News about Beacon
THE BEACON STORY
As more people become involved with the Beacon Project there will be some who are not aware of its origins. The aim of this note is to record the history of the project over its first two years from its beginningin January 2015 to now, January 2017.
In 2014, the NEC’s IT committee realised the potential for an online Membership Management System to help U3A committees manage their U3As and communicate with members. Some U3As were already usingcommercial online systems such as Wild Apricot. The IT committee’s then Chair, Antony Hughes, invited members interested in the subject to a meeting in London in January 2015. Some of the attendees had already created online systems for use by their own U3As. They agreed to come together to create a system that any U3A could use. This they did during early 2015.
The System goes Live
After extensive testing during the summer, in Autumn 2015 a few guinea-pig U3As started using the system ‘live’. It proved to be a big hit and soon there were dozens of U3As lining up to use it. The system was given the name ‘Beacon’.
The National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Third Age Trust
From the start, the NEC welcomed the initiative and work of the volunteers in creating a system that could be shared across the whole movement. However, by early 2016 they were concerned about the long-term sustainability of the project given that it was fast becoming a critical resource for a growing number of U3As. Two meetings were held with the Beacon Project Team in Spring 2016. It was decided:
1) that the NEC would hire an IT specialist to review the system. (After interviews with three
companies Siftware was chosen to undertake the system review.)
2) that a charge should be made for the use of Beacon to pay for outside IT resources should they be
needed. It was felt that these potential costs should not come out of general funds because it would
be unfair to U3As not using the system.
3) that every effort would be made to involve more U3A members who have the necessary skills in
order to provide greater resilience to the project.
4) that a Beacon Support System be set up, based on the twelve ‘U3A Regions’.
Results of the System Review
Siftware recommended a project to change Beacon’s hosting platform and to bring the php libraries up to date. This re-configuration would also make it easier for volunteers to work on the system and to control different versions of the software. Siftware are now working on this project. Live users should not notice any difference other than a possible short break in service during changeover which is expected in early April 2017. Siftware have also been asked to write a migration module to make it easier to upload data to Beacon.
The charge will be 50p per member per year starting on 1st April 2017. The Third Age Trust will facilitate the invoicing of the charge and collect the payments from U3As. This fund will be ring fenced for use only by the Beacon project.
The Beacon Team
As the project has grown in numbers and scope the Team has expanded to include more helpers. In addition to the Regional Support Teams (RSTs) there are also volunteers working in groups of 3 or 4 in various areas. These include Change Management, Migration, Documentation & Training and PHP Development. We are introducing more formality in some areas particularly Change Management where work requests to Siftware and acceptance of changes to the code need to be signed off by other members of the team.
A Support System has been set up and there is now a coordinator and support team in all U3A regions. These volunteers are available to help and advise U3As during their move to Beacon. All Beacon U3As are able to communicate with fellow U3As in their region through the use of online groups.
A growing system
Currently there are almost 100 U3As using the system with a further 30-40 U3As applying to use the system. A 100 U3As will represent a total of over 50,000 members. In January 2017 we sent more than 100,000 emails for the first time.
Other Associated Resources
The User Group
We are holding our first Beacon conference in Birmingham on April 20th 2017. A major aim of this meeting is to set up a User Group through which users can influence the future direction of Beacon including the priority for adding new features. This will, of course, include assessing the enhancements that have already been requested on the User Forum.
The User Forum and Demo System
These will continue although the ‘refreshment’ of the Demo System data may be delayed.
The Team’s ability to communicate with user U3As and others has been very limited. We only have one email address per U3A. To communicate with chairs and secretaries we have had to ask the National Office to send out emails. To address this important issue we are planning a Beacon website which will be a Beacon ‘one-stop-shop’. Users will have access to information, documentation, FAQs, etc. and a chance to sign up to receive the Beacon newsletters.
5th February 2017
The new ‘Beacon’ database
I thought members might like to know that we are in the middle of transferring all the membership information to a new database. It has happened more quickly than we originally expected because our dedicated laptop failed and we didn’t want to spend money having it repaired.
The database has been developed by members of other U3As. It is stored 'in the cloud' meaning it can be accessed by those we give permission to and for whom we then generate a password. This means if a committee member wants to know an email address or phone number of a member they can look it up. Previously we would have to ask Jill to look it up and then email the details.
There are additional features not included in the old database - we can use it to keep our accounts for example. Our income is mainly members’ subscriptions and when those are entered they go directly onto the ledger. Expenditure can then be entered as it happens and facilities exist for reconciling the bank statements and producing accounts.
Another feature we are exploring at the moment is details of group membership and finance. Chris and I are entering the groups we lead to see how it works. The idea being to cut down on the amount of information Group Leaders have to submit at the end of the year because it will already be on the database.
We would like members to get in touch if they are not getting newsletters - it could be down to the database - so if you hear of anyone please ask them to let us know and we will update the information. It's been a big job entering all the details and there are bound to be a few errors that have crept in but overall we are really pleased with how it is working. We hope it will take us into the future and prove
beneficial for the members and committee.
Wendy Hattrell - July 2016