Building Your Bicycle Club Calendar

Problem Statement

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Calendars for clubs can be a source of frustration. My club has a calendar which periodically has glitches which cause ride leaders no end of irritation. It seems that the calendar software misbehaves at moments when a ride leader is trying to beat the club imposed deadline of announcing the ride at least 72 hours before it launches. But if the software is having hiccups it means that if you cut things too close you might miss an opportunity to have the mileage for you ride count towards the club jersey competition at years end.

The current thinking from the individual who oversees the database application used for the online ride calendar is interesting. Evidently when “the ride schedule page is open to long and/or one tries to correct errors the page returns a server error.”  There are additional instructions about this problem that read:

I’d like to suggest several actions that might help isolate the cause.

  • First, fill in the blanks and post ONCE. If in doubt open the ride schedule to see if the ride updated. Be sure to refresh the page if it’s open.
  • Second, rather than trying to correct errors by deleting merely close the page and open a new instance and start over. Making sure you don’t SUBMIT the page.
  • Third, if you encounter a server MSG close the browser, wait a few seconds and open it again.

My personal experience is that the first step listed solves all the issues

To the non-technical person all of this seems a bit daunting. Imagine having to consider these sorts of things when using the calendar application that comes with your SmartPhone! Any company whose reputation relied on software convenience, accuracy and utility would be in search of the software engineer who wrote this application. He or she would be asked to fix the problem immediately or expect to be looking for a new job.

The software in this instance is something written a few years ago by a club member who is probably not as active as he once was or has moved on to a new home club. Either way my club members are left with a solution which can only be described as disappointing. It would be as if you called your IT department to complain about your work groups file sharing servers behavior and hear that using the server was the source of the problems you were having.

Fixing The Problem

Thinking outside the box is one great way to finding a solution that is simple and thus elegant. Cost is a major concern with any volunteer organization like a bicycle club. When I last approached the club about fixing this issue a suggestion was made that the best way to get things resolved was to buy a subscription to a bicycle club service which had quite a few wonderful features beyond merely handling the ride calendar.

I roundly applaud this idea because it is hopefully going to provide a complete service (including a web interface) that can sustain the club for years to come. But the very fact that it has a cost is something that will make it a difficult sell for many members. In addition there is the one troubling aspect with software systems and that is the tenuousness of the companies that create them.

In many cases these are shoestring operations. A club member finds that his talents as a programmer can serve his fellow cyclists well and he writes an application that solves one set of problems. Everyone likes the fact that its free and it works much better than the paper system they had used before. So he improves on the club calendar features and adds additional modules to handle the membership database and perhaps the photo album display that everyone wants to see online.

Before long he lets another club in the area use the software (for a fee) and he finds himself running a small business. But as is usually the case when all you own is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Software is no different. If you write your application using version 2 of some software development kit (SDK) from Microsoft and it eventually becomes replaced by a totally different SDK you either have to rewrite the entire suit of modules or bury your head and keep patching things together for as long as possible.

And that is exactly where my club is with respect to its listserv-based ride calendar system. The fellow who wrote it is either no longer a club member or is unable to resolve the problem for reasons beyond his control or expertise. It really does not matter which because the result is the same. Club members are having to guess whether their rides are being properly submitted to the ride calendar database. And depending on whether they use the proper format for the ride start information their ride will or will not sort into the calendar listing in the proper order. Usually the ride calendar database manager ends up doing some manual work to get things just right. And that in itself is a real nuisance.

So What Are The Essentials?

Here is a list of things that are required for gaining traction in the adoption of a new system:

  1. The system really needs to be from a third party with deep enough pockets that it can be distributed for FREE.
  2. The system needs to be useful for more than just club rides. After all a club as large as ours has meetings, picnics, community events and more than need to be listed somewhere.
  3. Ease of use is paramount. Clubs are generally comprised of older bicyclists who may have little computer experience and are probably running very old versions of their vendors operating system. That means the solution should be backwardly compatible.
  4. The system should be utterly reliable. Downtime should be non-existent. And there should be plenty of online tutorial information that can be perused to learn how to use the various features of the system.
  5. Any calendar system should be highly integrable with mobile devices of all sorts. That is to say it should be easily viewable on something as small as a SmartPhone screen and the calendar programs running on these devices should allow the club member to update the clubs ride calendar from that device.

Ok. That is a tall order. I can think of only one source for all of these features and that is Google Calendar. I use it with all of my mobile devices. I can update my Google Calendar from my iPhone 4S as well as my iPad. And needless to say my MacBook Pro has no problems at all.

Practical Performance

In my case the Calendar application that Apple uses is the basis for the integration of my devices. All of my devices and my wife’s are tethered to the iCloud. So the first level of integration is between our personal devices. Her iPhone and MacBook Pro calendars are synchronized using iCloud. You create a calendar and then start making entries. We typically have a calendar for our HOME entries and another for RIDES we plan to do. And then there are calendars that we share from the Apple community that include SPORTS, HOLIDAYS and more. In fact we also have a calendar that collects the birthdays of family and friends.

All of these calendars are actually overlays onto the single calendar application. You can visually distinguish where an even goes by look at its color. On my mobile devices the blue entries are RIDES.

The next step is to somehow get the RIDES to migrate over to my Google Calendar. That part is simple. Apple allows me to attached one or more of my calendars to my Google Calendar via ACCOUNTS option under PREFERENCES in the calendar application. I simply make certain that each device has this Google Calendar account and they all reflect any changes that occur to that calendar.

In practical terms I can add a RIDES event to my personal calendar on any of my devices and it will show up on all of them and have been inserted into my Google Calendar as well. And because this Google Calendar has been set up to allow either my wife or myself to serve as administrator it means that if she is updating her RIDES calendar her devices all show the same events and it eventually migrates up to our jointly managed Google Calendar as well.

 Club Level Interactions

Google Calendar allows for the use of OTHER calendars. In fact the ride calendar database manager of our club has a calendar that she created several years ago in which she was keeping track of rides that interested her and I made use of it on my personal calendars. All that was needed is that she inform the rest of the club members of the presence of the calendar and its URL and her entires suddenly started appearing on my personal calendar.

Google has the same sort of feature with respect to other Google calendars. So for instance if the club were to create its very own Google Calendar it could display other Google Calendars using different colors to distinguish between entries. Any personal device pointed at the club’s Google Calendar could “pick up” all entries displayed on that calendar.

In practical terms this means that there really is no need to offer passwords to every club member to update the club’s Google Calendar. Instead you could simply point to the Google Calendar of any club member and have its contents displayed along with those entries entered by club officers for everything from meetings to rides.

If the club were to point to my Google Calendar and I had a calendar reserved solely for RIDES it means that I could post rides I hoped to lead to the club calendar and my own Google Calendar as well as the calendars appearing on my mobile and laptop devices with a single entry from any one of those devices. And the result would be that all my personal calendar information on iCloud as well as my personal Google Calendar and finally the club’s Google Calendar would show all of the RIDES I hoped to lead.

By maintaining two separate personal calendars CLUB-RIDES and PERSONAL-RIDES I could keep my rides with my wife and friends separate from those for my club. And in fact if I belonged to more than one club (say for instance a tandem bicycle club) I could post rides on my personal calendar that pertained to any organization I desired all without having to log-in to a specific club website.

Examples

My Google Calendar information is siphoned off of Google and imported into a database for my website. You can view two views of that data for the current month here. Along the right side of the page are a traditional calendar view and a listing just below it. These two items are updated hourly and both direct you back to the Google source should you ask to read more than just the thumbnail data displayed.

This same Google Calendar information can be displayed as an embedded object on your website page. You can view it here on my site. This embedded format has tabs along the top right edge that allow you to change the appearance of the calendar at will.

A Plug for WordPress

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Of late the WordPress platform has been seeing improvements which confirm that it is a valuable tool for groups. Of course I would be remiss in not mentioning that Google also allows for website creation and its platform is fully integrated with its suite of tools. But I have been using WordPress for over a decade now and really find it wonderful.

What keeps me “coming back” to WordPress are the plug-ins. They are nearly as numerous as the Apps you find for Apple Mobile Devices and are often FREE. Because the WordPress platform is maintained by a group of Open Source Unix programmers it can be said to be of very high quality and soundness. The attention paid to preventing hacker exploitation is much appreciated.

Of late there is has been a movement towards making WordPress useful in mobile device environments. I have been able for about a decade to update my website from my SmartPhone using (wait for it) an iPhone App. I should also mention that this same app is also available for the iPad.

The workflow goes like this:

  • I take some images using the camera in the iPhone and then review them.
  • Next I open WordPress for the iPhone and either edit or create a new blog entry.
  • Where needed I insert images stored in my cameras picture gallery into the blog entry.
  • I can then review the blog entry and submit the entry or wait until I get home to add any final touches. But if you are touring and want to keep your readers up to date you are able to do this all remotely.

You can find all sorts of plug-ins ready to use “out of the box” for managing your club’s website. And what’s more most everything is easy to use and does not have lots of issues. There is a rating system for plug-ins available with the master list online.

“Responsive” WordPress Themes

I am only slightly embarrassed at being such a WordPress fanatic. But frankly this is a platform which really ought to be investigated for its sheer elegance. Besides plug-ins the really neat thing about WordPress sites is how quickly you can change their look and feel. I usually give my site a year or two before changing out its appearance. It helps to keep things “looking fresh”.

The newest idea in website themes is the Responsive-type theme. A couple of years ago I decided to provide an iPhone and iPad friendly theme for my site while keeping the desktop/laptop one active as well. A sniffer detected which device was being used and displayed the one you needed. For the most part it worked quite well. But it was a separate plug-in that cost a bit and sometimes was inadvertently displayed when you were on your desktop machine. This made it a less popular route to choose for web site managers.

With the advent of the latest version of WordPress has come a new type of theme called the Responsive-type. The same theme handles everything for you without having to purchase a separate plug-in for using with mobile devices. Responsive themes in fact are triggered by screen size rather than device type. That is very important because it means that regardless of the brand of tablet or SmartPhone you use the display is consistent across them all.

You can test this out by resizing your browser on your laptop while viewing my site. If you narrow the browser window the theme responds with a “look and feel” suitable for a smaller device. It eliminates the need to scroll from side to side to view the entirety of your site. And the menus across the top of your sites HOME page are immediately converted to a single popup to make access super smooth.

If you are considering using WordPress for your cycling website and you know that there are any number of users who would prefer to update their ride calendars via a mobile device and indeed view them there as well, you might want to consider a Responsive-style theme for you club’s use.