LocalGov Drupal Camp 2024

April 23rd, 2024 saw the first LocalGov Drupal Camp, held at the Birmingham Council buildings in Birmingham city center.

It's been ages since I attended an in person Drupal Camp in the UK, so when I saw that the LocalGov Drupal people were organising one just down the road for me I jumped at the chance to grab a ticket.

LocalGov Drupal is a distribution that combines Drupal, some configuration, some contributed modules, and some glue code with the aim of making it easier for councils to generate sites.

The LocalGov Drupal logo.

The initiative was started a few years ago where two councils (Brighton & Hove City Council & Croydon Council) decided to re-use some of their Drupal work and create a system that they could both benefit from. There are now 44 different councils around the UK who use the distribution in some capacity.

I work with a few of the councils in my day job and I have been really impressed by the power of the distribution. The fact that it is also backed up by a dedicated team of developers really helps with support and future development of the project.

Introductions

The day started with a few introductions and thank you messages, followed by a number of lightning talks from various members of the community.

This included a talk by Duncan Davidson from Rohallion, who has built a election reporting system using the available systems with the LocalGov Drupal platform. This included the ability to drill into the data to get more information on the counts per area, and even a map view that shows the election results. This was a really interesting looking system that was built for a single council, but work is being done to expand this onto other councils who would like to do the same.

Lizzi Cox from Bracknall Forest Council showed us the website they have created, including an explanation of some of the challenges involved in getting things up and running. Some compromises where made in getting things live, and they have been working on solving them to improve the site. They used a combination of paragraphs and layouts in order to manage the content on pages.

Alex from Greenwich showed us some of the difficulties they had with their existing community directory. The directory had out of date content and would often crash so it wasn't trusted by the public. Working with OutPost and LocalGov Drupal they have been able to convert the community directory into a system that they can manage effectively with a small team.

Microsites

After a quick break we had the first break out session of the day, and I chose to attend the microsites talk by Finn Lewis. Microsites are a part of the LocalGov Drupal system that use a combination of the Group and Domain modules to produce sites that exist within the main Drupal site, but are separated by the permissions of the Group module. These two modules do not have this functionality out of the box and so some glue code has been written to allow this to work. This includes work to allow things like the EU cookie compliance module to work with the setup.

The first thing that Finn went through was if a microsite was actually a good thing to do. Whilst it is possible to do this, the ability to create a microsite can introduce certain difficulties due to the use of the Domain module and the special permissions that the Group module adds. He said that if the solution can be solved by adding normal content pages to the site then that's the approach that should be preferred.

Nevertheless, the system exists and so Finn took us through some of the future plans for the system. Deploying the microsites can be a painful process as it requires DNS changes that often lie outside the remit of most council web teams so work is being done to try and help with this process, mostly in the form of documentation. Other enhancements like microsite alerts (expanding on a feature of LocalGov Drupal), search API integration, redirects, sitemap.xml, and even Google Tag Manager improvements are being worked on currently.

If you are interested in the LocalGov Drupal micosites work then there is a monthly microsites meetup event that discusses current progress and offers help to existing microsite users.

We then had a session where a number of unconference sessions were pitched. The sessions were written down and we broke for lunch to do some voting.

Unconference

The first session I attended after lunch was the second part of the user experience session that had taken place in the morning. I didn't manage to attend that session as I had attended the microsites session, so I wanted to see what the conclusions in part two would be.

The first thing we did was to go around everyone in the room as an introduction. This showed me what a wide variety of different skills and backgrounds were present at the conference. Just in the room there were content editors, project managers, web masters, Drupal developers, and even a couple of system administrators. It was really great to see a wide cross section of experience attending and everyone was keen on learning from each other.

After this we went though the findings of the first session, which was a series of post-it nodes across the wall. These showed some of the priorities that the LocalGov team are looking at currently.

The second session I attended at the unconference was about Solr and its use in LocalGov Drupal, hosted by Duncan Davidson from Rohallion. The integration between Drupal and Solr is done via the Search API modules, which is the right way of going about things in Drupal. The discussion looked at using Solr to solve a number of content search problems, like suggestions, sorting, and even mutli-site searching. There was probably too many people at the session for the space we had available, but it was interesting to see some of the challenges people have when setting up search systems in Drupal.

Conclusion

It was really good to bump into a few people that I know from the Drupal community; but also to meet people from councils that I have had professional contact with in the past. Meeting clients in a relaxed atmosphere was great as I got to know them a little more, which is something that doesn't really happen when chatting over video conferences. It was also good to get a bit of back story on what they have been working on and what their motivations are (not just surrounding their project work).

The LocalGov Drupal initiative and ecosystem is a real eye opener for people who have been used to closed source and proprietary systems. I heard a couple of times during the camp that people were just really impressed that different companies would get together and share ideas and expertise just because that was the right thing to do. I think the Drupal community in general would really benefit from this initiative and the work being done to improve Drupal's interface. Module maintainers can learn a lot from the usability research being done on their modules.

Everything was really timed and the organisers were really on top of making sure that sessions ran on time and that everyone felt accommodated and welcome. Massive thanks to the Tim, Aaron, Will and the other people involved in putting the camp together.

If you are interested, outside of the camp there are a is a slack channel you can join and also a number of monthly events that you can attend to contribute to a specific part of LocalGov Drupal. There is also an extensive documentation site that will detail how to use many of the components in the system. The LocalGov Drupal community is just as friendly and welcoming as the wide Drupal community.

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