Lessons learned by a frugal hacktivist

There’s a compulsory biometric database being built in Israel. It’s bad, but it’s not the point of this post. I’m taking part in some civilian effort to stop it, and part of this is having a website. So we built one. For free. Here it is. And here is what I learned, divided to non-technical and rather technical points.

Non-technical:

  • We wanted a good looking, fast website. As the government employes paid commenters, we didn’t want any talkback options.
  • We have some people that can build websites (me, but not just me). However, we’re all busy.
  • The website had to be updated periodically, but not too often.
  • We are a voluntary organization, and we don’t have any money.

While we were aware of standard options, such as opening a wordpress blog or a Facebook page, we decided to go with a static web site, hosted as a github project page. The motivation was that this would generate a very fast website, and we could get all the design flexibility we need (canned solutions are not that flexible, really).

However, keep in mind that github project pages come with some strings attached. The website has to be open-source, or pay for the hosting, and no server-side processing can occur. This means any updates to the site require some technical skills.

For hacktivism, the open source string may be a real issue. If you spend a lot of time creating a web site, and you don’t want the other side to just fork it and create their own version. You may want to keep your source closed. We didn’t have this issue, as the biometric database already has web presence, as well as TV commercials, posters, etc.

So far, which is not very far really, the choice for static website seems good. Here are the technicalities. The main goal was to get something done fast, but at a high quality.

Site generator

We went with harp.js. While jekyll looks like a more natural choice for github, it is not as flexible as harp. Jekyll assume you are writing a blog. Harp has a more holistic approach, and also supports lesscss (and many other languages). I already had experience with jekyll (earned while doing this site) but decided to try harp and have jekyll as a “plan b”. All in all this worked.

Front end

Bootstrap3. You can’t beat the king.

Content Generation

Here’s where Jekyll is better than Harp – we wanted to generate a list of links, display a list of them and give each one a page. Jekyll would have done this out of the box, if we would have treated each link as a post. Harp requires having a file for each page in the site, which meant we had to maintain the json map and a set of files, and make sure each key in the map has a file named after it. Not fun and error prone. Well, bash to the rescue:


cat _data.json | jq keys | grep \\w | cut -d\" -f2 | xargs -I{} touch {}.md

This line ensures that each key has a file with corresponding name. If the file already exists, it is not overridden, which is important if someone wanted to add additional data to the to a link’s page.

Issues

  • Contact forms require a back-end to process the input, and static sites don’t have any back-end. There are ways of doing them, e.g. using google forms. We address this soon, but currently we’re happy to use github issues, which also works. Also, you can use a mailto link, but you’ll be facing another set of issues there.
  • As always, collaborating using github is a pleasure.
  • When other people fork your site, they shouldn’t call their branch “gh-pages” – it makes the CNAME files collide. Only have a single branch with this name.

Conclusion

When needing a website that does not take data from users, static websites may be a good choice. If you can keep your source open, hosting them as github project pages is a fast solution that’s free and easy, as long as you have people with technical skills available. If you have some cause you’re trying to push, you can fork us on gihub.

Oh, and if you want to learn about the biometric data base in Israel and you don’t read Hebrew – we have a site for this.