Words.  Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they just make things messier.  Especially when it comes to technology.  Or people. Or government. Or communities.  Hm.

Here’s some brief definitions layperson’s definitions of some of the terms you may find in the Emporium:


  • Tools: my catch-all term for things you can use to do online public engagement.  Includes apps, suites, and sites.  Think of the tool box in your garage or basement that you pull out when you need to fix something: there’s lots of things in there that are designed for different purposes, and whether or not we can fix our problem depends on whether we own the right tool, whether we pick the right tool, and whether we know how to use it correctly.  Tools come in all types and sizes and weights, but we have to pick from the tools available to fit the thing we need to fix.


  • Applications: Technically, a web application is a piece of software that runs on a web browser or use a browser-supported language.  It’s like the different pieces of software that run on your computer, but they’re using the internet as their base, instead of your computer’s operating platform.  Yeah, that didn’t make a ton of sense to me, either.  The useful thing to keep in mind is that an app is designed to do something relatively specific, and it doesn’t have any way of doing things that fall outside of what it was designed to do.  Just like it would be very hard to write a novel in a Excel, or do your taxes in Microsoft Access, an online engagement app is designed to do something specific.  It may have features that can be turned on and off, and you may be able to “skin” it to match your project, but it’s designed to do one relatively basic thing.  If you try to use it to do something that the app wasn’t built to do, then you might as well be writing  War and Peace in spreadsheet cells.  Apps can be built for computer use, mobile device use, or both.  Hopefully, anymore, both.


  • Application Suite: This is one of the ways that application developers try to work around their limitations of a specific app and gain a little more flexibility. Sometimes, app developers will design two or more apps that do complimentary things (like idea generation and budget simulation), and code them so that they work together, at least somewhat.  How exactly they work together depends on the design — they might just be able to be skinned the same or be embedded in a web site, or they might be able to share information.  Typically, however, they each operate independently — and you can use only one of the applications in a suite if you wish.


  • Web site: A web site differs from an app in its flexibility and customization.  Typically, a web site is more custom-designed to fit a specific set of objectives — it doesn’t come with a pre-determined set of expectations or methods, like an app does.  But the tradeoff is that it takes more person-hours to set up a web site vs. an app, and that means that the cost can be higher.   But web site development costs only a fraction of what it did even just a couple of years ago,  because developers working in open source languages, like Drupal, can plug in and unplug modules of code designed to do specific things almost as easily as turning an app’s functions on or off.


  • Skin: To “skin” an application or web site means to change its appearance – its colors, fonts, graphics, etc.  Typically, you want to skin your project’s app or web site to match your project’s or organization’s graphic design and online appearance.  In most cases, this will be done by the developer.


  • SaaS (for “Software as a Service”) is a common way of setting up an online tool.  Instead of receiving a piece of software that you have to put on your own computer and host on your own web site, an SaaS agreement means that the actual software and any data is hosted on a server that is controlled by the developer.  You pay a subscription fee for it to be hosted and for you to have access to it, and the developer retains control over the site’s hosting and responsibility for its operation and security.

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