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June 04 2010


How a Test Suite Can Help Your Open Source Project Grow

At CityCircles, we've been fortunate to work with a local developer who is passionate about our project's goal of developing hyper-local communication tools for mass audiences. Our first implementation of that is a platform for light rail passengers in Phoenix, Arizona.

That said, one person can't carry the entire load, especially as the project inevitably evolves from its humble beginnings and wire frames.

One solution that's worth considering is sinking some funds into a test suite -- a closed environment where other developers who share a vision for the project can develop new features with the approval of the "master" developer. This is the approach we recently took with CityCircles.

Test Suite

In March, we contracted with a local development shop called Integrum Technologies to build a test suite. The project is connected to our code base and includes simulated tasks that other developers can build toward and "test." If these features pass muster in the test suite, then we can push those changes to our code base permanently. If they do not, then the developer can tweak them until they do without ruining the live site.

The test suite took almost three weeks to build and cost us roughly $9,500. (That may seem pricey to some, but good Ruby on Rails developers are not cheap. In our case, Integrum specializes in test suites.) However, for startups, this is a very helpful option for reaching goals of new features and functions on a budget. Open-source software developers that are looking for a "portfolio" piece and are attracted to the project's mission can participate at a fraction of the cost to the project. In return, they receive publicity and, in some cases, a promise of future paid work. The idea is that everyone wins.

Once your test suite is completed, start poking around your local area for developer meetups. Go online and subscribe to developer forums and Google groups. In our case, the project is built in Ruby on Rails. I have joined the Rails community's leading Google Group with the intent of marketing this test suite to developers.

I've also been invited to attend Integrum's weekly "hacknight" meetup in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb. Tomorrow night, I'll be there to spread the gospel of the project and hope that our handy test suite attracts the right crew.

Use these test suites to your advantage, as simulators like them can also help create an organic "buzz" around the project as well. Include the developers' names on the open-source software license, too. That will also help.

But be mindful of the pitfalls. Just as there are several developers that may want to participate, they may not have the chops to complete the work in a timely or accurate manner. It helps to have a strong master developer to sign off on their work.

March 11 2010


Top 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Zonie Report

Last week, I wrote a blog post on The Zonie Report (TZR), my Arizona news blog, that I was temporarily shuttering it to spend more time working on CityCircles, a Knight Foundation News Challenge project.

Since most of you probably haven't heard of TZR, here's a quick recap of my post: In my digital farewell, I talked about why I did what I did, outlined a few things I learned, and shared what I planned to do next. Since then, I realized I should have elaborated more on my lessons learned because I feel they have been misinterpreted. I could do that on The Zonie Report, or I could do that here for the greater good of online journalists. I chose the latter.

What follows is a top five list of things I learned along the way of running a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful news website in the great state of Arizona. I am applying what I learned to CityCircles, a hyper-local information tool for light rail riders and nearby residents in Phoenix, and I hope this comes in handy for your respective online journalism projects as well.

Lessons Learned

  1. Identify the community you are serving and get really, really close to it. On The Zonie Report, I tried to write about "the rest of the Arizona story" (thank you, Paul Harvey) by focusing on regional and statewide topics that I felt mainstream media outlets missed. Great idea, except I was entering the "being all things to all people" territory that challenges metro newspaper coverage today. With CityCircles, we are drilling down to everything within a five-block radius of Phoenix light rail stops, which run for 20 miles. This is much more efficient and doable -- and more relevant for a higher concentration of folks.
  2. Differentiate your presentation, voice and method as much as possible. This one may seem obvious, but shouldn't be overlooked. At TZR, I tried to write with more of a folksy style, and I think people enjoyed it. It engenders conversation, comments and trackbacks (which help site visibility) while appealing to readers. If they want drier or more official writing, there's a lot to choose from. Experiment with a weekly editor's video/podcast. Make yourself "human" - and not just an unseen editor - as much as possible.
  3. Identify your competition, then link to them whenever possible. First, use of the word "competition" in online media can be debated, but any journalists reading this will know it's a commonly used term in the industry. This may seem like heresy, but don't be afraid to link to other sites with overlapping work. It's good practice and a good service to readers, and it can help with site visibility in the long run. One of the most successful things I did at TZR was find the most interesting statewide news stories of the day from rural news outlets and point to it. I plan to do the same kind of linking with CityCircles.
  4. Use social media for more than just marketing. On New Year's Day, David Carr of The New York Times wrote a great post about Twitter. He quoted Steven Johnson, a tech observer who wrote about the 140-character phenom for Time, as saying that Twitter "is looking more and more like plumbing, and plumbing is eternal." I agree. My point is that a tool where millions of people can write about anything at any given moment on almost any device is incredibly more powerful than something that you'd just use to market your stories on your website. That's mostly how I used it at TZR; at CityCircles, we've bent Twitter so that train passengers can "tweet" all types of content - from news to events to classifieds and more - across any of the train stops. Be creative with these tools.
  5. Put together a business plan that acts like online ad revenues don't exist. Banner ad networks continue to drive online advertising prices into the floor. Unless your startup is the next Facebook and can produce volume and deep targeting, you will need a more diverse plan for sustainability. I tried this with TZR and it went almost nowhere. At CityCircles, our initial plan is to bundle online advertising with other marketing services for light rail merchants, and to make it very affordable. This may change, but, for now, we're rolling with it.

And on that note, I'd like to add more thing: Never be afraid to change your strategy on anything. The biggest mistake I made with The Zonie Report was taking too much time to let go of ideas/concepts that weren't working. Don't do this. It will bog you down - and keep you from the ideas/concepts that really do work.

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