Greenhill Grammar school, Oldham

Photo System
Development Timeline

 


Early Years with MSN

The presentation of photographs on this site has several unusual features developed over many years which make it particularly well suited to the special requirements of an 'old school' website. I.e. the ability to find all the entries about specific people, classes, teams etc. quickly and easily.

The first collection of Greenhill images that I recall was part of an MSN group which I joined in May 2003 prompted mainly by sight of the 1957 panorama. In the early part of 2005 Ian Chidgey and Roger Worthington started a project attempting to index the faces on the 57 pan using grid references. The appropriate name then being found in look-up tables. The system was very unreliable, however, because the faces didn't fall naturally onto any easily used grid and people's subjective interpretation of the references differed widely.

I started experimenting with a simple group photo using image mapping and the 'tooltip' attribute to show the person's name. This was successful though the html script required to achieve it was not permitted as MSN content. It had to be placed in my ISP (Tiscali) personal web space and viewed via a link on the MSN page. The 57 panorama was presented in May 2005 using this method. It attracted a lot of favourable attention and work was started on the 1962 panorama almost immediately. At the same time more and more members offered class and team photos for inclusion into the 'Named Photo' series.

It soon became apparent that everyone was providing a lot of information, involving a lot of work on my part, that was hard linked to Tiscali and effectively locking me into them as ISP. In December 2005 I registered the greenhill-gs.co.uk domain to give me some flexibility of hosting and helping to make the system independently 'future proof'. It had the added advantage of now being visible to the major search engines and gave the two associated sites (MSN and greenhill-gs) a much higher profile.

By March 2006 there were so many photos in the system that we started to receive complaints about the number of 'clicks' required to move from one photo to another. This was exacerbated by restrictions on the size of, and number of entries on, the menu pages on MSN. Javascript was used for the first time in the greenhill-gs system to show a 'worm hole' menu when the cursor was moved to the top of each image. This essentially allowed one click movement between any two images in the system. As well as images, documents such as the school magazine 'The Greenhillian' were now being offered for inclusion on the greenhill-gs site. This intensified an already ongoing debate as to the quality/definition of images posted.

The quality of material on the MSN site itself was adequate for its time on the internet but generally poor in the wider context. The greenhill-gs site on the other hand was posting higher quality images in the continuing attempt to make all this input 'future proof' and many early contributors to MSN had rescanned their material to a much higher standard for the site. Factions within MSN however were insisting that much of the greenhill-gs material was duplicated at lower quality on the MSN site for a mixture of reasons, ostensibly to make downloads more manageable for a rapidly dwindling number of members on slow internet connections.

In June 2007 the work involved in maintaining the limited capability MSN system began to outweigh that involved in the greenhill-gs site itself and I resigned from MSN, though a co-operation agreement was eventually negotiated. Another worrying feature of the MSN site was that it had no independent back-up system and could not be relocated. Again, rational discussion of the situation was not tolerated and later in 2007 another independent domain came into operation, Ken Rodgers' greenhill-gs.org.uk, though this had originally been started as a proof of concept project for the proposed rehousing of the MSN group.

 


Photo System
Development Timeline

 


The Greenhill-gs Sites

Although the two greenhill-gs domains were technically independent they had many interactive links and presented as effectively a single site. The photos were retained on the specialist greenhill-gs.co.uk site, while the documents and other exhibits were transferred to greenhill-gs.org.uk which was better geared to their presentation. The new host site also offered a much wider range of services than the previous one, including MySQL databases and PHP server language which were required to operate the Joomla content management package and the phpbb3 bulletin board.

In October 2008 Microsoft announced that MSN Groups would close in February 2009 and a great deal of work was done by members of the greenhill-gs sites to try to conserve the postings from the MSN bulletin board.

Early in 2009 MS also introduced its IE7 browser which deliberately broke the tooltip function everywhere on the web. It could be made to work in IE7 or the independent alternatives, but not both. A Javascript system was found that worked in all browsers and had the advantage of being able to present simple formatting and even links in the 'tooltip'. The problem however was that it needed complex editing of every named location in every photo (now approaching 200) to bring it into play. Instead of doing this the effort was more usefully employed in more 'future proofing'.

The information contained in each photo was dissembled and entered into a relational MySQL database. Each photo had a 'key' which was used by php scripts to reassemble the information into an html page only as/when required. Using this system a single edit to the php script was effective in changing every photo that it processed. This ensured that all the photos contained identical, compliant, code and presented with identical headers, footers etc. It also made detailed data from the photos available in searchable form and gave rise to the FotoFind and FolkFind systems still in current use, though the FolkFind system has been significantly upgraded to FolkFind+.

Work on this upgrade started in May 2012 when Keith Sudds presented us with a spreadsheet of names and events extracted from the documents on the main site - Greenhillians, Speech Day programmes etc. amounting to 16,000 entries in round figures. This took a huge amount of work to transpose into true database format and involved a very difficult task that I had been putting off since the very first days of named photos - working in Identity Numbers rather than names. This now being essential to provide unique identities for so many people over such a wide time span.

The site is deeply indebted to Keith both for the collection of the data in the first place and then for his work on the formidable task of reducing it to consistent database format. Work which appears to be pedantic and retrograde until you realise (quite late in the process) why it is needed. FolkFind+ was finally released in March 2013 and provided a seamless interactive flow of data around the system with the focus changing easily between names, photos, documents or even Bulletin Board posts, as decided by the viewer.

In 2015 it became apparent that our way of operating the site over two separate domains was going to have its problems and the photo system was completely merged into the main site host under a new single domain, greenhill-gs.uk. The two original domains were still registered to Ken's hosting package and used to redirect visitors trying to find us to the site, but they were no longer involved in the actual operation of the site.

When Ken died in June 2017 all his greenhill-gs interests were formally transferred to me by his son Richard.

The single domain site showed its advantages early in 2018 when we were finally nudged to activate certified secure operation under https, with relatively few problems, other than the separate Bulletin Board configuration.

What hasn't been mentioned in this time line is system relocation. Since the very first days on Tiscali the system has been moved (under our control) six times to various different servers and host companies. It has also been adjusted as necessary to accommodate changes imposed on us by third parties as regards coding standards, browser developments etc. It has survived and thrived because it was managed, developed and maintained by knowledgeable people who cared about it enough to invest their own time and skills in building a dedicated system. Not relying on what Ken has described elsewhere as 'corporate handouts' which often have hidden agendas and are cynically withdrawn as soon as they start to fail in their purpose.

 

Kevin Dronsfield
Feb 2018