A new website for GLAS

For more than a decade now GLAS – the Geneva Literary Aid Society – has been bringing theatre, music, poetry and prose to Geneva. I was at the first event in January 2005, when David Norris, a well-known Irish politician and gay rights activist, came to perform his one-man tribute to James Joyce.

Over the years since, GLAS has hosted more than 35 shows in Geneva, raising in excess of 80,000 CHF for a number of charities. Among my favourites were concerts by John Spillane, Luka Bloom, Moya Brennan and Maria Doyle Kennedy, a talk by journalist Robert Fisk, Conor McPherson’s play The Good Thief, and Ardal O’Hanlon’s stand-up comedy. (Glas is the Gaelic word for green; the organization was founded by an Irishman and most of its visiting acts have some connection with Ireland.)

I noticed recently that the GLAS website, which had at one stage been quite active, had been stripped back to nothing more than a feed from the Facebook page. I thought this was a pity, as it had built up such an impressive track record and deserved a better shop window. I helped the founder of GLAS, Denis McClean, to set up his mailing list in the early days; now that the kids are beyond the evening-consuming, sleepless night-inducing stage, I have the time and energy to get involved again. And so, late last year, I offered to create a new site and keep it updated as new shows are announced.

A shop window

The idea was to create a site that would give first time visitors an immediate impression of how active GLAS has been in the past, both in terms of the events staged and the charities supported. This will help to promote future shows and also, hopefully, can support efforts to identify much-needed sponsors.

Using WordPress is a no-brainer for projects like this. I picked the free version of a theme called Carton, as I was looking for one that used the Masonry layout. This automatically arranges blog posts into an attractive wall depending on the screen space available, which works really well where there is a featured image attached to each post. For GLAS it means the visitor gets a rich overview of what the organization does, while prioritizing the most recent post, which is where upcoming shows will be featured. It’s also fully responsive, so works well on smaller screens.


Screenshot of the new GLAS site, available at http://theglas.org.

Populating the site with information about past events didn’t take too long, as I could pull text from Facebook posts, the mailing list archives and, particularly useful for the earliest shows, the Wayback Machine on archive.org, a super-useful tool that has snapshots of websites on random dates in the web’s history. (It’s very easy to disappear down a rabbit hole of looking up what favourite sites looked like in their early days.)

For the more recent shows there are photos and even reviews available, but unfortunately for some of the earliest events information is scarce. Hopefully in time we’ll dig up photos of some of the earliest events to add to the site.

I hope and expect that GLAS will be around for many years to come. For an Irishman in Switzerland it’s been a welcome cultural link with home, and one that I’m happy to support in any way that I can. The fact that it helps people in great need, most recently supporting the Edith Wilkins Foundation in their work with street children in India, is the icing on the cake.

If you’re in the Geneva area, I strongly recommend that you join the GLAS mailing list. You can, naturally, do so via the website: theglas.org/contact


Introducing Alumnographics… and other news from Ecolint

It’s five months since I began the latest phase of what’s turning out to be quite a varied career as an all-purpose comms guy. This time three years ago I was starting my final month with the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria, from an office at the back of Amsterdam Zoo; I then spent a little over two years back in the comfortable surroundings of the EBU in Grand-Saconnex, telling anyone that would listen about the work of the Technology & Innovation team there; and since 1 April I’ve been back at school, responsible for alumni relations at the International School of Geneva – or Ecolint.

Is there a common thread? Well in each case I arrived at an organisation or department where communications hadn’t previously been much more than an afterthought and was tasked with professionalising the approach, whether for events, publications, web, or any other communications channel. At EAZA and the EBU the role hadn’t existed prior to my arrival, and at Ecolint I’ve been hired to develop a largely reactive administrative role into one that’s more proactive and strategic.

eaza ebu ecolint

From EAZA to the EBU to Ecolint…my office is on the top floor of “le Manoir” (above right).

The Ecolint Alumni Office is based on the school’s La Grande Boissière campus, about the same distance south of Geneva’s city centre as the EBU is to the north. There are two other campuses, one in the international district and one in the countryside out along the lake a bit, with a total of eight schools (pre-school, primary, middle and secondary). While the teaching staff tend to be tied to a specific campus and school, I work for “the Foundation”, which is the entity that binds it all together. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that has a deserved reputation for providing a really top class internationally-oriented education. (It is, admittedly, an expensive school to attend, at around CHF 30,000 per year, but for many students the fees are paid or subsidised by their parents’ employers, be they multinational companies or part of the UN system.)

The raw materials

Alumni programmes tend to be associated with universities. However, with a history stretching back to 1924 and a student body that currently stands at 4,400, Ecolint’s alumni are both numerous and, for the school, very important. Those who attend Ecolint tend to develop a strong bond with the place, even if they only spend a year or two before moving on. The school’s reputation is largely built on the fact that its alumni speak so highly of it. Indeed many that have remained in the region choose to send their own children there, despite the significant financial burden it can place on the family.

There are at least 30,000 Ecolint alumni around the world, and probably more. Our archives are far from complete so it’s hard to be sure how many have slipped through the net. We have around 6,000 registered as members of our web community. The website is built on a web-based software platform called YourMembership, which provides a range of tools designed to help membership-based organisations of all shapes and sizes. I spent much of the summer (after getting a big five-yearly reunion event out of the way in June) familiarising myself with the platform and making some changes to the website.

The site had become a little cluttered over the years and has, I think, benefited from a reorganisation. There are certain limitations that come with the platform and the templates we use, but I’m confident that any alum arriving at the site now should be able to find what they’re looking for without too much difficulty.

To be (social) or not to be

One challenge for people running alumni operations is how to strike a balance between your own platform and the various other social platforms that come and go. I’m slowly piecing together an approach that uses Facebook and LinkedIn to generate interest and host discussions, while also keeping most of the meat of the content on our own site.

I’m hoping that various initiatives planned for the months ahead (e.g. the 90-9-90 project) will help to drive a bit more traffic to the website and generally increase engagement levels. But it will be an uphill battle. People’s lives, and especially their digital lives, are so busy, with so many demands on their time and attention, that pulling them in to engage with activities related to their former school (even one they hold so dear) is always going to be a challenge.

It’s really just fundraising, right?

The general assumption that people have when I say I’m responsible for alumni relations is that I spend my time asking for donations. In fact fundraising is a very minor part of my job. We have fundraising staff in the Development Office (“development” being something of a euphemistic term for fundraising!) and the alumni are indeed a potential source of financial support. However, while I should and do support the fundraising efforts, I was not hired as a fundraiser. I see myself as a community manager, putting in place tools and content that help the alumni to share their stories with each other and the wider world. It’s an opportunity for me to develop a new set of skills to add to my comms toolbox.

So far I’m really enjoying this new professional adventure. My colleagues in the school’s Development Office are a nice bunch and I appreciate the fact that I have considerable autonomy with regard to the daily running of our alumni relations programme. I have the freedom to try new ideas; and there’s lots of potential for developing the role further.

Introducing Alumnographics

One thing I’ve just tried for the first time is the use of infographics. While these graphical representations of data and ideas are not new by any means, they have become rather trendy in recent years as an alternative way of presenting information. I had to spend some time analysing our member database, drilling through the data in spreadsheets and pivot tables. It was a natural next step to generate some charts and graphs and put them all together in a format that could be used as content to further promote the community. Thus was born the “ECOLINT ALUMNOGRAPHIC 2014”. (See below)

I think it’s not bad as a first effort. Our in-house graphic designer helped me to tidy it up, but using the Foundation’s basic colour palette had already helped me to give it a coherent feel. The format was chosen partly to fit with the long narrow content areas we have on the alumni website, but also because many of the infographics that I’ve liked the most were in a similar vertical layout.

It’s not (and not meant to be) groundbreaking in terms of infographics, but it does present the data and information in an attractive and engaging format. There will, I hope, be a 2015 version of this where I can develop it further. We’ll also (hopefully) have more data to work with by then, as we’ve just started asking for more info about third level education choices, for example.

(Click the image for a bigger version – or download the PDF here.)



Podcasts for Adrian

I discovered recently that my UK Mission FC teammate Adrian is also a fan of podcasts, so we agreed to exchange tips on some of our favourites. The list I emailed to him seemed like it would sit well here too. One we already had in common is Fighting Talk, a humourous weekly sports panel show from BBC Radio 5. Colin Murray presents. Highly recommended.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of the podcasts I listen to:

Playback (RTE Radio 1)
This and Fighting Talk are the two definites each week for me. This weekly show is a great way of keeping in touch with political, cultural, sporting, social life in Ireland. It’s a kind of compendium of the best bits of shows from across all of the RTE radio stations during the previous seven days.

This American Life
This is from public radio in the USA. Usually good, sometimes really excellent. I pick and choose depending on whether it looks like something that’ll interest me. Each one is only available free of charge for one week. This week’s one looks like it could be pretty good (Doppelgangers).

Radio documentaries about popular science. Always a good listen. The short show this week about doctors and death is good…and I enjoyed the one a few weeks back about kids and genetic inheritance. Not as heavy as it sounds.

The Nerdist
I used to listen to this a lot more, but the host has really started to annoy me. His two co-hosts are okay and it can be quite funny at times, but Chris Hardwick himself tries a bit too hard. Nonetheless, when the guest is someone that interests me, I’ll download and listen. Some of the guests are people I’ve never heard of or have no interest in, but recent interviews (actually they’re more like casual chats than interviews) have included Tom Hanks, Mel Brooks, Kevin Bacon and Larry King.

Cover versions. Lots of them. The presenter is clearly passionate about covers but isn’t great on the microphone himself… I check the feed every couple of months to see whether any bands or themes that particularly interest me have passed by. Right now I’m about to download the 2012 Top 40, which should make for a few hours of good listening. (The covers in the Top 40 aren’t all from 2012, but are voted on by his subscribers. To keep it fresh he inducts those that appear repeatedly into a kind of Hall of Fame that removes them from the Top 40.)

The Guardian Tech Weekly
I’m not that big of a tech geek, despite what some may think, but the topics do interest me a bit, and it’s handy for my job to keep in touch with new developments. I dip in and out of this one.

Le Rendezvous Tech
Covers similar ground in the tech domain, but this time serving the twin purpose of helping me to improve my French.

Design Observer
Just recently came across this one…I’m not sure yet whether it’ll turn out to be my cup of tea, but a recent interview with Jason Kottke (whose blog is just brilliant) was quite interesting.

Philosphy Bites
I haven’t listened to this at all yet, but it comes highly recommended and I may give it a try over the coming months.

And that’s it! I may add one or two of Adrian’s recommendations to the mix in due course – but there’s only so much listening time available. Actually it was the fact that becoming a father ate into the amount of time I have for reading that started me on podcasts. Now I find I’m trying to strike a good balance between listening to music and listening to podcasts. Life’s tough, eh?!

Turning water into wine (or my beef with Wine & Beef)

Wine & Beef  is a bistro in central Geneva that specialises in, well, wine and beef. Like a few other places around town, the idea is that you decide only how you want your steak cooked and what to drink. I planned to go there for the first time yesterday, having taken a half day to spend some time with our visitors. We did eventually eat excellent steak, but at Café de Paris. Here’s why…

We took our seats, ordered three saignant steaks, a bottle of red wine and, as the waiter was closing his notebook, a carafe of water. He said they only served bottled water. I explained that we wanted tap water – that the water in Geneva is excellent and there was no reason to drink l’eau plate from a bottle in this town. He still refused.

Et si j’insiste?” I said. Nope. It was a business thing, he said; it was completely normal in Geneva he said; there’s no legislation forcing him to serve tap water, he said. I offered to pay for a bottle of water if he would bring us a carafe of tap water. Nope. He simply would not serve tap water. Taking his cue from that biblical tale, he  even offered to, in effect, turn our water in wine, saying he’d give us a free half litre of wine. After checking with my cousin and her husband that they were in agreement, we got up and walked out. As I said, we had a wonderful lunch just up the road in Café de Paris, where they had no problem serving us a carafe of water.

An overreaction? Perhaps. I certainly do drink bottled water from time to time, and if the people I’m eating with have ordered it I don’t create a scene, but I believe it’s my right to be served tap water if I ask for it. And there are lots of reasons why drinking tap water is a better idea in general…watch the video below.

So my beef with Wine & Beef is their refusal to serve tap water to a customer that had just ordered over 150 CHF worth of food and drinks from them. It’s a very stupid and shortsighted attitude to have. I won’t be eating there in future.

On the other hand, I have to acknowledge the irony of the fact that, according to this infographic (which looks fantastic, by the way), 15,400 litres of water go into the production of a single kg of beef. That kind of dwarfs the bottle we refused to order!


Generating a customised Google map of zoo locations from a spreadsheet

In searching for a quick and effective way to map the members of the organisation I currently work for I came across a very useful tool from the Google Earth Outreach department. The Spreadsheet Mapper tool allows you to generate the code that Google Maps and Google Earth both use to display information. Very clear instructions are provided, but it basically boils down to the following steps:

  • Open the spreadsheet in Google Docs, select the basic configuration options and then publish the spreadsheet as a web page from Google Docs
  • Add the geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude) of each point you want to map along with whatever data you want to display in the balloon that pops up
  • Update the layout templates provided so that the information is displayed in the way you want it to appear (this takes a little bit of time and some knowledge of html is helpful)
  • Republish the spreadsheet regularly to check your progress and view the results in Google Maps.

KML, which is the markup language used, doesn’t seem to be very forgiving of errors. I found it was quite easy to “break” my map if I added a tag in the wrong place when adjusting the template tabs, for example. But if you take your time, and check the results of each change made as you go, you can generally find the error causing the problem.

The map I created shows all of the members of EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. The placemarker icon I used came from the Map Icons Collection which allows you to generate placemarkers in just about any colour. This allowed me to take their “zoo” icon and generate various versions to represent the different categories of membership.


View Larger Map

Sculpture in the streets of Amstedam Zuid

We cycled down to the south of the city today to have a look at the ArtZuid Sculpture Route, a collection of almost 60 works of sculpture dotted along the grassy medians of Apollolaan and Minervalaan. It was really nice to see works that are usually to be found in museums and galleries on display in the open air and free for all to view.

They’ll be in place until August 28th – worth a visit on a sunny afternoon.

Et tu, Duchamp

Et tu, Duchamp by Subodh Gupta


CosmoGolem by Koen Vanmechelen

L'Oiseau magique

L'Oiseau Magique by Corneille

Flowers that bloom tomorrow

Flowers that bloom tomorrow by Yayoi Kusama

The Happy Prince

The Happy Prince by Ryan Gander

Trees on Apollolaan

Trees on Apollolaan with Terroir by Frederic Beaufils just visible in the distance


Heureka by Jean Tinguely (comes to life every hour for five minutes)

Space Elephant

Space Elephant by Salvador Dalí

Searching for Utopia

Searching for Utopia by Jan Fabre

Clouds and words

Wordle: Lyrics by EoghanI used Wordle.net this week for the first time. It’s great! I used it to do a quick analysis of some qualitative responses to a survey we had conducted amongst the members of the association I work for. It’s a good way of getting a quick overview trends in the text and the word clouds created look fantastic. They translate well into PowerPoint slides for the creation of funky looking presentations. It’s completely free to use and you can play around with the colours and the layout endlessly.

Out of curiosity I pasted the lyrics of a bunch of my own songs into it just now and created the cloud to the right. I used the “maximum words” setting to pare it back to the 60 most commonly used words. The biggest word is “know”….does that mean I know everything or I know nothing. Hmm…

For comparison below there’s a cloud, limited to sixty words again, made from the lyrics of one of my favourite Beatles albums, Revolver (which is not to say that I’m putting myself up there with them, of course!).

www.wordle.net – give it a try!

Wordle: Revolver

Mapping web trends

Back when I worked in a role more focused on media and technology I used to have a printout of the latest Web Trends map from Information Architects pinned above my desk. The maps attempt to capture the most significant websites and online trends of the moment in the format of a public transport network (in this case the Tokyo Metro system), with the big hitters being the hub stations and smaller but still influential sites being stops along the relevant line.

Equally good whether you’re killing time or digging for inspiration.

Click here for Web Trends Map 4.

Or visit Information Architects to download earlier versions (scroll down to #3).

Can’t find the right font? Flipping typical

Making posters, flyers, handouts and the like it’s sometimes hard to decide on which font(s) to use and can be tedious to click through each font available, which is where flipping typical comes in. It shows you a random selection of the fonts on your PC, initially showing how each looks with the words “Flipping Typical”. You can change the sample text and also show them in bold or italics.

Screenshot from flipping-typical.com


The myth of the page fold

One of the interesting debates in web design is how people find the information they’re looking for on a page or within a site. There’s a school of thought that says people don’t like to scroll vertically down a page – the problem is this limits the amount of content you can fit on each page and is likely to result in a very deep site structure, with pages buried behind too many clicks.

Personally I’ve never feared long pages that require some scrolling. Whether it’s scroll wheels on mouses (mice?) or finger wipes on iPhones, I think we’re quite comfortable exploring “below the fold”, the fold being the lower limit of what’s visible when you load the page.

I was happy to come upon this research from a UK design consultancy that offers evidence backing this up. To quote:

“People tell us that they don’t mind scrolling and the behaviour we see in user testing backs that up. We see that people are more than comfortable scrolling long, long pages to find what they are looking for. A quick snoop around the web will show you successful brands that are not worrying about the fold either:

BBC, Play, Amazon.co.uk and the New York Times websites showing the position of the page fold

via The myth of the page fold: evidence from user testing | cxpartners.