through prosperous tree-lined streets past some pleasant houses built on the shore, and got directions from a man who was exercising two dogs and two teenage daughters. He comes here every Sunday, but had little idea what the Conference House was or the Conference. ‘In 1976? Ah, 1776. Tell my daughter, she should learn.’ His daughter of course not very interested. Read the rest of this entry »

We did manage to do something right….

June 14, 2011

If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov

A new campaign from the CDC

If you’re on the front lines of public health initiatives, as members of the Staten Island Hunger Task Force, Take Care Staten Island, and the Staten Island Smoke-Free Partnership are, the idea that you’re going to be able to make a dent in obesity, alcohol or drug abuse, or smoking seems ludicrous.

However, on May 20, the Center for Disease Control reported the 10 biggest public health changes in the last ten years. The U.S. as a whole has:

  • Reduced smoking from 23.5% of adults and 34.8% of youths in 1999 to 20.6% of adults and 19.5% of youths in 2009.
  • Reduced traffic accidents, injuries, and fatalities: While the number of miles traveled went up 8.5%, the death rate declined from 14.9 to 11.0 per 100,000 people, and the injury rate declined from 1,130 to 722. Among children, the number of pedestrian deaths declined by 49%, from 475 to 244, and the number of bicyclist deaths declined by 58%, from 178 to 74 (with the possible exception of New York City—see Watch biker prove futility of NYC bike laws by crashing over-and-over again and New York City traffic goes three ways).
  • Reduced coronary heart disease rates from 195 to 126 per 100,000 population and reduced stroke deaths from 61.6 to 42.2 per 100,000 population.
  • Significantly reduced lead poisoning. In 2000, childhood lead poisoning was a major environmental public health problem. Black children and those living in poverty and in old, poorly maintained homes were affected the most. Because of state and federal lead poisoning prevention laws, lead poisoning dropped from 88.2% to 0.9% among children aged 1-5 years between 1976 and 2008.

So maybe it takes 10 years to see results. Or possibly longer: At least 15 years ago, Henry Spira and other animal activists started a campaign to reduce pain and suffering among laying hens. Last night, I noticed a band of type around the Hellmann’s Mayonnaise jar: “Contains Cage-Free Eggs.” Wow. Can’t be more mainstream than that.

Mind the Gap!

June 7, 2011

First, let’s start with the poverty line.  As of 2011, for the 48 contiguous states, the Dept. of Health and Human Services poverty lines are:

For a single-person household: $10,890
For a two-person household:  $14,710
Three persons: $18,530
Four persons: $22,350

The list goes up to eight, but let’s stop here. On Staten Island, 11.2% of people are at or below the poverty line. (Try to imagine living on $10,890 a year.)

Poverty line or up to 130% of the poverty line

If you make less than 130% of the poverty line, you’re eligible for food stamps (called SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program everywhere except New York State) and other programs such as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP).

130% of the poverty line

If your annual income is higher than 130%–in other words, $10,890 x 1.3 or $14,147 for an individual or $29,055 for a family of four–you’re no longer eligible for food stamps but your children are still eligible for free school lunch. Read the rest of this entry »

Secede from the Union over Farm Food? Maine Town Passes Landmark Local Food Ordinance

April 25, 2011

In March, Sedgwick, a small town on the coast of Maine, passed a “Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance” that says that farmers selling directly from their farms to customers don’t need to be licensed or inspected by state and federal governments. The ordinance also exempts foods made in home kitchens from licensing and inspection.

Sedgwick farmer Bob St. George points out that “until the last couple generations, we didn’t need a special license or new facility each time we wanted to sell something to our neighbors. Small farmers and producers have been getting squeezed out in the name of food safety, yet it’s the industrial food that is causing food borne illness, not us.”

The ordinance is online (http://savingseeds.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/localfoodlocalrules-ordinance-template.pdf) to make it easy for other towns to follow Sedgwick’s example. However, one of the ordinance’s most interesting aspects is the declaration of (possible) independence:

The foundation for making and adoption of this law is the peoples’ fundamental and inalienable right to govern themselves, and thereby secure their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Any attempt to use other units and levels of government to preempt, amend, alter or overturn this Ordinance or parts of this Ordinance shall require the Town to hold public meetings that explore the adoption of other measures that expand local control and the ability of citizens to protect their fundamental and inalienable right to self-government. It is declared that those other measures may legitimately include the partial or complete separation of the Town from the other units and levels of government that attempt to preempt, amend, alter, or overturn this Ordinance.

Is selling food at a farm stand an inalienable right? It made me laugh at first, but here on Staten Island, it seems that neighbors aren’t allowed to sell, swap, or even give away their backyard produce except under of cover of night, over the back fence. That can’t be right. Bushels of figs, apples, and persimmons rot on the ground every fall while folks in the housing projects can’t afford an old peach in the local bodega.

The Unhealthy Neighborhood

April 25, 2011

A few years ago, it became obvious to food pantries and organizations like City Harvest that it wasn’t enough to just give food away.  They needed to give people healthy food. People in low-income neighborhoods have high levels of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, at least partly because they can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Mobile Market at the Stapleton Houses in January 2011. Russian-speaking volunteer (and founder of Software Management News) Nicholas Zvegintzov faces the camera.

City Harvest now delivers hundreds of pound of free fruits and vegetables twice a month to Melrose in the Bronx; Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn; and Stapleton on Staten Island. They also promote good nutrition in local schools, do healthy cooking classes and demos, sponsor health screenings and outreach, and work with “Healthy Corner Stores” that agree to sell at least a dozen types of produce.

However, researchers seem to have found another wrinkle in what makes a neighborhood unhealthy. In the “The Poverty Clinic” (New Yorker, March 21, 2011), Paul Tough writes about the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study that assessed the health of patients enrolled in California’s Kaiser HMO between 1994 and 1998. At the same time as the researchers tracked health outcomes, they also surveyed their clients about ten adverse childhood experiences such as parental divorce, physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and violence in their homes and schools.

The results were scary. The higher the ACE score, the worse the outcome. Compared to people with no history of ACEs, people with ACE scores of four or higher were twice as likely to smoke, to have been diagnosed with cancer, and to have heart disease. Even more scary: Patients with ACE scores of seven or higher who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink to excess, and weren’t overweight still had a risk for ischemic heart disease that was 360 percent higher than for patients with zero scores.

Not all researchers agree that traumatic childhood experiences and later poor health correlate as strongly as the studies seem to show, says Tough. However, it’s something to keep in mind when healthy-food advocates try to measure how their interventions affect the health of a child, a family, or a neighborhood.