Server scripts, Web calendars and form handlers

One of my recent projects has been designing and building a Web platform for Community Emergency Response Teams. CERTs are local organizations that exist to provide emergency services such as fire suppression, medical assistance and search and rescue as both first responders as well as a backup to or, if things are really bad, a replacement for official services in times of disaster.

We're up to beta stage, having just gotten the thumbs-up from the county we're working with.

The key issues are to provide a home for each individual CERT where citizens can find out when courses are available and provide contact with the organization to ask questions and sign up for training.

COMPARISON: Linux PHP vs. Windows ASP for Web hosting

So, we needed a way to support calendars for each CERT, which led me to a calendar system written in PHP called extCalendar 2.

What I needed was a calendar that could be edited by inexpert users and could be integrated with a website so that it had a consistent look and feel with the rest of the content. The problem is that there really aren't a lot of choices; the majority are clumsy and or downright ugly and making them a seamless part of a website is hard work.

ExtCalendar was promising for several reasons. First, it is really nice looking. Second, site managers can be given limited access with a name and password. Third, it is well-commented and reasonably well-architected so that untangling the code isn't impossible. Fourth, the hosting company we use, Bluehost, offers script installation and management via a third party called SimpleScripts.

If you run Linux or FreeBSD with Apache 1.3+ and PHP 4.1+ (with Safe Mode Off), SimpleScripts makes installing and managing of more than 70 Web applications painless and even handles upgrades. I'll give SimpleScripts a rating of 5 out 5.

One of the applications supported by SimpleScripts is the aforementioned extCalendar, and installation on my Bluehost account was a matter of a few clicks and keystrokes.

ExtCalendar is actually pretty easy to configure and hack. I made a few changes that removed the default menu bar and changed some of the behavior of the user interface, and voila! It did the job quite nicely.

Of course, as we developed our ideas about what is needed we've come to realize that extCalendar is actually more than is needed. I'm now exploring some simpler database solutions but if I ever need a general calendar again, I might well turn to extCalendar again. ExtCalendar gets a rating of 4 out of 5.

One component of the service, the form for people to contact the CERT organizers, led me to use a third-party service called JotForm instead of simply building a form that would call the system mail services.

JotForm provides a really slick form creation and editing interface and builds very sophisticated embeddable forms with the email routing of the form content. The service is also compelling because it is free for up to 100 submissions per month and only $9.95 per month for up to 1,000 submissions (other account levels are also available).

For a more in-depth look at JotForm check out this week's issue of my Network World Web Applications Alert newsletter. JotForm gets a rating of 5 out of 5.

So, now we're onto the next iteration of the CERT platform design and I'm looking at some other strategies for editing and displaying course schedules that will rely on iCal generators, RSS feeds and JavaScript widgets. If I have the opportunity we may look at some of these tools in a few weeks.

In the meantime, if you've got any recommendations for Web calendars and form creation and handling systems, let me know.

Gibbs is on time and on form in Ventura, Calif. Submit your thoughts to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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Mark Gibbs

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