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Top 10 Open Source Tools for eActivism

Sent by Mike Gifford on 13 January 2004 19:07


Thought that this might interest some here on this list..


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Thank you Dan and Mike for putting together this excellent Feature
article for DoWire <>.

I have found that necessity and not resources is the greatest driving
force behind innovation in e-democracy/e-activism.  The emergence of
"open source," "free software," even lower cost commercial online
advocacy tools demonstrate that we are at the beginning of
democratization of activism. One major challenge that remains however
is how to better integrate
in-person political activities with the online infrastructure.
Perhaps the next feature for DoWire could be written by you on the
use of wireless and handheld technologies in advocacy and


Steven Clift
Democracies Online Newswire

P.S. The idea for this article emerged in part from the DO-CODE e-
mail list for civic-minded techies.  Join at: do-code-

Top 10 Open Source Tools for eActivism

by Dan Bashaw & Mike Gifford
Jan 7, 2004

People have been trying to use the web to create change from its
conception.  Along with the rest of the Internet community, activist
focus has moved away from producing static content to building on-
line communities.  There are a number of Application Service
Providers (ASPs) providing external eActivist applications that can
be integrated with the look and feel of an organization's existing
web site, but we will not be evaluating ASPs in this article.
Instead, we want to discuss eActivist applications that can be run
from the same server as the organization's existing website.
Furthermore, we will be looking at Free Software applications that
can be downloaded, modified, and distributed by the users of the

Broadly speaking, the eActivist applications described below can be
categorized as either informational, aiding in efficiently spreading
your message, or actionable, allowing your users to act on their
information and understanding of issues. Although the distinction can
useful in deciding which tool to use, many applications have now
to include elements of both.

The first five applications examined are primarily informational:
are tools for building web sites, and have considerable overlap in
features, though each has different strengths, weaknesses, and
appropriate uses. The fifth focuses on eNewsletters.

We have provided just a brief sketch of the functionality of each
application.  Describing the type of interaction they allow and with
whom.  Outlining their key strengths and weaknesses as we see them.
Providing some activists tips for their use and providing an example.

We feature one example, but have also listed alternatives which are
worth considering.


1. ActionApps (On-line Magazine/Content Sharing)

Interaction: Minimal interaction between visitors & content authors

Strength: Publishing Control & Extensive Cross Site/Server Publishing
Permissions.  A good publishing tool.

Weaknesses: Often too big & cumbersome for organizations that don't
this type of control.

Activist Tips: Some organizations may want to share content between
other related organizations.  Set up within the Association of
Progressive Computing, this model made a lot of sense to member
organizations which already had close associations.  Some coalitions
using this type of permission based content sharing to maintain an
related site which is fed by a number of member organizations.


Alternatives: slashForums, Blogs, Back-End and Active (below) can all
provide content non-interactive content publishing.


2. PostNuke (Slash Forums/Portals)

Interaction: Plenty of opportunities for users to submit stories,
& comments for publishing on the site. Dialogue is usually shaped
through a response to an article posted by the editorial team.

Strengths: Lots of add on modules, often installed with a web hosts
default control panel.

Weaknesses: Many slash sites are hard to modify to look like anything
but a slash site.  Content becomes stale very quickly and daily posts
are almost required.

Activist Tips: Selecting the right modules for your site is the key
using any of the 'slash'  content management systems. Pick the
(i.e. polls, surveys, galleries, calendars, forums, etc.) that your
needs, and keep it simple by not offering those that don't forward
goals.  It is also important to watch the activity in different
to see which ones are being used.

In terms of keeping your site fresh, the authoring environment is key
creating a site that is easily maintained. Look for authoring tools
will allow your authors to style their own text easily and quickly. A
system that is too obscure or complex will not be used.


Alternatives: The listings in the left hand sidebar at Open Source
( link to demos of many portal systems,
including postNuke ( , and Plone


3. Drupal (Blogs)

Interaction: Lots of user interaction & interaction between related
Drupal sites.  Extensive use of RSS feed publishing & aggregating.

Strengths: Informal, newsy, often personal.  There are a lot of folks
who are bloggers or participate in blog culture.

Weaknesses: Like other news focused sites, if it isn't updated
regularly, it becomes stale very quickly.

Activist Tips: For activist organizations, the blog format can be a
great way to humanize messages on an ongoing topic or a developing
campaign. Because *blog=personal* to the reader, campaign blogs have
'note from a friend' feel to them -- much more personal than the same
information presented in a web news or magazine framework. When using
blogs, consider having a single 'voice' or a small group of voices do
all posts, to reinforce the personal flavour of the blog.

As well consider displaying the blog's 'RSS feed' (Headline,
and link of each blog entry) into the sidebar of your organizational
site and your email campaigns, to extend this personal voice further.

Example: (likely not using drupal)

Alternatives: Also consider Geeklog
and the various blogs listed under the 'Blogs' heading in the left
sidebar at Open Source CMS (


4. Active (News Posting)

Interaction: Terrific news contributions.

Strengths: It is a great way to gather news from an event or a
community.  One of the best tools for posting/displaying multi-media.

Weaknesses: Like other news sites, they can grow stale quickly. As
due to the open publishing nature of Active, editorial control over
Newswire is weak.  It is almost impossible to totally control the
content of the site.

Activist Tips: Indymedia sites running Active first came into
during the Seattle anti-globalization protests in 1999, where the
ability to post news rapidly from the streets to the web was critical
getting the story out. Active is ideal for an action-oriented
where information is posted in real-time and contextualized on-the-
by volunteer editors.

However -- it is not as good an ongoing publishing system choice for
activist organization with a controlled editorial workflow. Because
Active allows any member of the public to post directly to an
unmoderated Newswire, it can leave an organization open to potential
legal and 'staying on message' problems if the Newswire is not
monitored. If tighter editorial and user control are important to
organization ActiveApps, postNuke and Drupal (all noted above) are

Example: (The umbrella site for over 80
Indymedia sites) and (A typical Active
site showing the Newswire in the righthand sidebar).

Alternatives: Variations on the PHP-based Active
( include MiR
(, a Java implemetation, and
IMCSlash (, written in


5. phpList (eNewsletters)

Interaction: It's entirely one way, but it gives the user the
opportunity to indicate what they want to subscribe to.  It also
provides an opportunity to gather other information about your site's

Strengths: It is easy to set up and provides an easy way to encourage
other participants to come back to your site.  Users can provide
interests & geographic location to allow users to get more targeted

Weaknesses: There are a lot of options and it may take a bit of time
learn how to use it, particularly if you are only sending out
eNewsletters every couple of months.

Tips: Plan to write a eNewsletter once every month or two, more if
campaign is very active.  Make sure that you write the eNewsletter to
short and easy to scan.  Provide a title, short abstract an a link to
article on your website with the full story.  Text is generally
preferred by users and easier to be forwarded on in email & included
other forums.  Always ask your subscribers to forward this message on
their friends.  When referring to a URL, make sure to include the


Alternatives: Mailman (, Sympa
( and other mailing list managers also allow
one-way 'broadcast' lists. Also consider LetterIT


The remaining five eActivist applications examined below are broadly
'actionables' involving peer-to-peer (Forums, eCards, Wikis),
peer-to-Pol (ePetitions), and peer-to-pole (eLeaflets/ePosters)


6. phpBB (Forums)

Interaction: It's all interaction.  Discussions take place in forums
users contribute all of the content.

Strengths: It's a commonly understood format so it is easy for new
people to start participating.  The ability to have restricted forums
also useful for some organizations.

Weaknesses: It may need to be moderated, or at least monitored so
you are familiar with what is being posted.  Also, it may take some
to get people using/posting to the forum.

Activist Tips: Bulletin boards or on-line forums predate the Internet
and are one of the most understood forms of web dialogues, and
time for most is minimal.  It is a good environment for brainstorming
allowing folks to vent their concerns.  Many forums allow for
so that inappropriate posts can be adjusted, but this takes time as
building an active, constructive climate for exchanging ideas.

If a forum is little-used, consider replacing it with either a
list like Mailman (, or a simpler bulletin board
system like wwwBoard (
shows all posts in a 'tree view' on a single page. Both of these
alternatives will encourage more participation in low-traffic

Example: (Not using phpBB)

Alternatives: Also consider the forums listed under the 'Forums'
in the left hand sidebar at Open Source CMS


7. WebCards (eCards/email2friends)

Interaction: Limited opportunity to send a message to a friend.
Essentially an advanced email2friend form.

Strengths: By using innovative images you can encourage folks to
the word more about your campaign.  Like blogs, people that use
will use them a lot and come back when they can.

Weaknesses: When was the last time you were really influenced by a

Activist Tips: eCards are a 'semi-viral' marketing technique -- they
cannot escape and circulate independently of your organization, as an
email can, so you maintain control over the organizational image
projected by your eCards.

* Humour will often work well with eCards, as more users will be
to pass along a humorous message than a less evocative one.

* In order to keep your activist message clear for for the recipient
the eCard, you can include your headline and other key text directly
into the eCard image.

Example: (not using webcards)

Alternatives: Website Gizmos, Send Card or see


8. TWiki (Wiki/Group Documentation)

Interaction: Total, but focused on creating more static documentation
the community

Strengths: It's a great web based collaboration platform.  The
to create common documents & review changes makes this application
powerful for community groups.

Weaknesses: Wiki markup isn't consistent, it takes a bit of training
folks to get used to, editorial rights can be abused.

Activist Tips: Wiki webs are great tools for collaborative writing
your goal is to ultimately have a static or slowly-evolving document
internal use or public display: policy and procedures, grant
reports can all be built effectively in a Wiki, with each contributor
working in their own time on the single live document. As Wikis
roll-back to previous versions of pages, editorial control can be
maintained while allowing freedom to each contributor.

Wikis can also serve as a shared brainstorming and notebook tool for
activist groups -- though the fact that wiki information is not
to users desktops requires that users building a project must
intentionally visit and contribute to the Wiki. Twiki, which supports
RSS feeds, can push notification of page changes to users,

New users will need to be given a brief introduction to using Wiki,
give them familiarity with adding pages, editing content, and basic
styling, to ensure that they are comfortable in the Wiki environment.

As an example of how far groups can go in using Wiki as a writing
look at the multi-lingual Wikipedia (

Example: (not using twiki)

Alternatives: Also consider the forums listed under the 'Wiki'
in the left hand sidebar at Open Source CMS


9. Back-End (eActions/ePetitions)

Interaction: It's a focused level of interaction, but asks permission
contact folks in the future.

Strengths: People are comfortable giving a minor level of support to
organizations cause through Petitions & eActions.

Weaknesses: They are most useful if there are multiple campaigns or
opportunities for people to start becoming more educated & aware.
flexibility of Back-End makes it more time consuming to customize.

Activist Tips: Keep the text of the ePetition or eAction short & easy
read.  Make sure to have links to other information about the
on your site that people can read up on if they are interested.  Make
sure that you ask for permission from your supporters to contact
People like seeing other people's comments, so if possible display
and the number of signatories.


Alternatives: simpetition ~PostNuke module


10. FPDF (eLeaflets/ePosters) (Dynamic PDF/Graphic Generation)

Interaction: Simple off the web interaction.  Allowing folks to
& print off posters, petitions, stickers and brochures customized
for their local campaigns.

Strengths: Good control over printed output, not dependent on the
browser capabilities or Operating System.

Weaknesses: Introduces an additional server-side technology to
accomplish PDF generation, which could have server performance

Activist Tips: If you want to be able to take your message to the
streets and extend your brand to support local activists.  Target
specific communities on the fly with a customized pamphlet.


Alternatives: For some applications, CSS2 stylesheets
( can be used to
simple dynamic content such as handbills.  R&OS have produced a PDF
class ( and there are a number of other
graphic/pdf modification tools which are being developed.


Of course, in the rapidly evolving world of eActivism, any list of 10
anythings will have at least 11 members by the time it is completed!
Emerging technologies that might be applied to eActivism include: RSS
feeds, Friendster, cellphone texting, cam-phones, and audio blogs.
of these may inspire or connect to Open Source applications. Older
technologies such as chat and Internet telephony may also spring back
onto the stage as activist solutions.

As well, the convergence of existing tools often leads to new
We've selected TikiWiki, a tool that blends Wiki and Portal features,
round out our list of ten eActivist applications with its eleventh


11. TikiWiki

Interaction: TikiWiki is a content management system for writers. It
supports wikiwiki web pages, blogs, CMS news article publishing,
discussion forums, a directory of links, a calendar, RSS newsfeeds,
user-designed databases for tracking contacts/events, and many other
things as lots of people added code to the product over the last

Strengths: A 'swiss army knife' tool with a massive feature set!

Weaknesses: make sure to use the latest version of TikiWiki (1.1.1 or
higher)for improved speed over earlier, slower builds. TikiWiki
the relatively rigid 'portal' look of phpNuke and other slashForum

Activist Tips: Use the collaborative capabilities of TikiWiki to work
with a dispersed group of authors on keeping the site's formal
fresh. Use the built-in blogs, chat forums and image galleries to
community interaction. The combination plays to TikiWiki's strengths
a multifunction tool for building a site that is both informational


Alternatives: Other general content management frameworks, such as
Geeklog ( and Typo3
( also take the fusion approach -- but none
the Wiki capabilities of TikiWiki.

Dan & Mike would like to thank David Newman his contribution to this


Sorting them out

There are a number of ways to compare eActivist applications as an
in deciding which to consider for your organization.

We have plotted these tools on the Surman-o-graph, (an emerging
in analyzing civil society communications) clustering them in the
Formal/Centralized and Informal/Distributed quadrants:

In deciding which specific tool to apply to your eActivist problems,
consider the following questions:

    * Does the tool do what I need 'out-of-the-box', or will it need
    to be customized?

    * Is the user interface simple for the people who will be
    working with the application?

    * Is there reasonable documentation and support? Does the
    support forum handle newbie questions well?

    * Does the tool use technologies and languages we are already
    familiar with?

    * Is there an on-line demo my users can play around with to see
    if the tool 'feels right' to them?

    * Is the tool's programming team actively developing and
    maintaining the tool?

    * Is the tool one of the more popular ones  in it's category?

A yes to a majority of these questions is a sign that you've may have
the right application for your eActivist job.

There are a lot of Open Source tools out there which you can employ
your campaigns.  We have tried to list some of the ones which we feel
are the most useful in the fall of 2003.  Like the Internet as a
Open Source projects tend to evolve quickly and new initiatives are
popping up all of the time.  The challenge for anyone putting
an activist web site will be in blending these and other tools into a
seamless user interface.  Customizing and adapting any software to
your needs can be time consuming, but often the development
behind these Open Source projects can help point you in the right
direction.  Most Open Source projects also have web developers who
be hired to modify the code that they have developed.  Any customized
code can be brought back into the core of the project so that it can
benefit the whole community.


Dan Bashaw - [EMAIL-REMOVED]

Dan works as a web developer for TM Newmedia, a Victoria BC eLearning
and web development company, is an activist with the Victoria
Independent Media Center, and is working on a project to to create
CommunityPipe, a free and easily replicated open source hosting
for small-scale community and activist web sites.

Mike Gifford - [EMAIL-REMOVED] /

Mike is the president of OpenConcept Consulting, Open Source Web
Applications for Social Change.  OpenConcept is the lead developer of CMS.

* Many of these applications will run on both proprietary &
non-priorietary Operating Systems, however, you will have to check
your web host to determine if you have the software which is

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License and is
copyrighted © 2003 by Mike Gifford & Dan Bashaw, Attribution-

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