In this post, the third in a three part series about Mycitizen.net, Ethnos Project contributor Christoph Amthor provides insight about the development and testing of Mycitizen.net.

Part 1: Mycitizen.net and its Roots in Burma
Part 2: The Concept Behind Mycitizen.net
Part 3: Developing and Testing Mycitizen.net

Mycitizen.net is a free and open-source platform that facilitates social networking of local communities. It has been designed from the outset for the specific needs of civil society, particularly in closed societies and in countries in transition, it can be used with otherwise unsupported languages, where the Internet is very slow, and where the safety of civil society actors requires special privacy protection.

The entire process of planning and developing mycitizen.net is scheduled to last in total three years, starting from 2012. After that period, the basic maintenance could be done by volunteers, assuming that we don’t have to moderate any content. Some additional funding will be necessary to cover expenses for the server, and we would also like to continue training and promoting the platform in other countries and communities.

mycitizen-mobileThe actual software development started with the web-based part since the mobile app would have to rely on it to hook in for data exchange. We collaborated with a Czech freelancer who created the basic structure in 2012 based on the Nette Framework and we subsequently have continued in-house. Naturally that meant that I had to learn how to use the framework and it took some time to find my way through the code. That same year, another freelancer began to work on the design, which also required adaptions in the software.

One problem that quickly came up was the localization of labels, menus and feedback messages: Relying on the typical server configuration, I found myself restricted to a handful of privileged languages – leaving me clueless about what to do about dialects such as Zolai, Hakha or Mara. I was mistaken to believe it would be easy in a computer environment to add any language as long as you don’t run out of codes. The problem is, however, that on affordable shared hosting you cannot tweak all of the settings. As a temporary solution, I started using wrong codes to display the correct languages. If you, for example, know that the Slovak code “sk” will be vacant, you can use it for Zolai. Things got much easier, however, when I switched to a software module that was more flexible. Zolai is now “zom” – in compliance with ISO 639-3 codes (but also allowing for ISO 639-1 or anything else).

Already during the first year I started designing the mobile application on Fluid UI for Android, which is the most common mobile OS in Burma. Compared to the web interface, the mobile app offers fewer features and doesn’t facilitate the administration of the deployment or the moderation of content. The app is planned to keep some data in an internal cache so that much of it will still available even if the network drops. Additionally, it will regularly check the network speed and accordingly scale down functionality, rather than trying to retrieve the full amount of content and, if this fails, refuse operation entirely.

Currently, in spring 2014, the web-based software has reached a somewhat complete and stable version. That means, it works as it should, but without extensive testing you cannot actually claim that it is ready for a production environment. Usually, every round of testing in the field and demonstrations for the target groups lead to new features, most of them enhancing the user experience: If you see users repeatedly running against a wall, you can hang up a warning sign, or build a door.

A considerable amount of effort went into documentation and promotion. We are providing basic information and manuals (including some screencasts) on a wiki, a volunteer from New York has created an awesome animated video, which has been translated and is now available in English and Burmese. The volunteer who has made the logos also created an infographic that I use for presentations.

logo-mycitizen-greenThese little things may seem secondary, but I have no doubt that visual appearance contributes a lot to a favourable acceptance by the public, and makes it fun for its creators to return to their work. Personal meetings and demonstrations inside Burma were crucial to explain the concept and let the people experience the platform. I was fortunate to have some enthusiastic volunteers interpreting to local languages, and I was happy to see that they increasingly were able to give explanations and answer questions without my interaction, visibly sharing their enthusiasm. The availability in local languages in particular has opened many doors – for a considerable amount of users, mycitizen.net has been the first software ever where they have been able to fully understand the menus and instructions. This is something that we consider a matter of course.

Unfortunately, it was impossible for most users to start using the software right away because the connection speed in most regions was too low for the web interface, and our mobile application was not yet ready. It was nevertheless an encouraging experience when after every presentation the entire audience sprang at me to grab a copy of the development version.

In January of this year, I was invited to TechCamp 2014 with inspiring meetings and a great atmosphere. Many participants were impressed by the possibility of installing mycitizen.net on a local intranet without the need to have a permanent Internet connection. Again, that event came too early to give them a functional version of the mobile app. There will be one more trip to Asia this year, and hopefully it will be finished by then.

Currently the project is handled by one person in part-time employment. Trips like the one to TechCamp have been self-funded. The freelancer who is working on the app sends his updates between 5 and 6 am, before he continues to his – literally – day job. The future of the project depends on building a base of long-term volunteers, and I am glad that some people inside Burma and in India continue to help, to spread the word, and to establish mycitizen.net inside their communities. Some of them have studied IT abroad and have sufficient skills to launch their own WAMP servers, others are owners of local computer or cell phones stores or they operate cybercafés.

My long-term goal is to interest also people in other regions or working on particular issues to find out if they too could benefit from mycitizen.net. We plan to offer hosted deployments to groups which do nonprofit activities on subdomains at mycitizen.net, such as laos.mycitizen.net or refugees.mycitizen.net, for a small fee to cover our expenses.

If the story of mycitizen.net has made you curious, I invite you to dive into the latest version on our demo deployment and to check out the site that I use for demonstrations in Burma.

If you have any questions about mycitizen.net, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Yours,
Christoph Amthor