The IT Factor, Part 1:  Coming Attractions

By Daniel Lucas |  June 23, 2020  |   News
Image

This will be the first in a series of posts discussing Phase 1 of the membership database redesign project. 

The intent of this post is to give a little insight about the process that got us to this point, and to outline what additional information will be covered in subsequent posts.

Didn’t we go through a web project a few years ago? 

Back in 2014, US Chess did embark upon a project to convert the web site into WordPress.  The first part of the conversion resulted in the style you see on the main page of USChess.org now.  That part of the conversion was a success.  However, it became clear that converting the rest of the site was a task that was too big to handle on the relatively meager resources US Chess had at the time.  The reason is that the databases that undergird our website would have to be dramatically overhauled to unify the various areas of USChess.org.  That level of expertise turned out to be both outside our price range and outside the capabilities of our partner at the time.

This new database will be crucial to the future ability of US Chess to provide up-to-date information, services, and communication to its members while also reducing the amount of staff time required to maintain our systems and maintain accurate financial and donor records.  It will also allow us to modernize and unify the various areas of our website in Phase 2 of this project.

When is this happening?

As Executive Director Carol Meyer noted in her previous post on this topic, the scheduled date for Phase 1 to go live is Tuesday, July 7 through Thursday, July 9.  We are allowing three days for the migration process.  The expectation is that it won’t take that long.  However, when moving large numbers of records to a new constituency relationship management (CRM) system, it’s good to plan for the unexpected. 

Why did you pick those dates?

The launch dates were chosen to address several priorities. 

  • We promised during the 2019 Delegates Meeting to have a new membership system in place for the 2020 Delegates Meeting. 
  • We wanted to launch the new database during a period that generally sees a lower amount of tournament activity and thus presents less disruption to our members. 
  • We wanted to avoid the busiest days of the week for member-related transactions, which for our users would be Friday through Monday. 
  • We also wanted to avoid doing this at the same time a monthly rating supplement is created. 

Wait…wasn’t this supposed to only affect behind-the-scenes stuff?

The original plan was to split the project into two phases.  That has not changed.  What has changed is the contents of the two phases. 

Phase 1, as described in the proposal request publicized for bidding, was entirely focused on pulling our database into a new, more modern content management system.  Under this plan, there would have been no front-end changes. 

Our partner, Skvare, had to learn a great deal about our organization’s history, business rules, data needs and member/affiliate needs to design a system that would serve all of those ends at once, while also modernizing the data structure, which will help US Chess with maintenance and adaptability.  During this extensive learning process, two very important things were discovered that greatly changed our plan. 

First, CiviCRM (the CRM suite that we will be using for our new membership database) operates most effectively in the Drupal content management system (CMS).  Therefore, it was essential that our website be housed in Drupal as well.  So, one major change has already been delivered – namely, the WordPress portions of USChess.org have been moved into Drupal.  As many of you know, there are several different areas of the website, and there are two other CMS systems powering those.  Those areas will be addressed in Phase 2.

Second, it became clear that US Chess would gain a great deal of functionality, and save on future development costs, if we moved some areas of the Phase 2 portion of the project into Phase 1.  With much of the front end housed in Drupal, it became possible to implement those changes immediately, delivering some updated and/or new functionality to the public.

This required a great deal of analysis and discussion between Skvare and US Chess, plus the approval of the Executive Board to shift additional funds into Phase 1.  That approval was given during the January EB meeting.  This pivotal decision of the Executive Board, driven by the recommendation of the Executive Director, has proven even more prescient in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. 

So what changes will I see?

There will be quite a few new features, as well as updated current features, in the Phase 1 launch.  

  • MSA changes.  MSA stands for “Member Services Area”.  Most of you know this as the place where you go to look up ratings.  It’s also the place where you go to look up past tournament information, as well as club/affiliate information.  As a result, it is the most heavily used area of our website, receiving over 60% of all traffic.  However, the way things are displayed in MSA is going to change significantly.   Also, there will be additional search options in MSA. 
  • Single sign-on.  As many of you know, there are several places that require one to log into parts of the US Chess website.  These areas include the Members Only Area, the Forums, and the Tournament Director and Affiliate (TD/A) area.  Additionally, there is also a personal identification number (PIN) system that is used to authenticate members’ identities.  A major goal of this project has been to ultimately eliminate the need for all these different logins.  Now, members will be able to use one login and one password, which will give access to most areas of USChess.org that the member is entitled to have.  This will also allow for certain personal information to be maintained directly by the member.
  • New TLA system.   TLA stands for “Tournament Life Announcements.”  These are the list of tournament ads that you see at the back of Chess Life and Chess Life for Kids.  This extends to data entry, which consumes a great deal of time.  Additionally, TLAs that appear in print have a lot of shorthand.  This is necessary to reduce line count, which is how TLA charges have been calculated for decades.  So, we currently have a system that costs organizers more to list a TLA, costs US Chess more staff time to enter the TLA, and costs users (especially new members and scholastic parents/coaches) frustration in understanding the shorthand used in a TLA.  This new system will lower the cost of placing a TLA, greatly reduce the amount of staff time required to enter a TLA, and will encourage organizers to use more plain-language verbiage in their announcements, making them easier to read.  Finally, TLAs will be searchable by both event type and by radial distance from a central ZIP code – a feature that is not currently available due to the way the TLA system is designed.
  • Voucher system changes.  Vouchers are low-cost group memberships, designed for use by scholastic players.  They are a major tool in helping affiliates provide affordable memberships for students.  As currently implemented, though, they require a lot of staff time to maintain and track.  There will be a new, web-driven purchase mechanism for voucher blocks that will make getting vouchers faster for an organization.  This mechanism will also allow for individual vouchers redeemable online and will automate many of the maintenance processes for voucher memberships.

When can I see more information about these systems?

Over the next few weeks, there will be posts about each of the above areas.  The posts will go into greater detail about what new/changed features will be present.  Where applicable, there will be screenshots to help users become more comfortable with the systems before they’re launched. 

Please note that the systems are now in testing.  As a result of that testing, some of the layout or user flow that is described in the blog posts may change.  We will do our best to update the individual blog posts with those changes as they happen.  However, what you will see in the blog posts will largely be what is rolled out next month.

So what’s NOT changing?

The major thing to remember here is that the work that’s been done since last fall is aimed primarily at updating the membership database to provide greater functionality.  Most of the changes, therefore, will be very visible to staff.  However, this is not intended to launch a completely new website.  While the WordPress portions have been converted to Drupal, their appearance is the same. 

Phase 1 of this project will not be overhauling the parts of the website that were not in WordPress.  So, many of the pages you see will be generated from the same systems that currently house them.  For example, when you look up a member’s ratings, the member record will appear exactly as it does now.

Phase 2 of the project will involve converting much of the remaining legacy systems to the Drupal CMS.  The work being done in Phase 1 sets up that conversion.  There may be some layout or format changes as all the areas are integrated into one look and feel, but that will not occur until Phase 2.  That phase is on hold for the time being because of the fiscal uncertainty introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What can I do to prepare for this new system?

Perhaps the single most important thing that every member could do is this:  have a functioning email address as part of your member record!  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  In fact, if you can have a unique email address as part of your record, that would be even better. 

We do understand that many members are under the age of 18, and we know many parents have concerns about their kids having email addresses.  However, email addresses are a part of most kids’ lives these days.  Many school districts, in fact, issue unique email addresses to their students.  And many organizations require unique email addresses as a condition of registration, regardless of age.

Please note, US Chess is not requiring that members have email addresses as a condition of membership.  However, an email address will be necessary to access many new features of the systems we are rolling out, both in Phase 1 and Phase 2. 

So, if you do not have an email address on record, please contact membership@uschess.org with your name, ID number, and desired email address.  Also, please make sure that email from the USChess.org domain can reach your inbox, which will allow you to receive communications from US Chess.  A parent or guardian could also choose to have their own email address on file as part of a child’s member record, which many parents currently do. 

Email addresses are completely free to obtain.  There are many providers of free email addresses with Web access, and most have dedicated apps as well.

So how much will all this cost, anyway?

This project will cost US Chess approximately $1.25 million across the two phases – money that we simply did not have in the last project.  The money for both phases was already in the bank before we launched Phase 1.  The financial planning and foresight of the EB and the ED’s office over the last five years put us in position to launch this ambitious undertaking. 

One final note…

Maintaining a website with as much data, from as many disparate sources, as USChess.org has, really requires a group of professionals.  Well, we haven’t had the money for that, yet we’ve managed to have a reasonably effective IT presence.  While many people have had a hand in our IT operations from time to time, one person has been around through all the changes.  Mike Nolan managed, for over 30 years, to not only keep these systems going, but also expand them to meet our needs at any given time.  It’s a testament to his abilities that many of our systems still work, even those that have been in place with essentially the same code base for almost three decades.

His contributions, both to the IT infrastructure and member database, are immeasurable.  His technical expertise and deep understanding of our business processes have been invaluable during Phase 1 of this project and will be called upon again during Phase 2.  Every person who uses any of these systems owes him a debt of gratitude.

Share Your Feedback

We recently completed a website update. If you notice a formatting error on this page, please click here.