ChurchMag Top 20 Church Tech Blogs

The ChurchMag blog has just released it’s list of the Top 20 Tech blogs for 2012.  This is a great resource to find some great undiscovered blogs (I found a few I didn’t know about).  If you don’t follow the ChurchMag blog you should.  It’s in my Google Readers ‘Absolute Favorites’ folder for a reason.

I’m also honored, and humbled, to see this blog listed as #18.  Thank you for the privilege to be placed in the same company as these other great resources.

On a similar note, do you have a blog?  If so write in the address in the comments below.  I’d love to know about it.

Mobile App Released

Our mobile app was released this weekend.  So far it has been well received.  To date it has been downloaded to 2300 devices.  Below is a quick overview of the features it contains with a short description on how each is integrated into our systems.

(note click thumbnails for larger images)

Application Home

Contains the main navigation with a single promotion.  We’re moving to a “This Week’s One Thing” promotion strategy in our communications team.  This will highlight that one thing each week.  If you touch the ad you get more details.  Currently, this ad is driven out of our Arena database.  This will soon be moved to the Rock ChMS.

About Us

This page of the app shows the location of each of our campuses.  It also has an invitation feature that allows an attendee to send a personalized email to their friends.  This page is a bit of a ‘filler’ page in my mind and probably will be replaced with additional functionality in the future.

Prayer

This page displays a sample of the current prayer requests in our Arena database.  It only shows those that a person has OK’ed to be public.  Each is approved (and possibly edited for privavcy) by our prayer team. From this page you can also add a prayer request.  These requests are added directly into Arena.  This will in time also be transitioned into Rock.

Notes:

The notes functionality is by far the most popular.  This allows attendees to take digital notes during the sermon.  There are a ton of features to this part of the app (fill-in the blanks, free form entry, etc.).  I’ll do a future post just on this feature soon.

Message Videos

The app lets you select and watch sermons directly on your mobile device with support for AirPlay.  This again uses Arena’s podcast functionality to drive the content.  We currently host our messages on Vimeo so it uses their HTML5 player.  We’re currently looking for a better video network.  If anyone has some good recommendations please post in the comments.

Group Finder

This portion of the app allows someone to use their current location, or enter in an address, to find the closest Neighborhood Group (aka small group).  It also allows them to register for a selected group.  The usage of this feature has surprised us.  In the first two days over 25 families have registered for a group.

On-line Giving

Due to the fact that Apple does not allow donations in a native app we redirect the giving button to our website.  We have created a new highly responsive (thanks Titter Bootstrap) page that is very interactive.  If someone wants a peak at what the giving UX in the Rock ChMS will look like this is it. I hope Apple allows for a more native experience in the future.

For the most part that is the app.  I’ll be posting a couple of deeper dives into some of the features and code in the near future.

Standardizing Email

Our senior pastor made an interesting statement a few week’s ago in a leadership meeting when he said, “When I get an e-mail, I wish I knew what the sender expected of me.  Do they want a reply or is it just an FYI?”  This got me to thinking, “What if we could standardize our email subject-lines to clarify the purpose of an email…”

Our Creative Technologies team decided to pilot the usage of standard subject lines.  So far I really like the results.  It’s adding immediate context to a message, even before it’s opened.  If we can get wider acceptance and usage I think it could get even more powerful.  Imaging being able to write inbox rules that can filter based on message intent.  Messages that are just “FYI” could be saved until the end of the day; while those labeled “URGENT” (especially from your VIP list) can be highlighted in red with audible alerts.

The pattern we came up with is:

ACTION: Project / Summary (where project is optional)

The standard actions we are using are:

  • FYI
  • URGENT
  • REQUEST
  • UPDATE
  • INFO
  • FOLLOW-UP
  • APPROVAL
  • QUESTION

Some sample subjects could be:

  • UPDATE: The Story / Square POS a Go
  • FYI: Off-Madison Contact Made
  • INFO: Article on Social Media
  • URGENT: Tomorrow’s Meeting Canceled
  • REQUEST: Command Center / GL Code Needed

Evolution of a Mobile App

We’re close to rolling-out CCV’s first mobile app.  It’s been a long journey.  Before this weekend’s roll-out I thought I might walk through the project’s journey with all of it’s twists and turns.  It all started out over a year ago when we got serious about needing a mobile app. Our first step was to look at the church specific mobile app packages. These services can quickly provide a great looking app for a reasonable price.  Our two concerns with these services were:

  1. Most don’t have features that in our mind get people to come back and use them.  They don’t fell sticky.  They may get downloaded, but how many consistently get 3-4 uses a month per attendee?  I look at the feature list and don’t see something that would make me return.
  2. Starting with these apps was an option we considered, but most get deployed to the App Stores under the vendors account.  We felt that if we did this it would be hard to change course in the future.  By deploying under our own account we can quickly replace the app with anything we like in the future.

We also spent some time discussing what platforms we would support.  We ended up deciding that we needed to support both Apple iOS and Android on both the phone and tablet medium.  Part of me would have rather stuck to just iOS, but looking at the sales metrics, that’s just not an option. Therefore, we decided to embark on a quest to write two native apps (one for each platform).  Our initial features for our 1.o release included:

  • Announcements
  • Prayer Request (both praying for and submitting)
  • Group Finder
  • Sermon Video Streaming
  • Digital Sermon Notes
  • About Us Info (Campus maps, invite a friend etc)

As we’re pretty limited on resources with our current Arena projects and writing for the new Rock ChMS, development was  limited to my free-time.  I started out on the iOS app and go pretty far.  About 60-65% of the way through though I came to the conclusion there was no way with our current resources we were going to be able to write AND support two native platforms.  I quickly pinged a few outside resources to get a picture of what it might cost to have someone else develop the apps for us.  The quote I got back was $120K for both platforms.  That was not an option…

We quickly huddled and formed a new strategy.  We decided to experiment with HTML5/CSS3/Javascript to native wrappers like PhoneGap.  I wrote up a quick prototype in PhoneGap w/ jQuery Mobile and found the progress to be very quick and a good match to our current skill-set.  I have to admit it feels like cheating.  There are a couple of downfalls to this approach.  First of all the apps don’t have a completely native feel.  To be honest the normal user probably won’t notice, but those with a technical eye should be able to spot the difference.   Secondly, the PhoneGap apps are a bit sluggish.  Again the average person won’t notice the difference, but there’s no question that the iOS Webkit control is a bit slow in rendering.  Finally, while the frameworks (PhoneGap and jQuery Mobile) are impressive there still are some bugs. Most of these we were able to work around, but there still are a few known bugs that are impacting the app (they’re small through).

In the end the productivity savings more than made up for the lack of a truly native application.  This is our 1.o deliverable so hopefully we’ll learn a lot through the roll-out.  So far the application has received high marks from our internal testers.  In the end though I do feel like we cheated a bit.

I’ll post more once the app is released this weekend.

Command Center

After visiting LifeChurch’s Global Command Center our leadership team wanted to build a similar room to evaluate in real-time our remote campuses in Surprise and Scottsdale (opening soon).  Below is a quick overview of the technologies that we used to build the room.  Special thanks to Zach Gillium at LifeChurch for sharing their lessons learned with us.

The strategy of having a Command Center is to evaluate and assess how the service, especially the campus pastor announcements and communion meditations, are going at each campus.  It’s not to have a high-def, crystal clear, multi-camera, broadcast quality view of the service.  I like to think of it as virtually leaning against the back wall of the auditorium and taking in the service.

It all starts with a camera.  We used an inexpensive Sony HDR-CX160 (price $328).  It has decent low-light capabilities and a 30x optical zoom.  This camera is no frills, but again we’re going for practical and not broadcast quality.  We decided to try using the built in mic on the camera (a recommendation from Zach).  This keeps the configuration simple as it doesn’t rely on the soundboard or it’s operator.  The audio quality is actually pretty good in this configuration.

The camera is attached to a Teradek Cube 200 encoder (price $1,100).  This is by far the most expensive piece of the puzzle.  The Teradeks are a breeze to configure and are one of the few encoders that support HD streaming over RTMP.  They come in a compact package that can easily be connected to a camera. We mounted ours right to a Davis & Sanford camera mount.  We’ve been testing the Teradeks for over 4 months and haven’t had one issue.  We currently streaming 720p @ 6Mbps.  The image quality is fairly good.  We could increase the bitrate, but we’re trying to conserve bandwidth to the campuses (each already has a 25Mbps high quality stream going to the campus for broadcasting the message).

The RTMP stream from the Teradek goes to a Wowza server.  The Wowza server redistributes the stream to the various clients (in this case the Command Center room).  It also DVRs the services.  In the near future will be providing a website where pastors can go back and watch any service.

The Command Center view is provided by a Mac Mini driving a LCD TV.  The interface is a jQuery Mobile webpage loaded fullscreen. We use a cool AppleScript program to load the page on start-up full screen (the solution has to be pastor proof).  The page shows live video from all three campuses, Peoria, Surprise and soon Scottsdale in large thumbnails.  You can easily select which audio to listen to as well as select a campus and watch it full-screen.

Soon we’ll have the DVR interface complete which will work on any computer or mobile device.  You’ll also be able to email clips of the sermons for others to watch.  We might also look into Wowza’s transcoder features to allow for smaller streams to mobile devices.

Scalable Credit Card Processing

A few months ago our team was handed a challenging problem: how to sell 30,000 books over two weekends to support The Story sermon series at CCV.  To make it harder we at CCV have a passionate hatred dislike of lines.  Defining the problem set we came up with the following attributes of a successful solution:

  • We knew that 50-60% of the transactions would require credit cards.
  • We have a total of 5 different titles to sell (leather bound, hardcover, teen edition, kids edition, children’s picture book and a early children’s picture book.)
  • The solution must be easy for volunteers to use.
  • The solution must be cost effective as we were selling the books for what they cost us (let’s just say they were priced amazingly low).
  • The solution had to scale to allow for 35-40 credit card lines at a minimal cost.
  • The solution had to be FAST!

After looking at several credit card solutions we determined we needed something that had a point-of-sale feature set.  This would allow a volunteer to punch in a person’s ‘order’ (book types with quantities) and get a sub-total (no calculations required).

We looked at several iPad solutions but ended up using Squares Register app. The beauty of this solution was that it required very little cost to deploy.  We asked that volunteers bring their iPads to use for the event.  The card readers are free which was the single largest factor that made Square stand-out.  All we needed to provide was printers for receipts (these could be shared 1 printer for 5-6 iPads as most people don’t require a receipt) and a WiFi network.

The only real challenge we found was sharing the printers.  The printers themselves need to be on the same VLAN as the iPads. But… if there are several printers on the same VLAN it’s hard to know what printer to pick from the settings on the app as they all have the model as the name.  Our new IT specialist Chris Upshir found a brilliant solution that used several old Linksys WRT54g’s to provide a specific SSID for each printer.  So if a volunteer showed up at say the Pavilion selling point he/she could connect to the SSID ‘Pavilion Printer 1′ and know where to expect their receipts.

Square’s customer service was great.  We started communicating with them about the project several weeks ahead of time.  After leaning about the size of the event they agreed to send us 40 card readers (something that they said didn’t not happen often).  I also had some worries if their solution would work for such a large event.  I was able to speak to several people in the company and they were able to walk us through some tips on making the event a success.

Our team spent a lot of time thinking through the details on this project.  We provided our volunteers with advanced training on how the POS would work so when they showed up they knew more or less what to do.  Our team also created order sheets that could be filled out in the service so by the time someone was in line they knew exactly what they wanted.

The result was a huge success.  As you would expect the sales come in waves with 95% of the sales coming immediately after the end of a service.  With our 40 credit card stations we were able to process through the lines in 9-11 mins.  Many of our attendees made comments about how quickly the lines moved.  I met two accounting professors from local colleges and they were amazed at the efficiency of the lines.  One wanted to know if we had video of the event that he could show his students.

After the first weekend we have sold over 24,000 books, 11,500 of which were sold using credit cards with 2500 unique transactions (think swipes).  Doing some rough math that comes out to about 35 transactions a minute during our peak times.

While we still have another huge weekend ahead of us, I would highly recommend this solution to other churches who need to sell a large number of resources in a limited amount of time.  Not only is it cost effective, but it also scales to reduce lines.

NetSpot is Spot On

I recently upgraded my home WiFi AP, after much research, to the ASUS RT-N66U. Much of this was based off of this Jeff Atwood post.  So far I really like the AP and while I was going to install Tomato on it, after playing with the stock firmware and reading comparisons I might just keep it stock.

One utility I broke out soon after the upgrade was NetSpot on OSX.  It’s a very simple, yet powerful, utility to map your WiFi coverage.  Oh, and best of all it’s free.   Just up load a map, give it a reference point on the map for scale and then walk around and take some readings.  Below is a quick video walk through.

We’re installing a new Ruckus system at CCV.  This tool will be great it helping us visualize our coverage.

Covet Your Milliseconds

What is a nanosecond? Or more importantly, why does it matter? Developers spend milliseconds (1000000 nanoseconds) like the government spends money. The cost is slooow software. Speed is a primary feature of the Rock ChMS, we covet each millisecond. This video helps put it all into perspective. Note: Keep in mind when she compares a nanosecond to a microsecond a millisecond is 1000 microseconds.

An example of our dedication to speed is Rock’s differed transaction capability. In any web application there is work that needs to be done, but doesn’t require the user to hang around to wait. We built a transaction queue that can take these transactions and process them after the page has been sent to the user. A quick example… we’re building in basic page analytics into the CMS portion of the app. A way to track how many times a page has been loaded. If we were to write this into the database during the normal lifecycle of a page we could expect it to take 12ms. Adding it to the differed transaction queue only takes .15ms (you will be able to turn off analytics all together if you’d like).

Top 10 Security Tips for Churches

Our Director of Security (think physical security) ask me if I could put together 10 points for information security for an upcoming conference he is presenting at.  These points are mainly for small churches without IT staff.  I wasn’t going to post them here as they’re pretty basic, but as I wrote them I couldn’t help but think how much improvement we could still make in some of these areas… I won’t say which ones  :)

Anyways… for what it’s worth, here they are.

  1. Train employees not to give out personal information on attendees
    Speaking Notes: Most breaches come through “Social Hacking”.  Someone calls the organization with a “good story” and the employee hands out proprietary information.
  2. Check what leaves the building through the trash
    Speaking Note: All of the information security in the world is a waste when information can be printed, put in the office trash and then placed at the curb of the street.
  3. Limit access to servers and network equipment
    Speaker Notes: The first layer of IT security starts at physical access.  Servers and switches should be behind locked doors / cabinets.
  4. Implement password changes / sharing
    Speaker Notes: Passwords should be required to change every 45 days and should not be shared with volunteers or other staff.  Each person should have their own.
  5. Protect computers from viruses and spyware
    Speaker Notes: Every server and computer on the network should have anti-virus / spyware  software installed and up to date.  This doesn’t have to be expensive.  Small churches can use AVG and Malware Bytes.
  6. WiFi networks should be protected
    Speaker Notes: WiFi access points should be configured by someone familiar with the various types of encryption available.  WiFi networks for use by attendees should not be on the same network as the office.
  7. Access to backups should be secured
    Speaker Notes: Access to backup hard drives / tapes should be secured.  A good off-site option is to use a safety deposit box at a bank.
  8. Laptops with attendee private information on the local drive should be encrypted
    Speaker Notes: Computers with attendee information on them should have their hard drives encrypted.  This is built into Windows 7 Ultimate, but other free tools exist like TrueCrypt.
  9. Educate volunteers on your information security practices
    Speaker Notes: Anyone with access to attendee information should be instructed on the proper use of it.  Never assume that they know right from wrong.  There have been several cases where a volunteer has used the church’s attendee information for their network marketing business and never thought twice about if it was right or wrong.  It would be best to have them sign a documenting that they understand and agree to the policies and procedures.  We call this the “Ministry Partner Form”.
  10. Never feel like you’re finished
    Speaker Notes: These are the very basic of tips.  Always realize that it takes work to keep up with these 9 items and there is always more that could be done.

Baptism Photos

Seth Godin often writes about getting promotion tools/information into the hands of those who are on fire for your organization.  They can’t help but spread the word.  For a long time our team has been wanting to focus on this.  We finally made the time to tackle one such idea.  Here’s how it works.

As soon as Baptism photos come back from the volunteer photographers they are added to a person’s record in Arena.  That night the person baptized will receive an email with a personalized link to a page where they can view it (image below, names and faces blurred for privacy)

baptism

They can also, with one click, share the photo and link on their Facebook page, Twitter, email and Google +.  They also can download a digital copy of their picture.  The individual person still receives a printed photo and certificate in the mail.