Social Networking Technology Resources for Genealogical Societies
| A class at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, Saturday, February 12, 2011
An Exploration of the Integration of Social Networking Technologies into the Core Activities of Genealogical Societies (TC091), presented by Tony Hanson.
- 1 Rationale
- 2 Purpose
- 3 Working in the Unix environment
- 4 PHP
- 5 CSS, XML and HTML
- 6 Google Analytics
- 7 Content Management Software
- 8 Wiki's
- 9 Blogs
- 10 Facebook
- 11 Twitter
- 12 Flickr
- 13 Podcasts
- 14 RSS
- 15 Creating Web-Based Presentations
- 16 Personal Digital Archiving
- 17 Windows Editors
- 18 'Back End' Services
- 19 Related Articles
Today Genealogical Societies are learning that to survive, or to at least be relevant, they must embrace technology. Many Societies don't have the expertise to set up and manage their own websites. However, having an effective website is the first step. This discussion is for those who have some proficiency with computer technology and want to learn more about how to save their Society money by designing and maintaining the website themselves. All of this technology can be purchased (or found free from a variety of sources) but in doing so the Society gives up some portion of control over content.
As might be expected, a search of the FamilySearch Wiki using terms like Unix, shell, vi and htaccess and other 'technological' terms does not result in too many hits. However, there is a need for a genealogy focused presentation of technical materials for members of Genealogical Societies to use to create and enhance their on-line presence.
This page will serve as a focal point for technological discussions and resources that may be used by Genealogical Societies to create, enhance and maintain their virtual presence.
This page was originally created for RootsTech 2011 session TC091 titled 'An Exploration of the Integration of Social Networking Technologies into the Core Activities of Genealogical Societies'. This course was taught by Tony Hanson of the Dallas Genealogical Society. A PDF formatted version of the presentation can be viewed by clicking here.
Working in the Unix environment
Most web hosting services are based on a Unix or Unix-like environment. Knowledge of the areas listed below is not a requirement for you to establish a web presence. However, understanding the underlying technologies will allow you to have much more control over your sites appearance and security.
Choosing a Web Hosting Service
Fundamental security issues
Specific security needs will be different for every site, but there are some basic suggestions that are universal:
- Perform regular backups of your files and your MySQL database tables
- Keep current copies of your backups somewhere else
- Change your passwords frequently
- Keep your application software up to date. Hackers exploit security holes in older versions of software.
- Restrict access to known hacker sites using an .htaccess file
- Restrict known PHP exploits by using PHP.ini
- Schedule and review the output of the 'find ctime -l' command (lists files that have been changed recently, which may be an indication of malicious activity) daily
- If you have installed 'off the shelf' Wiki/Blog/CMS packages that creates tables in MySQL consider changing the default table names (refer to the individual packages documentation to see if this is possible or even recommended). This may fool malicious code that does find its way to your server
- If possible, disable displaying the version of your 'off the shelf' packages. This may throw off malicious software that is targeting specific versions of your software.
.htaccess is a file that can be created on your web site to provide your web server with special instructions to handle a variety of tasks such as page redirection and security. The following links provide more information:
- A Quick Introduction to htaccess
- 5 htaccess Tricks Every Webmaster Should Know
- The Ultimate htaccess
If you are using a web hosting service you start out with their default settings. These are not always in your best interest. One area where it pays to tighten security a bit involves PHP. PHP is a program commonly used to enhance web pages. Even if you don't write programs yourself it is often used to write Blog, Wiki, CMS and other popular types of software packages that you may be using. Even if you are not running any of those (at this point one has to wonder why exactly you do have a web hosting service but we won't go there) PHP is often used by hackers to exploit weaknesses in vulnerable sites.
All you need to do is create a file called 'php.ini' in each of your public directories (basicly any in and under your public_html directory) and put the appropriate commands. The following example is by no means exhaustive but will give you an idea of what one looks like:
disable_functions = show_source, system, shell_exec, passthru, exec, phpinfo, popen, proc_open open_basedir = /your/systems/public_html safe_mode = 0 register_globals = 0 allow_url_fopen = 0
This is a deep subject: see the following for more information:
- Description of core php.ini directives at php.net
For all too many people the first time they consider the question of how (or even if) their web hosting service backs up their data is the day after their data has been irretrieveably lost. Most service providers only keep very recent backups (1 or 2 days). Unfortunately, by the time most people realize that they have serious problems on their site the backups also contain corrupted data.
Good backups are your last and best line of defense!
cron is a Unix utility that allow you to schedule and run programs (such as backups) on an established schedule. If your Unix system allows you to do so, you could submit an entry that would look like this:
00 01 * * 0 /some/dir/my_backups
This would tell the system to run the 'my_backups' program located in the /some/dir directory at 1:00 am every Sunday. The meanings of the five fields are provided below.
* * * * * ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ | | | | | | | | | +----- day of week (0 - 6) (Sunday=0) | | | +------- month (1 - 12) | | +--------- day of month (1 - 31) | +----------- hour (0 - 23) +------------- min (0 - 59)
Note that an asterick will be interpreted as every day of week/month/day/hour/minute. You can also have several entries seperated by commas. In the following example my_logs would be run at 1:05 pm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
05 13 * * 1,3,5 /some/dir/my_logs
If you are lucky your hosting service will provide a GUI interface that makes entering and managing entries a little easier.
tar is a Unix utility that allows you to create backup files. Here is an example:
cd /my/system/public_html tar --create --gzip --file="Documents_01Jan2011" Documents
These commands would create a zipped file with the named "Documents_01Jan2011" which would contain all files and directories contained in the /my/system/public_html/Documents directory.
It is common to group a series of backup commands into a batch file and to schedule that batch file to be run in cron.
See your systems man pages for tar to see details on the options as these vary from implementation to implementation.
Creating and modifying files when logged into the shell requires the use of a text editor. vi is one that is provided with virtually every Unix installation (there are others). See the writeup on the vi editor for more information on how to use vi.
PuTTy is a free terminal emulation software package that allows you to establish telnet or ssh sessions from your PC. See this outstanding web site for more information about this useful tool.
The shell is Unix-speak for the interface with the operating system. If you connect to your web hosting service using a protocol like telnet or ssh (using a terminal emulation software package like PuTTy) you will be interacting with the shell.
This is not an area for the faint of heart... if your only experience with computers has been with Windows or a Mac you are going to find that blinking dollar sign to be very unhelpful. You can do very powerful things here, but it does require a basic understanding of the file structure, some of the basic shell commands and familiarity with an editor like vi.
Note that many hosting services do not allow access to the shell by default. You may need to contact them and request permission.
Once you have access to the shell you can create files with valid commands in them. One common use is to create backup files.Here is a typical sample presented only to illustrate the basic concepts.
MON=`date | cut -c5-7` DAY=`date | cut -c9-10` YR=`date | cut -c25-28` TIM=`date | cut -c12-19 | sed 's/:/_/g'` DAT_TIM=`echo $DAY"_"$MON"_"$YR"_"$TIM` cd /home8/dallasge/public_html FILENAME=$BUD"/"$DAT_TIM"_public_html_Production.tar.gz" tar --create --gzip --file=$FILENAME Production
After creating and saving this file (say, for example, in a file named DailyBackups) you would tell the shell that it was an executable program my changing the file attributes using the chmod command:
chmod +x DailyBackups
You could then run the file by typing this at the shell prompt (from the same directory):
This would tell the system to run your shell and create a backup file named 29_Jan_2011_01_30_02_public_html_Production.tar.gz
MySQL is a popular relational database provided by many web hosting services. If you subscribe to one of these services and have loaded one of their Blog, Wiki or Content Management System packages chances are you are using MySQL and don't even know it!
You should be able access MySQL directly: see the information provided by your Web Hosting provider.
MySQL Forge has an impressive colletion of MySQL tutorials.
PHP is a powerful language that can be used to enhance your web pages. It is also commonly used to create many of the powerful applications (such as Blogs, Wiki's and Content Management Systems) that you may use on your web site, so even a high level understanding of PHP can be very useful.
CSS, XML and HTML
If you dabble in these protocols the www.w3schools.com is a must see site. It has tutorials, syntax references and loads of interactive examples.
Google Analytics is a powerful and free resource that allows you to track and analyze the utilization of your web site. You need to log in and register your site: when you do you will be provided with some HTML code to copy and paste into the appropriate place on your web site. Once you do, Google Analytics will start tracking usage of your web site and will provide you with a wide variety of reports on their site.
Content Management Software
As the name implies, a Content Management Software (CMS) package provides a framework that is used to create the web site. Once the initial structure is created this allows users to focus on the content rather than on the mechanics of presenting the information. This has several advantages:
- They provide a very consistent look and feel for the entire web site.
- Web sites tend to be very standards compliant. This means that the content will be displayed 'correctly' on all browsers and all types of devices (including often overlooked smart phones).
- Since knowledge of HTML and CSS is not required, it 'lowers the barrier' for creating and managing content. This may make it possible for a society to have more people creating content.
An open source option. Some useful links are:
- What is Joomla? - Marketing hype on the main Joomla web site
- Beginners Guide (a.k.a. 'Absolute Beginners Guide to Joomla!', 'Novices' and 'What is Joomla') - where to go if you are contemplating installing and using Joomla
- Joomla 1.5 Quick Start - Free on-line videos explaining how to install and use Joomla
- Discussion Forums - lots of good help available here
- Security Checklist - an invaluable reference with excellent advice. Best read before your site is hacked. See the section titled 'The most important guidelines' for instructions on how to subscribe to Joomla Security News (email or RSS) so you can receive notifications whenever critical updates are released.
- To see what a Genealogical Society web site created using Joomla looks like see the Dallas Genealogical Society and the St Louis Genealogical Society sites.
A wiki is nothing more than a web page that can be modified by anybody who can view it. This page is a wiki: register with Family Search, click on the 'Edit This Page' button at the top of your screen and you can change this page!
Obviously there is a lot more that that to know... one place to start is this Wiki Overview page.
- What Wikipedia uses...
- While the idea of a Wiki is to allow others to edit the content, sometimes it is desirable to restrict the ability to change content to a designated group of people. That can be difficult in some Wiki software but it is one of the strengths of WikkaWiki. A page can be viewable to anybody or it can be restricted to registered users. In addition, the ability to modify a given page can be restricted.
A blog is just a specialized web page (in fact, the name 'Blog' is short for 'WeB log'). A Blog is usually focused on a particular topic and consists of a series of posts that are (typically) short in nature and organized by topics. The newest post is displayed first, and older posts are archived (but still searchable and viewable). What makes a Blog different from an ordinary web page is that the reader can add comments to posts they have read.
For a more in-depth exlanation see this Blog Overview page.
Popular Blogging Software
Free, provided (and hosted) by Google.
Free open-sourse website development (& blogging) software. Can create a site for free at Wordpress.com or install on your own server (or a web hosting service).
Useful links include:
- About Wordpress - overview of the services & features
- Wordpress for Beginners -- resources to help you get started
- Wordpress Theme Directory - browse over 1,300 freely available themes to apply to your Wordpress site (for self-hosted installations only)
- Wordpress Plugin Directory -- need enhanced functionality? There's a plugin out there for you!
- Wordpress Support - online forums for help
- Wordpress For Dummies Cheat Sheet
- Wordpress.tv - educational online videos providing information about Wordpress and the varied ways you can use it.
Related pages on Family Search
Utilizing FaceBook to reach out to younger genealogists is something that all societies should consider.
Twitter is another tool that is probably under utilized by most societies.
The use of HashTags to post comments from events like conferences and seminars (like RootsTech) has become popular recently.
- See Hashtags on Twitter: How do you follow them on contentious.com for more information
Flickr is a web site for pictures and images... there may be some great potential for using this to integrate images into a web site.
A podcast is an on-line audio recording. This could be a useful technique for getting original content on-line for any society.
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. This is a technology that allows you to 'subscribe' to selected web site, Blogs and/or Wiki's and receive content from them whenever it changes.
See What is RSS on PROBLOGGER for more information.
Creating Web-Based Presentations
using a free software package called authorPoint from
- See the Overview
Personal Digital Archiving
Preservation and archiving must be a fundamental part of your societies strategy.
The Dallas Genealogical Society recently had a presentation on Personal Digial Archiving: See the web page that includes a link to a Flash version of the presentation.
If you are a programmer working on a PC these editors may make your life easier.
This is a phenominal editor that supports HTML, PHP, Perl and many other languages and environments. It is hard to believe that it is free (although you can purchase a more powerful version). Available from the ActiveState web site.
If you are a die hard vi fan then you are going to love Vim... it is a full blown implementation of the venerable vi editor that has been house broken to run in Windows. See www.vim.org.
'Back End' Services
Some aspects of running a society may be too important or too complicated for home grown solutions... There are alternatives focused on the not for profit organization.
- Stands for 'Nonprofit Enterprise Online Network'. A package of services offered by Z2 Systems. They charge for their services but you can choose the modules you want, and the fee is based on the size of your organization. This database system can manage membership records; provide customized e-mail and mail merge lists; record memberships, renewals and donations; send automatic renewal reminders; provide an online membership directory and other user designed features.
Vertical Response (VR)
- Vertical Response is an e-mail marketing solution for small businesses and non-profit organizations. While there is a charge for businesses, non-profit organizations with 501(c)(3) status may send 10,000 e-mails per month free and receive a 15% discount on surveys and printed postcards.
- VR is dedicated to the reduction of spam. E-mail lists may not be harvested from other sites. The list must be those that "opt-in" to receive e-mails. The system checks the outbound e-mails for previous bounces and unsubscribed e-mail addresses.
- Over 500 templates are provided to assist in the design of attractive e-mails or e-newsletters. It is also possible to design your own. E-mails or e-newsletters can be linked to an organization's Facebook and Twitter.
This commercial service was developed specifically to support Genealogical Societies. Details are available at easynetsites.com.