Contact Congress

June 29, 2016 |

This past week I’ve been doing some research to consult on a new prospective web project. The organization is looking to build a WordPress plugin for a form. The form would need to take location data from a visitor, and then match them up with their U.S. Senate representative. The point of the form is to send an email to the rep. from the visitor with a message regarding the organization’s cause.

At first I thought this seemed fairly straightforward. All I need is a database of Senate members’ locations and email addresses. I found the location data I needed within minutes of searching, but ran in to some roadblocks trying to find email addresses of any kind for any representatives. It turns out that no U.S. reps ever publish their email addresses anywhere. The only way to get a hold of a rep through email is to find and fill out overly complex forms on their individual (slow) websites. This method makes it impossible for online organizations like this one to rally support for their causes.

Fortunately, I am not the only one to run into this problem. There is an ambitious project by the EFF, Sunlight Foundation, and Taskforce.is to create a huge YAML database of reverse-engineered contact forms for every single U.S. representative. The Contact-Congress project is entirely open-source on GitHub, depending on hundreds of contributors to collect the massive amount of data needed. The data is already being used by incredible projects like emailcongress.us and democracy.io.

While it’s certainly possible to build out this plugin, having to implement this massive YAML database into WordPress will most likely put the project out of scope for this organization. But I’m still glad I looked into it and found out about the Contact-Congress project. I think it’s a great testament to the benefits of open-source, and the amazing sharing and collaboration that happens in the development community.

The Web in Developing Nations

May 28, 2016 |

So it’s been way too long since I last wrote here. My writing efforts have been entirely focused on my master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction, so I thought I could at least post some of that work here for the time being.

I recently wrote a research paper about web usability in developing nations. I love discussions around web performance, so I was particularly interested in this topic. In the context of the class, I wasn’t able to dive as deep into the technical aspects as I would have liked, but I’m pretty happy with out it turned out overall. Here is a quick intro to the paper:

The internet is widely available and reliable for those of us in developed countries like the United States and most of the European Union. We have fast, highly accessible networks, ever more powerful technology to access these networks, and relatively good education systems to help us use them. But people in less developed areas of the world can have a significantly different, and often more challenging experience accessing the web. What are the problems people in these developing countries face in regards to web accessibility and usability? How can a better interaction with the web help improve the lives of these people? As designers, developers, and analysts, what can we do to improve this interaction, and why do we even care in the first place?

You can read the full paper here.

Data Structures

January 20, 2016 |

It’s been awhile since I’ve had the time to write because of the holidays and diving further into my HCI master’s program at DePaul. I finally took some time to reflect on my work from the past few months, so I’d like to write about a couple of projects and some insights I’ve gained from them.

The organization I work for now is going through a major overhaul on its eCommerce platform. We are moving inventory to a new warehouse, changing shipping policies, adding new products, and working towards simplifying our customers’ experience. My role so far has been to rework our SQL databases to conform to our new data structures, rewrite the back-end (PHP) logic associated with those tables, and rework our store website’s custom admin panel. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve really enjoyed the chance to stretch out my SQL knowledge.

I also started a just-for-fun personal project of developing a web-based computer game. The idea for the game is in the same vein as old text-based adventure games like Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure. I’m working to include multiplayer capabilities as well, similar to games like MUD1. My reason for starting this project is to familiarize myself with a more Javascript-centric stack. I’m exclusively using JSON data structures to store and pass data between the web app and the server, no databases included. The current prototype does have a PHP back-end, but my goal is to transition to Node. It’s been a fun and very unique project so far.

Data structures seem to be a common thread between my work projects lately. My work involves different ways of organizing data, like JSON, SQL, and associative arrays, and how to communicate that data around different programming frameworks. It’s always satisfying when all the different parts of a system fit together nicely and churn out exactly what you expect.

Future of WordPress – Calypso

November 25, 2015 |

If you’re tuned in to the world of web development, you may have seen some exciting headlines about WordPress recently. WordPress is being completely rewritten in React! WordPress is now built on Node! WordPress is abandoning PHP for newer technologies! While statements like these make for clickable headlines and thrilling tweets, I don’t think they accurately describe what’s actually happening on the web’s largest CMS.

According to this article, WordPress is rolling out their new javascript-heavy web stack for their freely hosted blogging platform, WordPress.com. It is also accessible through their Jetpack plugin, for the millions of site owners who run the WordPress platform on a self-hosted service.  They are calling this new stack implementation “Calypso”.

I’m still not really clear on how this affects the rest of the WordPress backend. Some tech sites and documentation indicate that WordPress is actually moving away from PHP and SQL databases entirely, in favor of Node and JSON. Other articles I’ve read say that Calypso will only affect the view model of the WordPress admin, and the rest of the backend will still be PHP as it has always been.

Javascript stacks have become a big trend in web development over the past few years. The uniformity, speed, and the open-source nature of technologies like Node, React, and JSON are huge benefits to web developers. I’ve only been experimenting with these tools for a few months now, but I’ve really enjoyed the new workflow. I think Calypso shows that WordPress is able to keep pace with the future of web development and strengthens their hold as king of content-management. Calypso may not be that big of an impact on WordPress development just yet, but I think this may be the start of a new era for the platform, and I am definitely excited about it.

Tooling

October 22, 2015 |

There are so many fantastic applications available that make web development go so much smoother.

I’ve been using Sublime Text as my editor of choice for a few years, and it continually surprises me how great it is. I love the level of customization it has. The Augmented Reaction theme is my current color scheme of choice because of the high-contrast green, red, and black.

Sublime’s Package Control is a fantastic and easy-to-use feature for installing editor plugins. Using Package Control, you can get code syntax highlighting for any language or framework out there. Aside from syntax support, these are some plugins I use on a daily basis:

  • Emmet for shorthand typing HTML
  • Hayaku for shorthand typing CSS
  • Git for versioning code right inside the editor
  • CSSComb for formatting CSS

Some other tools I use include:

  • Photoshop for image editing and compressing
  • Illustrator for creating and editing SVGs
  • Terminal with the Homebrew theme (classic green-on-black feels so hardcore) for server stuff

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Jesse Dillman

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