Churches,  Heritage,  Information Technology,  The Churches Conservation Trust

A high-tech visitor welcome

Early in 2018 I was presented with an operational problem. I had been asked to refresh the visitor notices at 107 historic sites in the ownership of The Churches Conservation Trust, no longer needed for services but historically significant and well-visited.

Each site needed three separate notices. The first, to be displayed outside each church, advising visitors of opening hours, keyholder location (where the church was not already unlocked) and safety information – for example paths across churchyards can be slippery and uneven etc. The second, advising visitors of other churches within the organisation’s collection, which can be found nearby and the third being a welcome and safety notice to be displayed inside the church inviting visitors to leave a donation, sign the visitor book and how to hire the building for an event. Additional information might include emergency contact details, responsibility for paths and surrounding churchyards and information about current fundraising appeals might be essential. 

This was a total printing tally of 321 notices, to be designed, laminated, printed and distributed. All within a deadline of two months, a daunting task notwithstanding numerous other projects to be completed. Producing each of the three notices for all 107 sites using the organisation’s usual techniques would be impossible. That would mean designing a poster using a Word document, permanently stored on the server and potentially redundant immediately after its printing date, in addition to being costly and time-consuming to update and reprint. Keyholders come and go, local pubs providing refreshment and toilet facilities close down and reopen, historic churches sometimes close to facilitate conservation work, events take place, keyholders (unlocking and locking the buildings each day) go on holiday and several new churches are absorbed into the CCT’s portfolio each year. Historically this triggered the designed and print of a new poster each time the information changed, which would then be stored on the server with previous iterations.

The server space required to store all these documents was massive. Notices were often left in Word document or PDF format in a folder and forgotten about, the look and aesthetic was shockingly inconsistent across the region(s) and it could take several hours to amend information, create updated notices and deliver them after printing. I decided a new approach was necessary. Notices should be professional looking, consistent, compliant with the corporate identity, and all should contain the universally essential information – charity number, head-office address etc. but be easily customised, with site-specific information included and reproduced at the click of a mouse button. Also, should the head-office address or corporate logo change, only one change would be necessary across the entire system. Quick, easy and professional looking with no residual documents using high-value server space and clogging up already over-complicated file systems.

I developed a system which would initially store all visitor information for each of the 38 sites falling within my personal responsibility with the objective of including the additional 69 sites under the stewardship of two colleagues. Using Microsoft Access (scalable and suitable for a small business with a low number of simultaneous users), I set out a data table structure and designed custom end-user forms which would enable easy entry, storage and update of all key pieces of information. One church site = one record. One keyholder = one record. One local toilet facility = one record. A key data field for ‘cluster’ was included in each church record so that a notice advising visitors of other churches of historical interest nearby could be automatically generated, with the ability to quickly ‘uncheck’ one should it be closed and quickly ‘tick’ another to include. Access reports were designed – the format being stored as one report per notice type within the system, onto which the global and church-specific information would be applied by the system at the click of a mouse. The option to print a single notice, a set of notices for a specific church or run off an entire set for the region was included as a tick-box. An emergency ‘church closed’ notice button was added for situations requiring immediate noticeboard updates.

Two main files were needed – one with the front-end system and a back-end set of tables storing the church data. A folder containing thumbnail images for each church, which the system pulled in for the notices, absorbed only 200kb each image. a total of 27MB on the server. The data tables used a total of 2Mb on the server. Compared with 321 Word documents using 32MB alone – one per notice, 64MB if including a PDF to print each notice. A second user-interface was developed for the administrator to update core church information, add and remove details, was necessary – the main user interface prevented accidental erroneous updates to this core information by standard users.

The result – 321 notices printed, laminated and distributed within the tight specified timeframe. A future-proof and streamlined way of producing church visitor information.

The core church information was exported from current systems with no impact on that data. Church-specific information was added manually with an one afternoon session with each of the other two field staff members.

Additional functionality included the facility to email a notice to a local volunteer to print locally for display at the church without having to generate the notice first, offered both cost-saving (staff time and travel expense) along with the obvious time-saving allowing staff to focus on project work. An additional benefit included the ability to publish notices to the website – local or area-based volunteers could log in, select and print church-specific notices from the website, which was developed my me originally for volunteer rosters. Just as importantly, an office-based staff member, unfamiliar with the churches, could now open a Google map pinpointing the location of the site at the click of a mouse button.

Graphical user interface

Edit Church Access and Visitor Information
Edit church supplementary information
Edit appeal and interpretation information for each church
Church map, location and situational information
Select church image for notices
Select notice type and print single notice or entire set
Automatically generate nearby attractions information notice (single or entire set)
Generate church visitor-information notice – single notice or print the entire set
Welcome-desk information
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