19 December 2008

Simmering the openseed.org Pot

An exercise in Extreme Slow Cooking, this! For quite a long time, now, I've been (sporadically) working on a web-based tool for tracking and matching seed-exchange wants and offers. You'd think it's such a simple thing I could have batted it out in a couple of weeks... probably so, but I've also been using it as a way to explore different technologies and software design approaches. Not stuff that's interesting to seedy people or self-sufficiency hackers, I know, but satisfying to my inner-geek.

Anyhow, I'm quite determined to get this thing implemented and running as soon as possible. The first version is (deliberately) terribly simple: Anybody who wants will be able to sign-up with the site, and enter a list of the seeds they
  1. offer for swaps and/or
  2. are looking for in exchange.
and then get an email when someone else lists a matching variety, so making it easier for people to get together for swaps. The idea is to complement (not compete with) existing seed-swap sites such as the Blogger Seed Network or Homegrown Goodness.

What The Hell Inspired All This?

There are lots of bloggers who keep their seed-lists (more-or-less) up-to-date on their blogs, websites, etc., just as I do, or who list their seed offers and wishlists on various web-forums and group-chat sites.

As a tech geek, it seems just obvious to me that computers should be doing more than that -- they should actively be matching us up to make it easier to swap seeds! I mean, this is exactly what computers are supposed to be really good at, after all. Isn't it?

The first release of the system will do just that. You'll be able to type-up a list of seeds you offer for sale, swap or giveaway, and you'll also be able to capture a list of seed varieites that you're keen to lay hands on. As soon as you do that, the server will look for other people who have matching wishlists and offers (in reverse, though, if you see what I mean) and will drop an email to both parties suggesting a swap.

I expect some challenges around the matching -- what happens if I misspell (say) Lettuce, or if I enter a plant as "Lactuca sativa" but you're looking for "Lettuce"?  I don't know how well (or otherwise) its all going to work out -- I could really use some help from a SQL1 guru with this sort of stuff. All gods know I'm not one!

Right now most of this works, but it all still looks like crap, as I've made absolutely no attempt to "style" it to look like anything yet. If you have some web-design (especially CSS) skills and are keen to help out, please drop me a line! Otherwise I'll hack something up...

The only significant missing piece right now is any ability to Just Browse through the lists of what's on offer! I feel that this is a crucial piece of functionality, and need to implement something before the site goes into what we propeller-heads call a "Beta Release" -- a working, functional version, but May Contain Some Nasty Surprises2.

Other bits and pieces that I may add later -- depending on how important other people feel they are -- would be a wiki system so that we can write-up plant descriptions, with pictures, growing tips, seed-saving hints, breeding ideas of the various varieties. (My own interest is in veggies, but I really hope that flower and fruit growers will also step up...) Then, too I have in mind to add a "forum" chat system later... we'll see.

The software will be released as Free Software so that if anybody wants to run their own exchange system -- perhaps with a regional or specialty focus -- they'll be able to take advantage of the software. My aim is to build-in functionality that will enable all OpenSeed exchange systems to share all their swap offers globally, but that, too, is a "for later" feature.

So Why All The Waffle Now?

Frankly, I need a little help. Included on the site are the usuall stuff like a "Links" page, and I could use some input on what links to include. I'm particularly looking for seed-bloggers (you know who you are! many of you are already listed ;-) good-quality heirloom seed suppliers, and links to seed-saving, food-biodiversity, plant-breeding, heirloom variety information, seed-politics, etc. At this stage anything's game. Spammy commercial links won't make it ;-)

Where and When?

The site will go live as openseed.org -- hopefully sometime in late-Jan/early-Feb (but no promises -- if somebody offers me a bunch of money to do something else, openseed.org will have to go on hold.)

The site will be non-commercial -- for the time-being I can afford the hosting and such, but I could really, really use help with testing, ideas for more features, and, once it is up-and-running, feedback, bug-reports and content.

Oh, and any good heirloom veg seeds ;-)

(And after that I'll get around to making this blog look like something. Right now it looks like crap and leaves a whole lot of usability to be desired. But it's Summer, right now, and Prime Weeding Season and It All Takes Time.)

[1] The system is currently using MySQL, but could quite easily be transitioned to another database system, but there's no compelling reason to change right now, and it would only slow me down at this point, when my aim is to get something up and running for people to kick the tyres and suggest how to do things better.

[2] Like Windows Vista, then... ;-)

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