CUPE turns to open source tools for portal revamp

The Canadian Union of Public Employees launched their new Web site Thursday, and in the true spirit of May Day it was a thoroughly collaborative effort.

Canada’s largest union, CUPE represents over half a million workers in the health

care, education, municipalities, libraries, universities, social services, public utilities, transportation, emergency services and airline industries throughout the country. On May 1st, the international day celebrating worker solidarity, the union launched version three of its site using a number of open source tools.

Developed in collaboration with OpenConcept Consulting, the site’s server is based on Red Hat 8, with a fairly standard LAMP environment. OpenConcept president Mike Gifford said the developers made a point of basing it on common open source platforms. The site was built in such a way as to be easy to use and test on a number of different platforms.

CUPE’s senior officer of the new media communications branch Chris Lawson said that although the organization is thrilled to have ended up with an Open Source based system, it had initially intended to go a different route. The previous site had been based on Windows NT with Oracle as the back end and IIS. That architecture had represented a significant investment for the union, he said, and initially plans for the new site were based around continuing it.

“”But, it was a disaster. We just ran into problem after problem with IIS and Oracle,”” he said. “”Oracle is like the reverse of a really good Christmas gift. It’s the gift you never stop paying for. The support, licensing, all that stuff. . . I mean, we might be a big organization, but we’re not infinitely wealthy.””

The site had experienced memory leaks, security vulnerabilities, problems with Oracle’s text-based search engine and incompatibility between Oracle and CUPE’s back-up software, among other difficulties, Lawson said. He felt that the technology was simply not designed for what the site needed to deliver.

He was also very impressed with the way OpenConcept approached the idea of site development. OpenConcept was the lead developer of CUPE’s back-end content management system. From start to finish the project was a team effort, he said. Having an understanding of the exact process and technology that went into the CMS development allowed the CUPE IT staff to better articulate the association’s needs.

“”That sort of a collaborative approach was pretty critical to getting this done. And I don’t know how easy it would have been if we’d been in a sort of a standard client-consultant relationship where they say: ‘Ta-da! Here’s the product,'”” he said. “” Web sites don’t work like that. It’s not like you’re buying an office suite. There are no two that are alike; there are no two that behave alike. Every organization has totally different needs.””

For CUPE those needs were not extraordinarily complex, Lawson said. The organization needed a stable and responsive site. They wanted a site that would allow CUPE members to get Web-based email accounts. Union locals now also have the opportunity to have their Web sites hosted through the main CUPE site.

One of the more innovative features, Gifford pointed out, is the site’s eAdvocacy tool. The tool allows union members to run email advocacy campaigns with ease. It has the ability to locate a union member’s MP, for example, by looking up their postal code.

“”So I don’t even have to know who my MP is necessarily,”” he said. “” I just enter my postal code in and the program finds out who I should be contacting.””

It’s not working class revolution just yet, but Lawson said that it was important for the organization to be able to offer online orders and other interactive services.

“”It’s so much part of the Web culture now that it’s almost like if an organization or a company and your site can’t do that, you’re useless,”” he said.

It was also important for the organization to base its site on a stable and tried technology. Lawson said he felt that’s what he would be getting with Apache and mySQL.

“”It has an interface generally speaking that only a computer engineer could love, but you know, that doesn’t really matter. What people want to see is a Web server that’s up and always available,”” he said.

As with any new Web entity, Lawson said there are still kinks to be worked out. However the organization is already eyeing new interactive services that they could offer to CUPE members. One of the first projects the team would like to see come to fruition is a membership survey.


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