Sunday, April 26, 2009

The "New" Virtual Guidebooks Site

Regular visitors to this site, if they have been watching carefully, might have detected some differences starting about the middle of February. In particular, all the state pages have new maps and the advertising has been redone.

In actuality, this is a completely new site, rebuilt from the ground up. It is intended to closely resemble the old site, retaining the look and feel, navigation, and of course content (the VR panoramas). But under the surface it is completely new.

The old site was begun in 1999 and coded in plain old html, using just a text editor (BBEdit). It grew steadily and I added features as well as content, and the look and feel evolved. But it was still being built with hand-crafted static html (mostly using Adobe GoLive). Making universal changes got increasingly difficult as the page count rose into the tens of thousands. It was also very arduous to add new content and ferret out errors.

So when I finished my last trip of the year in mid-October 2008 I decided it was time to start over and rebuild the site using up-to-date software. Primarily, this meant coding the pages in php, formatting them with CSS, and pulling the variable data from a MySQL database.

Since I had little experience with CSS and none at all with php/MySQL this involved a lot of learning and experimentation, not to mention a whole shelf of books. I am also very grateful to Markus Altendorff (of the WWP team) for his invaluable advice. It was fun making succesive breakthroughs - my first functional php page, my first successful database access, my first floating page design, and adding details that made for a more interactive interface.

Ironically, the new site has been coded almost entirely using BBEdit, back to the reliable tools that I started with.

I was tempted to go much further with the new opportunities presented by the dynamic page approach, but decided that getting the content back on line was most important. So I settled on a "brute force" method of accessing database info, where some variables are typed into the page, rather than extracted logically. This allowed me to start entering content and actually see some functional pages. By Christmas I had working versions of pages at all levels. The code behind them was horribly crude, but that can be fixed later.

The largest part of the job, though, has not been design or programming, but managing the data. First I had to do a thorough housecleaning of the site contents, organizing 7000 panoramas (each in two sizes) into folders within folders within folders, and regularizing the file names. This allowed me to implement a careful geographic restructuring, with provision for future expansion. At this time I also did triage to separate finished panos ready for publication from old not-so-good panos to be withdrawn, and new panos not yet ready. Generic pages were copied into the folders, ready to recieve their contents from the database, and the whole opus uploaded to the server (about 39,000 pages).

The descriptive data, which had previously been typed into multiple locations with minor variations (metadata, various lists, pano page captions) had to be captured from the old pages and massaged into the new database fields. At each level this got more arduous - 26 state pages (no big deal), 72 guidebook pages (a couple of days), 1915 locality pages (yikes!) and finally the agonizing drudgery of 7398 panorama pages. The pano page data is still not final - tweaking the fields for optimal results when used variously as metadata, captions, and on lists will be an ongoing project.

Several times I had to take a break from this huge task, for mental health and because I have other responsibilites. So during this time I also redrew the state page maps, set up the WWP Foundation, helped run the WWP's Best of 2008 event, gave a couple of public lectures ("A Virtual Tour of the National Parks" is my latest show), supervised a home repair project (that turned out to be much larger than expected), played around with Flash panoramas, and took time off for family Thanksgiving and Christmas. What I didn't do was travel, take new VR panoramas, or process any old ones. (One exception, a weekend trip to Yosemite during a snowstorm in February, too tempting to pass up!)

The final two stages of the site remake were tough. A high priority was to re-think my advertising strategy. First I had to get rid of the banners for defunct TravelPackets and the ancient Amazon banners. The navbars at all levels point to sections on Books, Prints and Posters, so I had to do a quick makeover of my books and posters sections. The third category, Prints, refers to art-quality prints of my own work, a project that I am very anxious to get started on (re-started, actually, see my earlier Blog article on prints). The banners across the top are now dedicated to Google AdSense, while the small square ads along the right side currently feature my own bookstores and lists. But in the future I may choose to sell this advertising space.

The second part of the final stage is problematic - writing introductory text for every state, guidebook and locality page. I think this is important, it makes the site more truly a series of guidebooks, telling you a bit about each area as well as showing you selected views. But the creative challenge of writing these short intros, one after another, has proved daunting. I did manage to provide something (not necessarily the final version) for each of the states and guidebooks by the time the site was released. But the locality text (arguably the most important, explaining each little cluster of images) has got me temporarily down for the count. To see what it will look like when finished (eventually), browse through Nevada, the only state with complete intro text at all levels (state, guidebook, locality).

On a humorous note, during the creation of the new site I used placeholder text, the standard "Lorem ipsum", so I could see how the text blocks would fit into the page design. My wife had never encountered this before and was really mystified to see all that Latin on my site! The dummy text has now all been removed, I think, but if you see some fragment of Latin remaining, now you know why.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Praesent commodo libero sed pede. Duis adipiscing libero consectetur neque. Nam eget lacus. Integer volutpat egestas lorem. Cras porttitor. Mauris pharetra turpis aliquam magna. See the Wikipedia article for more information on Lorem ipsum.

So what, specifically, is better about the new site?

  • error-free navigation - links and navbars are now created from the database
  • cleaner navigation, no separate fullscreen and standard locality pages
  • all panos are available in both standard and fullscreen sizes which open in new window
  • older and not-so-good panos no longer appear on the site
  • new introductory text on all state and guidebook pages - more like a real guidebook :-)
  • new introductory text on locality pages, appearing steadily as I write
  • new improved state page maps
  • tool-tips on all navbars and clickable maps
  • thumbnail maps on the navigation bars are clickable! - go to any state on the map with one click
  • almost all the top level pages (Help, About, How, etc.) have been rewritten and new ones have been added
  • there are context-sensitive ads (provided by Google) at the top of every non-pano page (please click them!)
  • a Google custom search box on every non-pano page
  • ads for my book lists and (potentially) other relevant items down the right side (non-pano pages)
  • an Amazon search box at the bottom of each column of book ads
  • updated and expanded book pages for every state
  • new and updated special book lists (waterfalls, California literature, notable authors)
  • updated poster pages (?)
  • new never-before-published panoramas of San Francisco, East Mojave, Canyonlands, and others
  • new panoramas (from summer 2008) will start appearing soon, the pages and database are all set up for them
  • future panoramas will appear on the site sooner after they are taken (once I catch up!)
  • Hopefully my next blog will be to introduce some major new sets of panoramas.

    New and Old Panoramas - Missing in Action

    In the year 2008 I set a new personal record for VR photography - I took 1377 panoramas in thirteen states. This expanded the scope of my site to include four new states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri) and filled in many gaps.

    Usually I spend the fall and winter catching up on the photography that I did during the summer. But this year I kept traveling until mid-October, then started immediately on other projects (the new database-driven site and the WWP Foundation). So the new databased version of the site (launched mid-February) was missing about 900 panoramas taken in 2008.

    Additionally, my new site policy is not to publish any panoramas for which I cannot present both standard and fullscreen versions. This immediately eliminates almost everything done on film, mostly taken before 2000. But also there were a few instances (as in Alaska) where I rushed to get standard size versions on the site, and never went back to make fullscreens. The bottom line is that I have removed almost a thousand older panoramas from the site, including most of Alaska and the northern parts of Canada.

    My oldest panoramas, done on film, often now have historic value, and I would like to bring them back. Re-scanning the original negative film is a big task, though, so it may not get done completely, or soon. But many panos that I took toward the end of the film era have good scans and it will be fairly easy to re-make them and get them back on the site - all the code is already there in the pages, it is just commented out.

    If I bring back a whole batch of old VR's I will mention it in this blog, especially if it restores or completes an entire section. First and easiest to do will be Northern British Columbia, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, then Alaska. After that it gets problematic, with panos scattered throughout the site, and some of them not worth the effort to reprocess (many of them have subsequently been re-photographed).

    Similarly, each time I finish up with a group of new panos I will announce it here. I look forward to posting some great new views of Utah, Nebraska and South Dakota from my Oregon Trail trip (taken in July 2008); the redwoods, Oregon coast and Portland from my Oregon Coast trip (August); and Bryce Canyon, Great Basin National Park, the White Mountains, and Owens Valley from my Fall Color trip (October).

    My immediate priority, though, is not to rebuild the older parts of the site, but to get back out on the road and take more pictures!