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Building a better collaborative editorial work-flow platform

As coordinator of the new editorial team at FSFE, I have recently been working to put in place a new system for the management of tasks and documents for publication on the foundation’s website. Below is a brief update of progress, and my current thoughts on the subject.

After lengthy meetings with other editors, and members of other FSFE teams, I’ve come to the conclusion that the team needs a new system for managing changes to content, and I have put together a list of required features for whatever work-flow system we use.

Why do we need a work-flow system, you may ask. There are several good reasons for this, the most important ones being that a greater level of automation, accountability, and organisation is required in the process by which existing content is edited, and new content is produced.

Up to this point, mailing lists have been utilised for most discussion about editorial decisions. Mailing lists have their benefits, but a mailman-based system is sorely lacking in facilities for fine tuning, monitoring, and generally managing communications and content submissions.

The editors team requires a slick, clear platform, that does absolutely the maximum possible to reduce the requirement for manual admin and management. Basically, as a team we need to focus on content not administration. Each click required to publish something on FSFE drains enthusiasm, motivation, and goodwill, and reduces the amount of participation and community involvement that we can expect.

My initial thought was that there may be an existing Free Software solution to the problems outlined above. I had hoped there would be a suitable, widely used and well supported open platform for collaborative textual content production befitting an editorial team. Sadly I was unable to find such a thing, and was unable to locate a model even in the commercial sphere of software.

While I am aware of applications like ProcessMaker, In my view, what the team needs is not a generic work-flow system that can be heavily customised and tweaked using cumbersome interfaces to do more or less what we need. I don’t want to start with something generic and mould it to something specific. Such solutions tend to be commercial, and very time-consuming to arrange and manage.

Instead I focused my investigation on existing bug tracking packages. There are already many well-established bug tracking systems, which are well maintained and documented, with a wide community of developers. Presently I am anticipating using a modified version of MantisBT; potentially writing plug-ins as the need arises. After discussion with the developer of Mantis’ plug-in system I’m hopeful that the platform can remain simple enough for everyday use, what are the same time meeting the varying needs of the editorial team.

Critical features will include things like notifications of an unassigned piece of work nearing its deadline, the ability of community members to assign themselves tasks and projects, facilities for submitting content ideas and proposals, and a very quick non-technical procedure for publishing documents at FSFE.org.

I’m currently working with the FSFE server administrator to get the bones of the work-flow system in place, so that customisation can begin. I also have draft guidelines being produced this week to provide a reference for style and quality of English.

I warmly encourage anybody interested in being involved with English content on FSFE.org to sign up to the editors team mailing list. Whilst the mailing list may not be the team’s primary medium of communication in future, for the time being it can act as a platform for people who wish to express interest and initiate their involvement.

For the time being I don’t plan to make any announcements to other mailing lists or communities as the mechanics of the team are not yet operational. However, over the next few weeks this situation should change, and when it does I shall be working to get as many people involved as possible in working together to improve the quality and the quantity of content available from the Free Software Foundation Europe.