UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 August 2010

I noticed a recent tweet from Nicole Harris which announced that “programme for #FAM10 now available at:https://sites.google.com/site/jiscfam10/FAM10/programme“.

I was intrigued by use of a free third party Web site creation service such as Google Sites for creating a Web site for the JISC FAM10 event.

Nicole had previously written a blog post on”Counting the Costs of FAM10” in which she announced that “After a lot of soul searching with regards to the current funding cuts, I have decided that it will be appropriate to go ahead with FAM10 this year with a real focus on practical benefits for librarians and developers“.

Nicole went on to add that she “would love your ideas for keeping the costs down on what will be a face-to-face event“. In addition to thinking of ways of reducing costs of accommodation and entertainment Nicole described how she has “always been against event management companies“.  Although Nicole is not in favour of outsourcing events management she has decided to outsource the IT infrastructure for the event: “we will do all the event management in-house … using Google for booking forms, document management, presentation publication and event information“.

The FAM10 Web site provides a handful of pages about the event (programme, speakers’ biographies and details of the exhibitors), use of a Google Doc for signing up to the parallel sessions and the EventBrite service  for registration.

Nicole seems to be responding to the onset of costs across the HE sector by reducing the effort and level of technical expertise needed to provide an event Web site and process registrations.  I think this approach should be applauded.  But what is being lost and what are the risks?

The use of Google Site, Google Docs and EventBrite means:

  • The event doesn’t have the JISC branding which would be provided if the event information were hosted on the JISC Web site.
  • The event doesn’t have the JISC site navigation which would be provided if the event information were hosted on the JISC Web site.
  • There are risks of loss of data due to the dependencies on the Google services or EventBrite companies.

What other risks should be included?

But aren’t these risks relatively small?  Google, in particular, is unlikely to go bankrupt in the 48 days before the FAM10 event is held.  And although EventBrite is a much smaller company registration details are sent via email, so a backup of the registration details is available. I should add that we have used EventBrite for UKOLN’s workshops for the cultural heritage sector and have been pleased with the service. You should also note that EventBrite is free for free events, such as FAM10 and the events we have used it for.  In this respect use of the Google services and EventBrite can be used to demonstrate that the public sector is not “wasting tax-payers’ money” (to use the language of the Daily Mail) when similar free services are available.

In a recent blog post entitled “Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing” I referred to a discussion on the US-based University Web Developers forum in which it was pointed out “Web development is not a core mission of a university and is ripe for outsourcing“.

In response Anthony Leonard pointed out that “the core purpose of Universities is learning, research and public outreach, with knowledge at it’s heart” and asked “Surely the key knowledge tool of the age is the web?

Whilst I would agree of the importance of the Web as a key knowledge tool, that doesn’t preclude third parties from hosting various aspects of an institution’s Web services.  And what, after all, is to be gained from in-house development of event Web sites when there are a variety of alternative approaches.

At IWMW 2010 event Paul Boag argued that the recession provides an opportunity for institutional Web teams to identify the services they provide  which can be cut or provided in other ways. Shouldn’t Web teams in institutions be welcoming the opportunity to move away from developing Web sites for events in order to free resources to support ways in which the Web can be  used  as a knowledge tool?

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18 Responses to “Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced?”

  1. Google sites do allow you to create your own custom template so it is easy to add logos change colours. The biggest cost in this area is probably staff time and whilst you might be saving money on hosting, you loose it in time required to set the site up.

    The happy middle ground for me is picking web services which you can integrate into your existing site. The two I see a lot of is embedding a Google Calendar e.g. JISC Netskills Events or a Google Form.

    It doesn’t have to end there either. My Hirstinian take on this being ‘Using Google Apps Script for a event booking system (Spreadsheet to Calendar & Site | Form to Spreadsheet, Email and possible Contacts)

  2. Billy said

    I’m a big fan of using external services for websites such as this. I don’t particularly like Google Sites, I find it a little clunky, but I doubt whether the staff time involved in creating a site in it would be any longer than using a typical UK university in-house CMS. My first choice for a conference website would be WordPress.

    I’m about to embark on my third large scale migration of content in four years from one cms to a new one and every time decisions have to be made over whether to move archived conference information into the new cms or just delete it. The decision is often to delete it. I think that the use of external services such as Google Sites or WordPress is a more reliable long-term solution than an in-house cms.

  3. Hi Martin, Billy
    Thanks for the comments.
    I agree with the point that one can choose the areas of functionality which can be provided by external providers. It was useful, for example, to see that the FAM10 Website used a couple of services provided by Google and one provided by EventBrite.
    Regarding the question raised by Billy as to “whether the staff time involved in creating a site in it would be … longer than using a typical UK university in-house CMS” that’s a reasonable question. However you need to factor in the time spend in developing expertise in a CMS system, who will be doing the work and the workflow. Setting up an EventBrite booking form is very simple (filling in a few boxes). There will be the need to embed the code in a Web page, but this should be copying and pasting text. Would doing something similar on a CMS require discussions with a CMS expert?
    For me making things as easy as possible so that users (information providers) can do things for themselves without needing the support of Web experts is even more important now than it used tobe.

  4. I never get to write blog posts of my own anymore as I keep joining in here ;-)

    My previous comments were making simple case that, ideally, Universities should retain some competency in web technology, given the web’s pervasiveness in the world of knowledge, rather than throw it out by outsourcing it entirely. True there is a scale issue here. Should a department have their web expert or delegate this to the centre? Should an small institution have this competency or delegate this to JISC (by sending managers to the odd JISC conference or getting them to read this blog)?

    Google SItes is as close to the “perfect CMS” as one is likely to find, and the event web sites are typically static “zero integration” marketing sites. These being the two criteria I had for outsourcing, clearly the poor old technical web server folks appear to have been successfully made redundant in this case. However there are still pitfalls. Who owns/manages the FAM10 site? Is it owned by Nicole’s personal Google account? What if she loses her password, or walks away? The site could be managed under Google Apps with accounts provisioned from the centre, but that’s let the technologists back in. There’s also still a call for web experts here, as, although it’s great to give tools to information providers, that doesn’t mean they can provide the information effectively without experience in the tools.

  5. Always pleased to read your comments :-)

    It’s interesting to note that we have moved away from outsourcing people (i.e. redundancies!) to outsourcing aspects of the Web infrastructure. I think the former is too worrying to contemplate – but, unfortunately, I feel there will be a need for institutions to address the implications of loss of personnel in Web teams.

    I would agree with you that there is a need for institutions to possess in-house expertise related to use of the Web. This will included detailed technical knowledge (AJAX development), information management expertise, usability expertise, etc.

    However I think we should decouple such generic knowledge from specific expertise in applications. I feel there will be a need to apply expertise to new applications environments, such as those provided in the Cloud e.g. use of Google Spreadsheets for processing event bookings rather than what may be an expensive in-house CMS. If this does turn out to be the case, then it is the CMS vendors who should feel threatened by the cuts across the public sector.

    I agree with your comment that there will be new challenges in making use of Cloud Services such as the management of the access mechanisms. I’m giving a talk on “Moving From Personal to Organisational Use of the Social Web” at the Online Information conference on 30 November which will address such issues.

  6. Out sourcing is cheaper in serveral circumstances;

    1. If the external company has lower overheads — the classic outsource-to-India reason. You can get a similar standard of service for less salary bill.

    2. If you only require the skills rarely or sporadically — EPrints Services has this niche, we are very skilled at setting up a repository for a university, a once ever job. It is cheaper to rent our skilled staff for this than take the time to train your own to our standard in skills they won’t reuse. Once it’s set up, it takes our staff less than a full time person to maintain each and as we maintain many, we have an economy of scale so still do it for less than an inhouse cost.

    3. Economy of scale. Ignoring the Google loss-leader sites such as youtube, there’s still times when it makes sense to do things in a federated way rather than in the institution. JANET and UCAS are good examples.

    4. Alternate risk management. Our IT department has very tough PRINCE2ly rules about project management which makes our overheads very high. Outsourcing is a practical alternative as the external company can manage risk differently but our risk is mangaged by a contract with them.

    However there are many cases where I think it is a mistake. If you have human-intensive functions which you know you’ll be doing year-in year-out you should keep staff for this. Since ECS got our own graphic designer they are able to do many design projects in a year, and we don’t have any costs or timelag in making trivial changes. There is still more than enough work for a full time graphic designer (posters, prospectus, web templates) so some is still out-sourced but keeping two would mean one would be idle some of the time. I think having one in-house saves money and improves standards if there is a need for an entire person with that skill set.

    The same applies to web teams, and event management too. These are functions which are highly human-intensive. You can automate running a webserver, eg. out sourcing to google, but design and build of a website require someone who understands the subject and the audience. Most academics suck at this as it’s not their primary skill. They won’t know how to get the best use of an external designer and website maintainer, either, as this is also not their skill set. They require people who understand what they are trying to do and can take much of the work off their hands to free them up for research and teaching. I don’t think you can easily outsource this as it requires local knowledge.

    I do think that with shrinking team sizes we are going to have to be less ambitious. That’s sad, but I think with less resources we’ll need to focus on keeping the trains running on time, and actually clean the carriages on a best-effort basis. If orgs are choosing or forced to outsource more than a years worth of webdesign a year then they made a mistake loosing web team members. Sadly we know that they are going to have this brain-drain to facilitate visible cost-cutting and the results will actually be increased costs and less flexibility. Outsourcing websites makes it hard to design them in an agile way, and if an academc staff member could accurately specify what they need for a website in a contract with the outsourcers then they are already experienced at web design.

    The actual hardware is pretty cheap to look after. ECS has 6 (ish, depends how you count it) infrastructure web servers running a total of 330+ sites. Solaris & Linux, Virtual Machines and physical boxes. The actual work in installing and maintaining these is a small part of the job for our team. Except for the solaris box which is a pain as everything seems to be an up-hill struggle. I could consider running some of our webservers on something like the amazon cloud VM service, but others are deeply integrated into our infrastructure and have access to filestore and databases we’d not want a cloud server to access. We are slowly identifying and reducing such sites, though.

    I wouldn’t want to outsource our sites to a system we could not get out of again. Youtube should not be your *primary* store of university videos as it’s nigh impossible to migrate out of.

  7. ps.

    Conference sites have a VERY long tail of usage. Of our 300+ sites one of the top 5 is a conference site from 2006. http://www2006.org/ — admittedly a web-intensive conference. Conference websites are part of the academic record and it is very important to maintain at least some of the content. Most conference webmasters don’t even shift the front page to be past-tense once it’s over but part of the design should be how it’s left long term.

    Outsourcing hosting of the sites for big conferences makes me nervous as they need to be around indefinitely. Certainly for ten years, which is the minimum we ask them to register a domain for (ask; they don’t always do it the way we ask, sigh). Otherwise we end up footing domain renewal bills out of central funds.

  8. I go on holiday and you all start talking about me :-) Thanks for this Brian, I think it is an interesting area and one we have been discussing for sometime within JISC in terms of what should be managed on the JISC website or not – a difficult question in terms of the masses of information that already exists on this site.

    A couple of points as to why I do it this way. We have decided to brand FAM10 as a UK federation event rather than a JISC event this year as various parties are involved in the event (JANET, Advance, Collections) and, well, it seemed more appropriate now that I no longer work for the JISC Exec :-)

    The JISC website has lots of benefits, but also lots of drawbacks. Updates are only made once a day unless you specifically ask for something to be published. Embedding docs is a nightmare and there is no in-built form function so we have to look elsewhere for functionality anyway. I also have to get the manual out everytime I want to do something to remind me how it is done – not a great user experience.

    The biggest reason for the Google choice is ease of use. Due to cutbacks, I don’t have any admin support for this event so I need something that is quick, easy and simple to use as I’m pretty much doing it in my spare time. I also need something that other people in other organisations can access with ease and without a steep learning curve (no, it’s not on a personal account and other people do have longterm access). I also need something I can change and update when it suits me – i.e. at 11 o’clock at night or when I’m on holiday without my full arsenal of computing equipment with me. I chose Google because we already use it to share documents between people involved in federation activities and because it ticks all of these boxes ‘out of the box’. WordPress is also my preferred platform but it would have required slightly more setup time to achieve all of the features I wanted.

    A look at the FAM09 site might give you an idea of where we want to be eventually with the FAM10 information: https://sites.google.com/site/jiscfam/. It’s not the prettiest but does everything we want with ease – embedded images, video, presentations, documents, forms etc. etc. The plenary page gives the best demo of this: https://sites.google.com/site/jiscfam/presentations. I think the loss of professional level brand and design is acceptable for an event of this size and focus.

    Of course the main content such as the presentations etc are backed up elsewhere and JISC is busily working on a repository for its outputs. I’d hope that this will provide a longterm home for the real meat of the event. To be honest so much of the real value of the event, beyond the day itself, is ‘out there’ – the twapperkeeper of tweets, the blog pieces written by people like Andy Powell and Owen Stephens – that archiving the full value of an event like this will always be a challenge :-)

  9. Hi Nicole
    Many thanks for your holiday post :-)

    The background information you have provided is really useful. I think it illustrates the pragmatic approaches which will be needed as effort and funding to support our activities is reduced.

    In light of your expertise in access management I am not surprised that the access to the third party services “is not on a personal account and other people do have longterm access” – but I’m pleased that you have shared that example of best practice with others.

    Once again thanks for sharing this information – and enjoy your holiday :-)

  10. […] Link: Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced? « UK Web Focus […]

  11. Interestingly, CETIS outsources the event management of its conference, but maintains the IT systems, whereas OSSWatch outsources everything.

  12. I agree an interesting discussion and very fitting with us here at ULCC preparing for another Future of Technology in Education (FOTE10) conference. In a guest post I wrote for Eventbrite, I summarised how we use(d) a range of tools to achieve our conference objective(s).

    From my personal point of view the question isn’t ‘if’ you should outsource – not sure outsourcing is the right word in that context – but rather ‘how to’. As someone with average technical skills and comprehension (I know that’s a rather ambiguous statement) I want things to be easy to use and plainly put, do the job.

    Off all the CMSs I’ve used WP is by far the easiest to use, customise and manage, when running events. What it and all the other tools like Mailchimp, Eventbrite, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, etc. have in common is their ease of use. Personal past experience seems to indicate that’s something Institutional Web Teams have trouble coming to terms with and rather than guiding their ‘customers’ (us the users) through the myriad of Web 2.0 tools they are guarding the ivory tower of institutionalised web tools.

    Does this mean the Institutional Web Teams is doomed; well it is, unless it embraces the changing environment it operates in, develops expertise across a range of tools out there and begins to communicate what it can bring to the table. Nothing small to ask, I admit, but not impossible either.

  13. […] events websites he suggested I might wish to comment on it given my work on Eventstreams. Titled Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced? it was partially inspired by the direction Nicole has taken FAM10 this year as far as using […]

  14. […] Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced? […]

  15. […] 2009 conference); (3) I think is not only inevitable but also, in many cases desirable, as discussed recently in the context of event Web sites; (4) whilst seeming threatening to Web professions can provide […]

  16. […] era. Which services should we let the Martians have and which are worth fighting for?  I have previously suggested that event Web sites might be the first to go.  I’d welcome other […]

  17. I’ve just read Martin Hamilton’s post on Amplifying the Google Apps User Group – #guug11. It was interesting to read the comment “The website for the Google event is hosted on Google Sites, under our nascent staff Google Apps domain. Google Sites is a very nice tool in itself, making it trivial to construct impressive websites and pull in live content from elsewhere in the Google ecosystem.

  18. […] Lanyrd could be used to provide the prime entry point for new events. In August 2010 I asked Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced? This post reflected on the decision to host the FAM10 (Federated Access Management) event web […]

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