Community portals [was: Seeking fellow cohousing geeks
From: Fred-List manager (
Date: Mon, 7 Jul 2014 04:43:54 -0700 (PDT)
Ken Winter <ken [at]>
is the author of the message below.  It was posted by
Fred, the Cohousing-L list manager <fholson [at]>

There were some glitches in the conversion of Ken's message to text
which cohousing-L distributes so I reformatted it a bit to be more
readable.  I also tweaked the subject line to better reflect the topic.

--------------------  FORWARDED MESSAGE FOLLOWS --------------------

Dear Cohousers,

Sorry I have taken two months to tell you my "idea for an IT project" -
some life events took precedence.  Anyway, here it is:

The most accurate, but rather long-winded, title for the project I have in
mind would be "Cohousing Information Services Integration".  Let me go with
a shorter working name: a "portal" for the members of a cohousing

Here's the pitch:

If your cohousing community is like mine, by its very nature it needs to
provide itself with a lot of different information services.  You need to
keep track of members, committees, who lives where, everybody's contact
info.  You need ways to organize work, meals, and committee activities.
You need ways for people to request and offer shared goods, services, and
other kinds of mutual support.  You need channels for distributing news,
announcements, and emergency alerts.  You need forums for discussing and
debating all sorts of things in our community and in the world.  For
transparent and intelligent governance, you need ready access to our book
of agreements, meeting minutes, and other governing documents; and you need
ways to see and discuss issues and ideas and proposals while they are
works-in-progress.  You need ways to incubate and share creative ideas and
add hard-won lessons learned to our collective wisdom.  You need to keep
accounting records, for example of association fees.  You need to keep
track of the community's stuff - what it is, where it is, how to use it,
how to share it.  You need to reach out to the public in order to attract
prospective new members.  You need calendars of community events.  You need
ways to schedule events and facilities.  And a lot of other information
services, not discovered and invented yet, that could improve life in your

If your cohousing community is like mine, these information services are
implemented in a hodgepodge of different ways.  You use digital apps -
spreadsheets, documents, wikis, databases, email lists, social network
postings, probably a public web site.  You use paper notebooks, documents,
bulletin boards, printed announcements and agendas and rants stuffed in
mailboxes, forms to fill out, post-it notes.  And beyond digital and paper,
you live by face-to-face and word-of-mouth communication: phone calls,
going door-to-door, announcements and dialog at meetings, chance encounters
in the dining room.

The problem (and *opportunity*) of interest here is that the services
are implemented in this fragmented Tower of Babel.  Each service
(whether embodied as a digital app, a piece of paper, or a person) has
its own data, its own way of making itself (or failing to make itself)
known to the community, its own user interface, its own learning curve
for each would-be user.  So most of the time, most community members
who need to look up or record a piece of community information, or who
want to join in a community conversation, have no idea where to go to
accomplish what they need.  So a lot of community processes don't
function anywhere near as well as they could, and a number of
community-enhancing things that could happen don't happen at all.

The purpose of a community portal is to overcome this fragmentation and
make all of your community's information really and readily available to
all of your community.  A portal is a web site (and/or smartphone app) that
provides everyone in your community with a single point of access to
all of your community's information services.  When your community has a
portal, your user experience as a community member goes like this:

   - You have your own user name and password.  Once you sign in with them
   you can look up member and committee info, participate in discussions, read
   the community calendars and add events to it, read community agreements and
   proposals, sign up to cook or eat meals, request or offer things and
   services, and all of the other shared services your community has to

   - When you're signed in, the portal knows who you are, it presents you
   with only the data and services that are appropriate to you, and it puts
   suitable controls on what you can view and change - for example, you can
   update your own contact info, sign yourself up for meals, and post to
   forums under your name, but you can't do any of those things for me (unless
   you have a specific community job that gives you that permission).​

   - What you see on the portal is the most accurate, consistent, and
   up-to-date info that is available, because it all is read "live" out of the
   portal's integrated database. So, for example, if you get a new email
   address, as soon as you update it in the portal, the new address
   immediately shows up in the community directory, in all email lists that
   you participate in, and anyplace else where the Portal shows your email
   address to authorized users.

   - In addition to being available whenever and from wherever you want to
   sign in, the portal proactively sends you emails notifying you of community
   announcements, events, and messages to discussion forums that you want to
   know about.

   - The portal presents everything to you via a consistent (and hopefully
   user-friendly) user interface, so you only have to learn one set of skills
   and habits to use all of the different services.

When it works, a portal first attracts each user by providing some
particular service that that particular person wants or needs.  Then, once
the user is accustomed to use the portal for that purpose, when the user
experiences a need for the next service, there it is on the portal too,
with a much quicker learning curve than the first service.  Each new use
gets easier to do, and gradually the user gets in the habit of going to the
portal whenever they want to know or communicate something with the

Let me mention two things that a community portal is *not:*

   - A portal is not accessible to the public.  If your community has a
   public web site, Facebook page, or other outreach to the world, those
   services don't provide the public with pathways into the portal.  The
   portal, and all the information it contains, is available to current
   members of your community only.

   - A portal is not an attempt to replace face-to-face communication with
   computer screens and keyboards.  It is an attempt to make the kinds of
   communication that can be done electronically work as well as possible, so
   as to free our time and energy for the richer kinds of communication that
   can only happen in person.

Can we create portals for our cohousing communities?  And if so, how?  I
have some experience creating portals for other organizations, and here's
how it looks to me at this point:

   - While it ain't always as easy or quick or certain as my above scenario
   for a portal may imply, the portal approach usually really does work.

   - Methods and technologies for developing portals have been evolving on
   an accelerating curve since the 1980s.  We can use them.  We don't have to
   start from square one.

   - That said, creating and supporting and sustaining a portal is a big
   job.  It's too big for any one person, or even for all the techies in any
   one community.

   - However:  All cohousing communities share a need for a core set of
   information services. Let's say the core services are something like
   keeping track of members, living units, committees, events, and the
   relationships among all these.  If people from multiple communities
   collaborated to build and maintain this core functionality, there should be
   enough resources.  And of course what we built could be used to provide
   each participating community with its own portal.

   - On the foundation of that core portal, we could enable each community
   to do customizations to meet its unique needs.  And people could develop
   add-on apps that might initially be for their own community but that could
   be made available to other communities that found them useful.  (For
   example, I would like to develop a car-sharing system.  This will work much
   better if built on a portal-type foundation rather than as a standalone

As a first step, I have set up a

"Cohousing Portals" discussion forum at

where we can share our experiences, accomplishments, plans, and
lessons learned about the parenting, care, and feeding of community
portals, and hopefully incubate some fruitful collaborations.  If you
have any interest in contributing to or even just tracking the
developments on this matter, please go to that forum, register, and
join in the conversation!

Ken Winter
Sunward Cohousing, Ann Arbor, MI USA

On Thu, May 8, 2014 at 2:14 PM, Ken Winter <ken [at]> wrote:

> Hello Cohousers ~
> Is there an email list, forum, bulletin board, or other online
> communication hub for people interested in IT (Information Technology)
> services in cohousing communities?
> I have an idea for an IT project, and I'm looking for collaborators and
> info about what other communities are doing with IT.
> ~ Thanks in advance!
> ~ Ken Winter
> ~ Sunward Cohousing, Ann Arbor, MI USA

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