Client: Course Searcher

Course Searcher provides a way for 14-19 year olds to find relevant courses in school and colleges in Brighton & Hove. It was created under the 'Area Prospectus' concept from the Education department of the Government.

I was the developer within the Course Searcher project and carried out a wide range of tasks, from contributing to the initial bid document, advising the client on usability, to building the site and setting up the search engine. Below are more details of my main duties.

Planning and Assessment

I was introduced to the project during the bidding phase, when the project manager asked for advice on whether a Google Mini would be suitable for the site, based on my experience of using a Google Search Appliance with p2b.net. Having run some tests and ensured the Mini could do the work, I joined the bid to gain the project.

We designed a solution that meant the local schools could change their websites by including custom meta tags, and our software would do the rest - the Google Mini would spider the sites, and our database would be built from that. The schools could maintain their current information sources, rather than having another product to enter the same details, which would have taken extra staff time - a limited resource in schools - and training.

The solution is a combination of Google Mini and bespoke PHP, with a MySQL database behind part of the site. I wrote the PHP, configured the spidering of the Mini, and designed the database.

Site Build

Conversion of graphical layouts designed by David O'Connor in to XHTML/CSS pages.

Addition of a Javascript/AJAX 'behaviour layer' over the main site using the Yahoo UI and bespoke code to make areas like the Pathways simpler and quicker to use.

If Javascript is turned off, the site will still work and be a close match to the designs, it just will not be quite as smooth. This use of 'graceful degredation' allows older browsers or people who browse without Javascript for security reasons to gain the same information as people with the latest technology. It also helps meet accessibility standards for people using older screen reading software.

Google Mini

I configured the Mini to spider the school websites, and carried out an assessment of all of the sites and advised on any fixes they would need to make to the site to aid complete spidering (which will also help them in the big search engines like Google and Yahoo.) I do similar work often as part of my search engine optimisation service.

The Mini needed some extra configuration to ignore certain parts of some of the sites, and to ignore session information being sent through some of the URLs.

The main task was to build a set of custom meta tags, and then search using these, bringing back the results via the XML API of the Google Mini, then parsing them using PHP to make them fit in to the design of the site.

Tools

An easy to use 'Meta Tagging Tool' to help schools create the custom meta tags for their pages, which are used by Course Searcher for the Pathways and Advanced Search.

I also created the Pathways builder which gathers data from the Google Mini and builds this in to a database of available courses within the region. This works by carrying out approximately 30,000 searches on the Mini and extrating data on the courses which have been tagged with custom meta information. This saved the schools having to fill out a central database with their course details - they only need to update their own pages with the tags and the data will be picked up automatically by the Mini, then by our system, with no further effort required.

The Team

Course Searcher was very much a team effort, these are the other members of the team that created the site:


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