PHPRunner allows us to launch database-driven web pages within a few hours or less

John Maines,
Sun Sentinel

John Maines

John Maines is currently a computer-assisted reporting editor at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He has more than 30 years of journalism experience and has won numerous national awards. In 2006 he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting.

I am not a professional software developer. I am a computer-assisted reporting editor, which means I help reporters and editors at our newspaper (Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, FL) with data analysis. My background was as a reporter, but about 17 years ago I began using computers to assist with newspaper stories.

In the past decade news outlets have learned that database-driven web pages such as crime reports and school scores can be very popular with readers. Sometimes the Sun Sentinel needs to launch these pages fast, within a few hours or less, so we needed some sort of rapid-deployment system. Prior to getting PHPRunner, we started out using a third-party vendor that hosted our web pages and had templates for building web pages. But they charged us a $400 monthly fee. The service had limits on the number of web pages we could post and the amount of data transfer (user clicks) permitted. After a year with them, we realized we needed a more heavy-duty system that would have no limitations, give us full control over our data, and have no limits on usage or monthly fees. That's when we started hunting for an alternative and eventually found PHPRunner.

Project size and scope

As of December 2010, we've had PHPRunner just over a year. We have about 260 database-driven web pages and probably twice that number of tables. The 260 web page count is nearly ten times the number permitted under our old contract with the third-party vendor. Our web pages cover a wide range of topics - from local homicides and soldiers killed in Iraq/Afghanistan to alligator attacks and toy recalls. Basically, we post everything we can that we think online users will enjoy looking at or using as a research tool.

Our largest database is Florida voter registrations. This includes more than 12 million registered voters and the history of each time they voted - about 90 million records in all.

Before turning to PHPRunner, I experimented with using plain PHP to build web pages. I was a beginner at PHP but had experience with ASP.Net, so I picked up basic PHP pretty fast. However, it took me close to a week to build PHP web pages. That's way too long, since I am paid to mainly do data analysis, not build web pages. A similar PHPRunner page would take a couple of hours, tops.

Speaking of ROI

The savings to us were substantial. We spent more than $8,000 in 2009 using the third-party vendor that charged us $4,800 in annual subscription fees, plus another $4,000 in "over-usage" charges because our popular web pages exceeded our data transfer limit. If we had continued with that company, our 2010 fees probably would have been in the $15,000 to $20,000 range, based on the web pages we have build this year. Using our own server and PHPRunner, in 2010 our total cost was $396. That's the one-year cost of technical support and maintenance for our two copies of PHPRunner. The time savings in web page construction was also critical - we simply did not have the time to build them from scratch.

Next steps

Online users love maps and videos. Version 5.2 of PHPRunner gave us the ability to launch Google Maps on our web page. Now, version 5.3 has video. We're looking forward to trying that ... mainly for "User Generated Content", where users can upload a video and it automatically displays on the web page. In the future we hope to build fancier web pages, with more artwork and graphics. We've seen examples of what others have done with PHPRunner, and they look good.

Live examples

Our fallen soldiers web page

Web page for crimes on cruise ships

More info

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