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An anonymous flyer was distributed pertaining to the new website. Our Board of Directors immediately published a response which addresses some of the issues raised. The anonymous flyer contained numerous references to SPBuzz, so some comments are warranted. The anonymous flyer references two meetings for which audio was published on SPBuzz — the January 12, 2010 meeting about the new website at which its cost and functionality were presented, and the November 3, 2009 meeting about our finances at which the plan for annual maintenance increases was disclosed.

With regard to the substance of the anonymous flyer, there are certainly inaccuracies. For example, the number of users reported was several months out of date, as confirmed in our Board’s response flyer, and our six month trial still has some time to run. However, more to the point, the writer associated negative motives to the Board with regard to all issues, including doing business with a Greenthal-affiliated company, the push to promote the new site, the idea of requiring logins to access the new site, and allegedly not following up on a shareholder's alleged offer to do the site for free. There are fair questions about process and judgment, but I doubt that there is such malicious collusion taking place. Unfortunately the in-your-face allegations of impropriety diminish the fair questions that are raised (ie, were other products or providers considered?).

On one major point the anonymous flyer was particularly wrong, in that it presumed that the cost to develop a comparable website would be a $5,000. In saying this, the writer wholly fails to consider what services and benefits a full-featured site might offer our community. I would hope that an online forum and helpdesk system are just the start, and that we would ultimately evolve have a greater variety of features. (To start, the site should be featuring recordings of all our meetings, and I was very much surprised that my request to publish the audio of the website meeting on the new site was rejected.)

Indeed, the open-ended possibility of what our website can ultimately do represents the greatest aspect of licensing rather than developing. Instead of developing what we want or need now, we’d get to hitch our cart to a company that has an interest in staying ahead of the technology and service curve. I love the idea that SPHC need not be a software development company, that we would need not worry about changing web standards, web security, and so on. A good licensing arrangement with a good company would assure us that our technology is maintained and improved on a regular basis.

On the plus side, the anonymous flyer puts in writing information that our Board of Directors has shied away from publishing. The new website will have an annual licensing fee of $21,600, and that our Board of Directors plans to raise maintenance every year. This information was shared by our Directors at meetings (see links at the top of this article), and there is no reason for it to be fodder for partisan debate and character assassination. Our Board of Directors should certainly publish this information in an unambiguous manner so that it can be properly considered by SPHC shareholders.

With regard to the actual website as it's being implemented, I do have concerns in four areas. For one, in my considered opinion, $20,000 is at the high end of what it should cost to develop not license such a system. I am saying this having recently deployed a $24,000 website for a client. I am not saying that we should develop such a system, but that given such a budget, one could put together a team of designers and developers to develop an equivalent application. Even if it works out to a modest amount per shareholder, even considering that licensing would offload technical responsibility of the site's maintenance and evolution to another company, and even if the cost is largely offset by sponsorship, to me, this amount seems excessive.

Second, I am surprised that mybuilding.org is redeveloping our back-end databases. It would seem to me that, especially if our internal systems are serving us well, we would want to run all the data and functions involved in running our organization on our own computers; if mybuilding.org were to go out of business, we would not want to lose our functionality. Furthermore, it seems as though it would be appropriate for mybuilding.org to provide an API – an “application programming interface” whereby the full-time programmer we have on staff would be able to develop forms and data views that work within the website context. Mybuilding.org is being licensed to provide a website, not manage our buildings! In my opinion they should not be getting involved with our steam trap replacement schedules. The fact that mybuilding.org is looking to redevelop systems that already work, and the fact that they are even interested in touching such internal systems makes me question their business model and expertise.

Third, some characteristics of the new site concern me. It is not hosted on a secure server as most any serious interactive site should be. A non-secure site makes account information especially vulnerable to hacking. It's not to say that the SPHC site is going to contain top secret information, but the passwords many people use to access it are likely the same passwords that they use for more sensitive matters, and it’s bad practice to leave it unsecured. Further on the topic of passwords, I am concerned that the site does not require complex passwords. This is not trivial; if you know the name of an elderly neighbor's child or cat, there is a good chance that you'll be able to log into that neighbor’s account using that as the password. These are issues that are easily remedied. What surprises me is that the mybuilding.org did not implement “best practices” by default when establishing our site. It is also surprising that members of our IT committee have not followed up on these issues in the months since I mentioned them and they acknowledged them as valid concerns.

And fourth, the first message I posted to the new website consisted of five paragraphs, the last three which consisted of specific questions about the website project. Upon posting, the separation between my paragraphs was lost and five paragraphs were rendered virtually unreadable:

I am excited to test drive the new site and explore its potential. The integration of web and operations technology can yield real benefits. I hope it will prove to be a productive, robust, well-considered, and cost-effective addition to our community. The January 12th meeting was open to questions and answers. There was not time to field all the questions, and some questions opened up to others. I would be grateful if responses to the following questions could be provided. 1. It was said there is some flexibility with regard to the annual licensing price, depending on the number of users. What usage level is expected based on the price, and specifically how would prices change based on different levels of usage? 2. Related to this, I know there is a great effort to get people to sign in to check the site out. What is the measure of success for this project -- is it there a raw number of one-time sign-ins, or some analysis of usage? Some people have not signed up because they think that a raw number of logins is the only measure in use, and they don't want to endorse the system before they see what it is. Clarification of this measurement process would therefore be appreciated. 3. Integration of the system with SPHC will presumably entail ongoing customization and development. How much, and what type of development is included per year based on our licensing of the site? Are there areas of development we envision that fall outside of this, and if so, what sort of development and what is its expected cost? Even if there are no forecasted needs, what are hourly development prices charged by MyBuilding.org? Will our newly hired programmer be doing any related development, or will this be turned over to MyBuilding.org?

This problem of missing line-breaks was promptly addressed when I reported it, but I was truly surprised that the message board, which is represented as a core part of mybuilding.org's technology needed customization in order to work properly. I was also surprised that our IT Committee didn’t recognize this problem long before I reported it. With regard to message boards, I also know that much more full-featured ones could be installed, configured, customized, integrated and maintained for very modest fees (my preference is the open-source phpBB).

Going forward, I am thrilled with the prospect of having a full-featured site that delivers new and valuable services to our community, and would be thrilled if its cost were covered by advertising dollars. I hope we will continue moving forward. But at this point in the process, it is essential to consider such issues as discussed above. In addition, the questions I had posted on the new site remain unanswered:

  1. It was said there is some flexibility with regard to the annual licensing price, depending on the number of users. What usage level is expected based on the price, and specifically how would prices would change based on different levels of usage?

  2. Related to this, I know there is a great effort to get people to sign in to check the site out. What is the measure of success for this project -- is it the a raw number of one-time sign-ins, or some analysis of usage? Some people have not signed up because they think that a raw number of logins is the only measure in use, and they don't want to endorse the system before they see what it is. Clarification of this measurement process would therefore be appreciated.

  3. Integration of the system with SPHC will presumably entail ongoing customization and development. How much, and what type of development is included per year based on our licensing of the site? Are there areas of development we envision that fall outside of this, and if so, what sort of development and what is its expected cost? Even if there are no forecasted needs, what are hourly development prices charged by MyBuilding.org? Will our newly hired programmer be doing any related development, or will this be turned over to MyBuilding.org?