ColdFusion drives UNICEF Canada’s heated battle against HIV/AIDS

In its latest anti-HIV/AIDS campaign in May, UNICEF Canada used its Web site to educate, inform and motivate site visitors to act.

For instance it sought to encourage people to purchase a Gift of Hope for their mother on Mother’s Day – and in doing so, to support UNICEF’s global efforts to stop the transmission of HIV from mother to child.

To grab people’s attention, the UNICEF Canada Web site included a variety of compelling elements.

One of these was an inspiring video titled The Gift. Narrated by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, The Gift is a beautiful tale, based on a poem by Simon Armitage.  Filmed on location in Rwanda, it tells the story of how one woman gets AIDS and subsequently passes it on to her children.

The site also included an “ambassador’s page” featuring several celebrities, promoting the cause.

While the content was phenomenal – UNICEF Canada sought to do much more. It wanted to have a more dynamic site — one capable of effectively handling all stakeholder needs, and being changed on the fly.

To accomplish this, the non-profit organization turned to Innovasium Inc., a Web design firm based in Markham, Ont.

The company has completed several projects for non-profit outfits, as well as government and healthcare organizations.

The idea was site to consolidate all of UNICEF Canada’s program information about HIV/AIDS on the site, said Innovasium president, Daniel Hageman.

Most importantly, UNICEF sought to offer information on HIV prevention and the protection of vulnerable children and orphans.

“Our design challenge was to pull together a site that could handle all the various stakeholders’ needs and bring all the information together into one easy-to-navigate site,” Hageman said. Several Flash components also needed to be integrated into the site, he said.

So Innovasium set about the task using its proprietary software, dubbed ForeFront — built using Adobe’s ColdFusion Web scripting language.

ColdFusion helps to serve up content in a very dynamic way, said Hageman. He said it enables a variety of stakeholders to contribute to a Web site, managing different parts of the site.

Innovasium created a video wall on the “ambassador’s page”, and when you mouse over a video, it animates and plays a short clip before you click on it.

A new video can be posted to the database, and the system will serve it up dynamically. “We don’t have to render it for them every time,” said Hageman. “They can manage their own content, right down to video.”

Innovasium is also discussing future campaigns with UNICEF Canada, as the framework can be reused for other sites (it’s just be a matter of adjusting content and window dressing).

Different layers are available, including an HTML site, a Flash site and a search engine-friendly version of the site, as Flash content isn’t indexed by many search engines.

The Web development agency also works with the .NET and PHP languages. “We’re trying to attract developers to work with us [but] a lot of them are trained in .NET or PHP,” said Hageman. “The [question] is can we convert them to ColdFusion really quick, and the answer is: yes.”

Adobe ColdFusion has been around for about 13 years, but got a major facelift in 2001-2002, when it was converted from a C++ code base to a Java code base (so it can be deployed on IBM WebSphere and BEA WebLogic, among others).

It also packages in a number of services. “That’s where we’re a bit different from [other computer scripting languages] such as PHP and .NET,” said Adam Lehman, platform evangelist for Adobe.

This includes working with PDF documents and doing full text searching, as well as image manipulation.

While most ColdFusion development is being done behind the firewall, UNICEF Canada is using it for content loading as well.

“UNICEF built an entire content management system based on ColdFusion to give tools to people to manage their content,” said Lehman. All of that data is managed at the UNICEF level, and then gets populated into Flash movies.

Lehman said while ColdFusion’s core competency is still business file applications. But as we see more business apps developed for Flash, it will become a bigger selling point.

So ColdFusion 9 – the next version which will be out sometime next year – will include further integration with Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) within the Flash player.

A cross-operating system runtime, Adobe AIR enables the creation and deployment of rich Web applications and content to the desktop. AIR supports building applications using HTML, JavaScript, Flex and Flash.

“In ColdFusion 9, we’re also going to be specifically targeting exposed service layers,” said Lehman. To get access to that today you would have to write ColdFusion code, but in ColdFusion 9, all of that will be available out of the box.

He said even non-ColdFusion developers in a Java shop, who want to take advantage of some of Adobe’s PDF technology, can drop this onto their network and call the services right out of the gate.   

“You can throw these things together very quickly, a lot faster than in some of the more complex platforms [such as] Java,” he said. To call a database and get a query back, for example, requires about two lines of code, whereas Java requires 20.

He said while ColdFusion may not be as flexible as Java, but could offer a lot of productivity savings.

With a smaller code base, Lehman said, once you get into production, you have a lot less to manage – if there’s a bug, it means you’re not sifting through endless lines of code.

Abode estimates it currently has about 550,000 ColdFusion developers.

Up until now ColdFusion has been the default Web development environment because of its features and functionality go, said Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst for software at IDC Canada.

But nowadays, he added, that status is up for debate. “You can find strong arguments on both sides.”  .

He said Microsoft and open source alternatives to ColdFusion have gained traction, and they’re more front-and-centre in people’s minds.

“It’s no longer Adobe and everybody else, it’s becoming more of a free-for-all,” Restivo noted. The competition for Web development dollars has increased, he added, and there’s more competition between Adobe and Microsoft, as well as the open source camp.

This increased competition is not entirely unexpected, he said, as Microsoft has been coming on strong for a number of years.

For vendors such as Adobe and Microsoft, he said, the challenge is to illustrate to organizations such as UNICEF Canada the business case that justifies investment in such proprietary tools as opposed to going with an open source option.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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