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National Democratic Institute Middle Eastern Social Network
Building political and civic organizations between cultures is challenging affair, involving understanding, openness and determination to see political reform occur. The National Democratic Institute works tirelessly in the Middle East to share ideas, knowledge and experience across borders as part of its organizational commitment to promoting citizen participation in civic affairs. NDI came to Trellon to assist them in their online strategy through the build out of, one of the premier Arabic-language social media sites in existance built out on the Drupal platform.

Aswat is an online forum and resource center established by the National Democratic Institue to foster conversation about politics and reform in the Arabic-speaking world. Fundamentally, it is a social network for constructive dialogue about political parties and policies throughout the Arabic world, where recognized experts can interact with ordinary citizens to discuss progressive ideas about topics ranging from campaigns and elections to reform issues and human rights. It acts as a conduit between the Middle East and the West, and serves an important role in sharing information between groups who would otherwise rarely find ways to converse.

Challenge and Approach is a social portal featuring a complex mix of interactive content aimed at fostering a cross-cultural sense of community and publications from leading intellectuals on topics that include governance and reform. Part of the challenge of building it was ensuring the site would display elements of cultural literacy, and the design had to reflect the preferences of Arabic language speakers yet still be intuitive for users from the West. The content management tools being deployed needed to be capable of providing information in both Arabic and English, as well as detecting the native language of users and directing people to the right set of content. Additionally, the system needed to be able to manage translations within a simplified user interface, to allow the organization to efficiently manage content within the site.

Trellon used the Drupal content management system to build The internationalization features, combined with tools for categorizing content and user generated media, made it an ideal platform for addressing the nuances of multicultural social media. From an information architecture standpoint, Drupal's dynamic navigation tools and interface controls would be heavily leveraged to create self-contained content areas within each page of the site to ensure users were exposed to a wide variety of topics. The system itself was built to accomodate a wide variety of platforms, corresponding to the varying levels of technical capabilities amongst the target audience. RSS feeds and mobile support were included as part of the solution.

Layout and Design

A great deal of sensitivity was given to the design of the site. Trellon worked with focus groups in Lebanon through our partners at Syntax to ensure the design possessed a high degree of cultural relevance both functionally and aesthetically. Navigation structures, administrative controls and the placement of content were optimized based on feedback received, and Trellon worked closely with NDI to establish highly customized methods for deploying content within the site. One key aspect of the design is that it supports a wide variety of web browsers, including those of most mobile phones (which are commonly used to access the Internet in the region).

Multilingual Content was built to deploy content for Arabic and English speaking audiences. The system was designed to present information based on the user's selected language. To support this goal, Trellon implemented Drupal's native internationalization features for language selection, detection and interface translation. Trellon developed a custom system for deploying translations that allows users to translate content within the same interface used to deploy source materials. The result is a system that allows translators to enter content and translations through a single interface, which became an important factor within the target audience.

Topical and Regional Focus

Ensuring content within the site is well-organized and easily accessible was a key design challenge, as small defects in the organization of materials could lead to big misunderstandings. Trellon made heavy use of Drupal's taxonomy system to allow users to categorize information based on content type, issue areas, geographic focus and other characteristic details. Conceptually, we designed resource areas, topic directories and other focused content sections to ensure the right materials were being grouped in the right place. Information published within the site is also available through multiple RSS feeds, corresponding to various content sections and making information that much more accessible.

Social Networking Features

Blogs, groups, forums, comments and rating systems were built into the site to allow users to connect and construct a community through online interaction. Various privleged users are given the ability to publish blogs in the site and collect feedback from other community members. Users are able to self-organize into groups based on topics and regions, allowing them to share content and collaborate on various issues in a more focused manner. Online forums are employed as a more general means of conducting dialogue, allowing users to post topics and participate in threaded conversations on specfic topics. Users are able to rate the quality of content through a five star voting system, which in turn affect the sorting of information within various sections of the site. Users are also able to provide comments on materials published in various sections of the site.