Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

12Mar/112

Church Software, First Steps

Trying to do a little brainstorming here for the church software. I did just a little research and found that sure enough there are tons of products out there. The problem I'm seeing is that the interfaces seem a little less than useful and many of them are somewhat pricey. What I'd like is a "roll your own" option for any of these. Don't sell me the service or the product, sell me hosting and management if I can't do it myself.

Some new ideas based on what I found:

Facilities Management: would be nice to add. Isn't really fundamentally different than event planning and scheduling but could provide checklists, reminders, inventory (for consumable products), that sort of thing.

Childcare: Could easily integrate a check-in system for the nursery with all the data that we have.

Background, user meta-information: Useful for programs like Reducing the Risk. Basically, the ability to look at things like when a member has completed some necessary training or certification. Sad that this is needed, but it is.

Financials: After working on the budget committee this year and looking at other software, I believe that this is pretty straightforward. The big deal would be incorporating a tracker for two primary things:

1) Incoming checks and cash. Allow a weekly input where a user's check is recorded (possibly even scanned), the amount is recorded even before it's deposited with the bank. (With newer banks, it might be possible to simply upload check images). It would be very nice if users could check their own contributions online by logging in. Alternatively, any church administrator would have the information available without moving/copying Quickbooks files.

2) Outgoing checks and expense reimbursements. At least at our church we have a fairly small amount of accounts for expense tracking -- this would be easy to import and manage. Granted, this information wouldn't be available immediately in a full-fledged piece of software like Quickbooks, but what we need week-to-week and month-to-month would be adequate. Would provide immediate feedback to accountable parties for expenses that are being made rather than waiting for an end-of-month report.

3) Both of the above lead to budget tracking. With each account, if we have a weekly, monthly, or yearly budget, we can easily track actuals against budgeted amounts.

Anyway -- this is all well and good. It definitely, hugely increases the scope of work.

As a first step, I'm looking at trying to start with

1) Authentication system

2) User management

3) Scheduling system (rotating assignments with exceptions, email reminders, rescheduling/adjusting by admin only)

For our church, this is the most critical need. I'm going to be working on some models and some basic system requirements and we'll see how far I get. There's nothing there yet, but I've set up a new website here: http://steepleproject.org/ The plan will be to start formal documentation there, code repositories, etc.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please leave a comment!

20Jan/110

Church Software

I begin this post having spent almost no time looking at what options may already exist. However, I see the need for a piece of software (preferrably open-source) that could accomplish some of these tasks:

  • Manage church events and calendar items (ideally through interaction with a solid interface like Google Calendar, 30 boxes, Airset, etc.). Would be nice if event planning could include RSVP-type capabilities to alleviate manual planning (e.g. "Are you attending this Saturday? Click here...").
  • Management of scheduling/duties at a church (Similar to many calendaring options but perhaps a little more "duty roster" focused). Some features might include automatic rescheduling via email (replying with a "cancel" to an event would trigger a notification to admins to find a replacement -- that sort of thing)
  • "CRM"-like capabilities for sending emails, announcements, etc. to the church body while providing church leaders with the ability to make notes, add  prayer requests and other very church-specific type features.
  • Some sort of document management (possibly again through simple integration with an existing, reliable document management source) for things like procedures, newsletters, meetings, etc. as well as every-week things like bulletins.
  • Newsletter options -- email and web version of all "newsletters". Providing users with the ability to opt-out of email listings but also view old newsletters archived on the website
  • Audio handling. Some interface that would streamline the ability to upload and manage sermon/lecture/class recordings that doesn't require too much technical knowledge.
  • Budget-related financials -- not a full-blown piece of accounting software, but that something that could provide instant feedback to leadership on details of the budget and perhaps summary information to members.
  • Online church directory (not public)
  • Private portal (I know "portal" is such archaic jargon) -- but some sort of interface that would allow more insight to member-only items (like the church directory) as well as details like Annual Reports, etc. that may not be intended for the public.

Some of the design goals would include:

  • Lightweight -- keep it simple and straightforward
  • No "registration" required -- most features would be available to members even if they don't want to register on the site.
  • Solid and reliable authentication
  • Extensible -- I'd be building this for our church, but it would be nice if the concerns of both larger and smaller congregations with different leadership styles could be taken into account.
  • Possibly integrated into an existing CRM (like WordPress) as a plugin.
9Aug/100

Where Did Summer Go?

Ahh... My last post was ages ago. Lots has happened. Most of the family events have been duly recorded on our Family Blog.

I've been doing more biking, more work for the new business (especially system administration type stuff), lots of new exploration in C#, particularly in the ASP.NET MVC world, lots of time with boys who are growing up at an alarming rate, some time away with family in Iowa, as well as just the Wife and I in Victoria, B.C. for our anniversary.

I've been thinking about:

  • Writing a time tracking system for use internally with the new business. Some of the initial code is written in Ruby on Rails as well as some design docs -- oh, and a name: "Tempus Fugit".
  • Getting an irrigation system in place for the yard (plus some of those automatic hanging basket watering tubes if I can figure it out)
  • Updating my favorite online bookmark system (Scuttle) with some more modern features. Development seems dead on it and I'm thinking of forking it and moving in a slightly different direction.
  • Learning more about taxes, finances, and Quickbooks in order to do a better job with the company accounting.
  • Starting in on a new programming language -- I still haven't decided which but I feel like I'm getting complacent with C# (and some C/C++). Your ideas/recommendations are welcome!
  • Catching up on some cleanup projects around the yard (landscaping lighting needs some help in the back, Windsor block border around a bit more of the backyard, possible door in the back of the garage to the backyard, more top soil and reseeding of back yard)
  • Posting more to my blog. Fat chance.
5Apr/101

Project Idea #35: Auto Tasks via Email

Create a program that is designed to parse and track projects and tasks from emails alone. The point would be to make it completely non-intrusive (albeit not entirely non-interactive). So for example, when composing a message to a client or customer you might be asking a question. You want a response (there's a "task" outstanding that's pending a decision or some action). You would simply BCC the special mailbox. The message would be parsed and tracked. When the user replies, the same program is monitoring your incoming mailbox items. When the message arrives it would attempt to interpret whether the task was complete or not. It could then fire a simple email to you indicating that it THINKS that the task is complete with a simple Yes/No form that would let you close the task or not and also possibly make notes or record anything of interest. Or alternatively you could manually complete tasks by forwarding the message to the same mailbox.

This probably is not incredibly value in its proposed form -- I'm sure something similar exists. But it would be fun to work on and would be neat to see how smart you could train it to be. Introduction of learning algorithms that would adapt to particular users would be even better.

30Dec/092

Ice and Keeping Warm

We've been having some icy weather of late. The frosts have been beautiful -- much heavier than usual. Some of these last few days have just been gorgeous. Cold, crisp, but wonderfully clear!

Most of the plants are holding up well. With the exception of the new maple sapling and the new rhodedendron which our new puppy Jack 2.0 has decided to eat. I think they're goners.

In order to keep Jack warm, I made a dog house. The design is pretty simple, should be big enough for him even when he's full-grown and as a plus, it's insulated. It's not the prettiest thing inside but my woodworking skills are pretty rudimentary. I did get a new DeWalt Jigsaw (which works great). I was amazed by just how much this thing weighed... It's heavy enough that I really need a hand-cart to move it around. I suppose that's good -- the boys and the dog won't be able to move it around. The walls are about 2 inches thick -- outer hardi-plank, 1" foam insulation, and 1/2" plywood sheathing inside. I was able to use a lot of scraps that I had. I think the total cost was under $100.

I made it to match the house so at least it fits in nicely with the yard. The roof is done pretty poorly. I actually have enough to put on a second layer of shingles (which would probably help keep it dry) but I got lazy and decided to wait and see what Jack does to this before moving on.

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8Jan/083

Wiring (update 2)

Bill had commented on an older post about wiring and had asked for an update. I had thought I had posted one but couldn't find any when I just looked.

So, basically, at this point, the following is complete:

  • TV is installed in the main room. Wires are cable tied to the cantilever arm and go through a nice-looking plastic grommet in the wall. My options were to buy grommets at Lowe's (surprisingly, they were like $6 each) or simply steal some from some of our furniture (the little holes designed to have wires go into for your computer stuff). I went with the stealing.
  • All speaker wiring is done. I have speakers installed everywhere except the sub-woofer (which I installed in the back center. At some point I want a sub-woofer but the high-cost and low utility (hey, the kids are napping whenever we watch anything!) has delayed my purchase.
  • All wiring for Phase 1 is complete. This is a nice, official way of saying that there will be a phase 2 and we're not there yet. However, for this first phase, we have all audio wiring (to 5.1 speakers) installed, two power outlets (4 plugs) are installed and the cable re-wired and split (in the wall). In addition, all wiring through the wall to the TV is complete. I may change what I have going through the wall to the TV at some later date, but for now, it's everything we need.
  • No more mess in the main room (just the TV on the wall, speakers on the wall, and two floor speakers). Now we have extra room and I'm considering getting a nice leather chair (in black) that matches our surprisingly well-constructed Ikea couch.

Here are the pictures:

New Shelves
New shelves in closet. The small top shelf is just for wiring and equipment. We'll likely use the lower shelf for the printers. There's another shelf below that's outside of the shot. Notice the nice blue paint. It's not fun painting in a closet -- no room.

Top Computer Shelf
Here's the rather cluttered high shelf. It's close to the door and has all the audio/video equipment as well as the phone and two computers. The upper computer is just there temporarily. (I'm not sure exactly what to do with it -- need a computer?). It does have some spare room on the shelf for remotes and DVDs and such.

Top Computer Shelf (no flash)
Here's a shot of the same thing without the flash. This is what it looks like when you open the door. I tied some tube lights into the power plugs on the back of the receiver so that if you're using it, there's a strip of light that goes around the edge of the door frame on the inside. I considered a brighter light, but you don't need to see much and anything too bright is annoying.

New outlets
Here's a cable-filled shot of the new power outlets, the cable outlet and above (a little hard to see) the 5.1 audio outlet 5 stereo and one mono plugs (for the sub-woofer).

img_6205.JPGSpeaker on the rear, left
Here are two shots of the surround speakers. I found the mounting shelves at Lowe's for a pretty good price Looks a lot nicer than having those horrible little plastic arms.

Front view of system
Here's a shot of the front. This shows the TV mounted on the cantilever arm, the center channel (mounted a bit high but tilted appropriately) and the right front speaker (just on the floor). All the equipment is in the closet directly behind the TV. I dislike how I couldn't mount the TV in the center (but the arm does swing over and it's very close). The mind is a funny thing -- voices (played on the center channel) do sound like they're coming directly from the TV even though though they're clearly not.

Binding Posts
Here's a shot of the binding post. Hey, it looks professional! It might look nice to use banana plugs instead of bare wire, but that's too fancy...

Sub-woofer binding post
Here's the unused sub-woofer binding post behind the couch. This is an RCA-type plug so it's a little easier to connect than the screw-on/banana plugs used for the stereo binding posts.

Behind the TV
Here's what behind the TV looks like. You can see the plastic grommet in the wall (which is very functional). The arm itself is attached very solidly to a stud and the cable ties may not be pretty but they're not normally visible, so it's no problem.

I'm considering as part of Phase 2, the following:

  • CAT5, DVI and USB runs throughout the house. Realistically, probably just to the office and the "kitchen office" nook.
  • An upgrade of our main room TV (the in-laws have a bigger one -- it's time to upgrade! hehe...) and moving the upstairs TV to my office (for use with the computer)
  • Dispose of an old inkjet printer, move the newer inkjet to the closet, and get a laser printer also for the closet.
  • I'm considering (just considering) replacing my Linux machine with a dedicated "always-on" 8-core Mac. The brand new Mac Pros are just so darn cool. I could realistically do a 3-drive, RAID 5, 1TB array with the Mac and still have room on the main drive for "non-critical" stuff. I have a 1.5TB array now on 4 drives but the extra 500MB is somewhat unnecessary for redundancy. Down the road, I could upgrade to a 2TB (3x1TB HDs) setup if I needed to expand. The new machines have max RAM capacity at 32GB -- that's simply amazing (and expensive).

Note to scoffers: This does NOT mean I would give up my Linux server -- I would simply virtualize it and run it in all the spare RAM I'd have.

But except for the printers I'm not really thinking this is going to happen anytime really soon. Maybe by the end of the year. Just maybe.