Tools for Transparency: Open Atrium


Today, our guest post is written by Joshua Gay, a programmer, activist, and community organizer whose interests revolve around technology, government, education, and computer user freedom.

My personal interest in the Open Atrium project came about this past fall when I began volunteering to help with the Public Equals Online Wiki. The so-called “PEO” Wiki has a lot of potential for being a good place to coordinate and collaborate on state and national transparency initiatives and projects. However, the software it is built-upon, MediaWiki, needs to be highly customised in order to make it a compelling platform for a community to start using. In my efforts to customize and improve the wiki, I have been using the features and design of Open Atrium as a sort of roadmap for improving the wiki in hopes that I can make it a more useful, powerful, and compelling tool for the transparency community.

The Open Atrium project describes itself as a “part intranet, part do-it-yourself project with a kick of open source hotness,” and it certainly is one of the hottest Drupal-based projects out there. Its feature list is impressive, and for many organisations or web-based communities, I could imagine it becoming the primary tool for both project management and development. Here is a quick snapshot of it’s six biggest features:

Case Tracker – Open Atrium is designed around the principle of users and groups. Every group on the system can create an unlimited number of projects within the Case Tracker, and within each project you can create to-do items. Each item can be organized and prioritized according to categories or milestones, assigned to group members, and discussions and progress notifications on to-do items can be made through a nested commenting system.

Calendar – Although not feature rich as Google calendar, Open Atrium’s calendar does present events in a similar, colorful fashion, supports single or multiday features, and syncs with calendars that support iCal.

Blog – This blog contains all of the basic features you would expect with nested commenting, file attachments, and granular notification system. But, what I think makes this blogging system unique is that it is integrated into the system, and therefore, blog posts can be used as a way to discuss projects and share ideas with other members of your group and community as well as with the outside world.

Shoutbox – This Twitter-like update system is a great way to share quick updates with your group members. What I like best about the Shoutbox is that it integrates a social element into the rest of the workflow.

Documents – This is a simple, but nice collaborative document editor that supports: attachments, a revision system with a nice way to compare different versions, and a nice built print function that allows you to export and share the final product.

Dashboard – The Dashboard is where the entire system comes together and gives you a snapshot of all the activity happening across your groups. It is designed around “widgets” (like iGoogle), where users can add, remove, or arrange the widgets on the dashboard however they like. And, of course, it includes a Twitter-feed widget.

One exciting aspect about the design of Open Atrium is that its developers have designed it around the principle of features being designed like “plug-ins.” Hopefully, as adoption grows, we will also a growing list of optional features that you can add to your own custom instance of Open Atrium.

I believe that Open Atrium is a powerful tool for transparency, not only for its potential use by government agencies (which would be amazing — imagine a legislative feature!), but also an important tool for the transparency movement.