WPHMI: Help me investigate for wordpress

WPHMI - Help me investigate for your blog

A little while back I had an email from Paul Bradshaw asking me what I know about wordpress themes. He wanted to know how easy it would be to create a Help me investigate theme for wordpress.

If you don’t know what Help me investigate is then, in summary, it was an innovative service that allowed people to start and manage crows sourced investigations – go and take a look at the site (and blog). The site itself is no longer running but the code for the original site is still being developed 

The result of that initial contact is a plugin called WPHMI (WordPress Help me investigate). It takes the basic principle of HMI and integrates it in to a wordpress blog.

Why a plugin and not a theme?

Hold on Andy! Didn’t Paul ask about developing a theme not a plugin?

Developing WPHMI as a theme (a whole skin for a blog) fitted with my thinking that someone looking to set up HMI on a blog would probably set up a blog just for that. i.e. They would start a new blog that only covered the subject of the investigation. But the more I played around the more I thought that people may also want to integrate investigations in to an existing blog. They may already have established the blog within their community and building another resource away from there may make managing things tricky. So I moved on to the idea of plugin pretty quickly.

Whilst that may be more flexible in terms of integrating the functionality, integrating the design is less successful. By fitting in to an existing blog you also have to fit in with the design and given the thousands of themes out there, thats no mean feat. So the plugin is designed (at the moment) to fit in with the standard Twenty-Ten theme.

Again the idea is that you could install wordpress, install and activate the plugin and have things working ‘straigh-out-of the box’. *

How does it work?

The plugin page has a brief set of instructions but from a technical point of view…The plugin works by adding two new custom-post types – Investigations and Challenges –  and a custom user – Investigation Contributor. You create an investigation and associate challenges for investigation contributors to complete. It also adds a new taxonomy called Topics which is used to organise the investigations by theme.

Technically speaking, the management of who is working on a challenge, whether the challenge is complete or whether an investigation is finished is done using custom data in the custom posts. This has it’s limitations compared to running a whole new table in the database to hold the data but there you go. I did explore the idea of parent and child relationships to manage investigations and challenges but I couldn’t get my head round it.

What’s next

I’m not sure. The plugin works but it is basic. There is a lot of tweaking and I’m sure some proper programmers and wordpress people will know better ways to do what I have done (or be able to correct the rubbish coding I have used). But, in the spirit of HMI, I wanted to put it out there and see what people made of it.

But I do have a list of things that I would like to  add/do time willing

  • Custom RSS feeds for investigations and challenges – there are feeds for each of the topics.
  • A dashboard widget that tracks investigations and challenges
  • Make CSS more generic to improve compatibility with other themes

Maybe I should set-up a blog using the plugin to investigate improving it!

Important things to say

The plugin wouldn’t have happened if Paul hadn’t suggested it. The concept, format and design is all down to the original creators of the site:

The site was conceived by Paul Bradshaw, developed with Nick Boothand built by Stef Lewandowski. Journalists involved in the site have included Heather BrookeJames Ball and Colin Meek.

If you do decide to take the code and do more with it, that should always be made very clear in what you do. Credit them above all else.

I should also note that the plugin uses slightly modified version of a Meta-box script by Tran Ngoc Tuan Anh to create the meta boxes on the post pages.

So if you want to download the plugin and have a play then take a look at the WPHMI page for more.

* I know that wordpress now ships with TwentyEleven! If this plugin lives for any length of time in its current form then I would look at ‘phasing out twentyten support’ 🙂 

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