Collecting the Internet So You Don't Have To

We work on the Internet. As such, we are constantly consuming information. Believe me, there is a lot of it out there. Sometimes we even forget things unless we write them down. Our blog covers everything from web standards to the muppets, php to comic books, music and everything else that we find interesting. Leave us a note when you drop by.

Building A Better Basecamp Dashboard

Wil Alambre
Wil Alambre Senior Programmer
Visual Lizard
1 (204) 957-5520 ext:152
1 (888) 237-9559
Wil Alambre Whiteboard Ninja

Last year when Basecamp updated to a newer version, we decided to stick to the original system (now referred to as Basecamp Classic). Like many agencies, we use Basecamp Classic to track our time on tasks, on to-do lists, and on projects overall. It's our auditing, our billable hours, our time estimates on future projects, etc. Since then, services have popped up to added time tracking to the new Basecamp, but we weren't keen on paying extra fees to share our info with another third-party if we didn't have to.

Basecamp Classic does an... okay job of providing an overview of everything you're working on. Its strength is with individual projects, but the system has a dashboard that summarizes upcoming events and recent project activity. But it never really felt good enough. Not quite sorted the way we wanted, not quite showing the information we wanted.

Turns out, Basecamp Classic has some well documented APIs. If the default dashboard doesn't work the way we want, we can just build one that did!

The idea of an alternate dashboard for Basecamp classic isn't a new one. Basecamp maintains an extras pag on their website with plenty of choices. But one of the advantages of being a professional web development studio is that we're fully capable of customizing a solution to our own particular needs. And as a bonus, it gives us the opportunity to pull in outside information into the mix… making tthe result less of a vanilla Basecamp dashboard, and more of a Visual Lizard dashboard.

Originally, we thought of this as something to have up on our wall, ala Panic's Status Board. As we pulled in more data, refined the sorting, marked things we should be paying attention to, it became everyone's go-to page. It's how we watch what's happening overall.

We went through several interations, cherry-picking what and how data was laid out. Like all good dashboards, it shouldn't be overwhelming us with absolutely everything. Just just has to provide a bird's-eye-view; flag anything that might need attention, and trust us to have the tools we need to interpret it in more depth.

Putting the time and date on a dashboard when its already available on every device you already own may seem redundant, but its invaluable to have it there to give context to all other information.

The upcoming events and milestones get pulled directly out of Basecamp's calendars, but shown with a little more information. The time the event is happening and the project its related to is made prominent. Currently-happening events get highlighted, and past events get scratched out as the day passes.

Staff emails are linked to our individual IMAP inboxes, giving us counts of everyone's unread messages and total emails. This, along with a count of hours worked in the past week help us flag people who could use a hand with their to-do lists.

The list of Basecamp projects smack in the middle is our main upgrade. It's fed by Basecamp's recent activity dashboard, but purposely skews the results to create an engagement priority. Messages, comments, and files contributed by a client are highlighted in blue. To-do items, SVN commits, and our internal communications get less importance. If we haven't responded to client activity within a short timeframe, the project gets flagged in red and jumps higher up the list; it's purposely weighted sorting, reminding us to communicate with our clients in a timely manner.

Site monitoring is an in-house service we've built to watch over launched websites. If a site goes red, we know there's a connection issue we should be looking at. Server monitoring works the same way, but for the entire machines we're using for hosting, rather than individual sites. Between these two services, we're proactive about our technical support responses.

Adding the latest twitter posts to the dashboard provides us the same engagement reminder as the basecamp projects; when a reply or mention is made, it shows up right there, making sure we see it and respond. And the weather? There so we know how much we have to bundle up during lunch :)

Somewhere during development, this dashboard went from a side-project to an essential part of our daily routine. We have a better idea of who's working on what, on where people are when they're out of the office, and of where a client might have posted a message if they've forgotten to check any staff off to notify. Less is slipping through the cracks. More is getting acted on quicker. Individual habits went by the wayside as we tweaked the dashboard to solve problems. The number of post-it notes and scrawled reminders visibly dropped (though not the number of Field Notes subscriptions).

That's when we knew we had something great. Not just a customized dashboard of Basecamp Classic, nor just a better overview of our in-progress work. We have the capability of taking something good, and make it great. Even if only for ourselves.

Today We Lost Something More Than Jokes

Julian Moffatt
Julian Moffatt CEO / Partner
Visual Lizard
1 (204) 957-5520 ext:1
1 (888) 237-9559
Julian Moffatt Purveyor of Good Times

In recent years there have been countless acts of terror around the world from 9/11 to suicide bombings to drone attacks in response to the latest round of extremist acts. Today, however, something different happened. Two armed gunmen attacked a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and murdered 12 people in what can only be described as an act of insanity rather than terrorism.

If you have not been following pop culture much in the past few years, Charlie Hebdo routinely lampooned all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others. Recently there had been threats towards the newspaper because of some of the cartoons they came up with that included drawings of the Prophet Muhammed.

Today, two completely misguided individuals decided it was worth their lives to take the lives of people who have been working to open the eyes of everyone around the world. As I write this, I can't think of any rational response that would make any sense. None of this makes sense. They were cartoons, meant to make people laugh, think, and feel. Little drawings meant to provoke emotion, thought, and realization that maybe things can be different.

It doesn't take a strong hand to pull a trigger on an unarmed person. It doesn't take a skilled military mind to storm an office full of artists and journalists armed with pens and pencils. That is something cowards, who are afraid to look at themselves and their beliefs, do.

One of the artists murdered today, Charb, was quoted recently as saying "I would rather die standing than live on my knees" when asked if they took the threats seriously. I can't think of a more rational, brave or noble stance to take in the face of irrationality such as this.

All of us around the office are shocked and sad at this sensless act. Our thoughts are with the victims and the families of the injured and dead.

Hopefully something good comes of all this, but right now I can't see what ... #JeSuisCharlie