Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doin' the Vatican Web: A sneak preview from the capo

This interview was originally published in Italian as "Un clic per entrare nella casa del Papa" (Click once to enter the Father's house). We bring it to you in English. One comment: As a frequent and frequently frustrated user of the Vatican Web site in spite of being a professional librarian with more than passing familiarity with Catholic Church structure, I have many, many ideas for a redesign but, according to this interview, it is an intentionally one-way enterprise. No feedback solicited or welcome.

by Gianluca Biccini
L'Osservatore Romano

It's the site of the Pope and the Holy See, the point on the Web where the Petrine magisterium is present and alive, "the Pontiff's virtual arm, legs, voice", the way to get to "urbi et orbi" via the digital highway -- this is the image that the man responsible for the Internet service of the Vatican Governorate, Argentine bishop Mons. Lucio Adrian Ruiz, chooses to speak about the Internet domain that allows access to information about the activities of Benedict XVI and the Holy See. Born in 1965 in Santa Fe, where he was ordained a priest at twenty-five, Bishop Ruiz is a specialist in the field, having done extensive studies in his home country and in Spain, and taught information sciences in two universities in Rome and Bogota.

What is

It's the cornerstone on which the official presence on the Web of the Pope and the Apostolic See rests. This site, we can say, is a virtual presence of the Petrine ministry of the Pontiff to the universal Church on the Internet. An "extra" with respect to the traditional media - newspapers, radio and television - because thanks to the Web, you can read, listen to and view again anywhere -- "to the extreme ends of the earth" -- any content that is there permanently. Anyone who wants to, can draw from the official source the full text and words of papal teachings without going through other media, where they are often cut and interpreted at will.

Is the only official site of the Vatican?

As the site of "the Pope", yes. But there is a whole ".va" family that officially presents the different aspects of the Apostolic See: and and too, and so on. Starting this year, many other sites of the various Roman dicastries will come into being as part of the ".va" family, ie, a virtual presence and representation of what one finds in true reality when one visits the Apostolic See in Rome. We consider a kind of virtual window for the Pope to the Web, like the Angelus one, which allows the Pope to "look out on the Internet", to appear and make his voice heard and his presence felt throughout the world . A window that allows, to some extent, the exercise of the Petrine ministry of the universal father and teacher over the Internet. Therefore, just as there is no room for dialogue with those who come to see and hear the Pope during the Angelus in St. Peter's Square, our site does not provide interactivity with users -- it isn't a chat line or a social network, nor is there an e-mail address to write to him.

Why not?

There are both practical and theological reasons. Regarding the first, just think how many people would want to interact with the Pope, which would make it impossible to manage a workload like that; as regards the latter, it must be remembered that the universal mission belongs to the Pope, while for the staff, for contact with every single individual, there are priests and bishops, whose role should be enhanced to avoid the risk of suppressing the wealth of the Church, which has a whole hierarchy of ministries and charisms. However, this does not mean that we do not realize the need to modernize the language, to make it understandable to users of the Internet today, which has changed so much since the site first appeared. So we are considering not only a graphic but also a structural renovation that will allow the content, even the virtual presence of the Pope, to be used in a better way on the Internet.

How is it going?

First of all it should be clarified that it will be a long process -- has 500,000, that is to say, half a million pages in it. But it will still be done. To begin this process, we have posed two questions. The first: how to make the Pope "live" on the Web, i.e. how to present his Petrine ministry in the digital age. The second: how to deepen the knowledge of the Web, its language and its culture, to give suitable answers, as requested by Benedict XVI in his message for World Communications Day 2010. "The increased availability of the new technologies demands greater responsibility on the part of those called to proclaim the Word, but it also requires them to become become more focused, efficient and compelling in their efforts," and John Paul II wrote: "The engagement in the media, however, is not just multiplying the announcement: it is a deeper matter, because the evangelization of this modern culture depends largely on their influence." But that is already permanently present at all levels - audio, video and text - live or delayed, and the whole world can see, hear, learn their thinking, drawing from official source. Ultimately is not just a site but is "the missionary image of the Pope" in digital format, in various languages and locations, thanks to the technology tools that allow it.

How long has the official site existed?

The first version, a page with the message from John Paul II, dates back to Christmas 1995. The site with the navigation sections - the Holy Father, the Roman Curia, information services, archives - was published during Easter in 1997. In my view, a truly historical event, like many other major events, marked by the missionary vision of a Pope who understood that this tool allowed him to get "to the extreme ends of the earth." Today, with Benedict, all this takes on a new life because his recent messages placed the Internet among the new tools at the service of the Word which can not be ignored by the Church. That rush of grace and life that flows from the Eucharist has a new channel to reach people all over the world and the Church must accept this challenge.

Can you briefly described the main items?

The most active area that is updated daily is dedicated to the papacy of Benedict XVI. The activity calendar lists all commitments with the relevant documentation: video, text and photographs. The texts are published on the website in real time, possibly in multiple languages. A section is devoted to the teaching of the popes since 1900. All documents are collected according to specific types: encyclicals, motu proprio, apostolic letters, apostolic constitutions, messages, which are combined with the catecheses and all the daily pronouncements, such as speeches, homilies, letters, the Angelus, prayers. For example, on the screen of the liturgical celebrations, you can see the updated calendar of the Pope's commitments, accompanied by information and photographs.

Are new items being planned?

We're going to expand the section on the Popes, including all the successors of Peter, trying to put the key documents of each one so as to have the common thread of papal teaching online. A collection on actions related to the diplomatic activity of the Holy See will be forthcoming. There will soon be new documents in the Chinese section. And we are working on a video archive of the Pope: we will create, that is, a page with the collection of all films currently on the site. It must be recalled that since August 2009 we have been recording streaming broadcast by the Vatican Television Center for individual events associated with the activity of the Pope and inserting videos in their points of reference -- the Angelus, audiences, homilies, travel, for example.

And the Focus page?

This area of the home page is dedicated to the launch of new screens. New icons are made from time to time to showcase a new area of the site.

Other languages are currently being used. Are you planning any others?

A possible opening to Russian and Arabic is being projected, but on the question of language, a problem arises due to the possibility of available staff.

How many hits are there daily?

On average three million hits a day when there are extraordinary events. But it should be noted that these are hits, not users. Because a user can log on several times a day. Only with a new statistical system - we are in the process of implementation - will we know the actual number of people who surf the site.

What are the countries that "click" most often?

In order, the top ten with the most hits are the United States, Italy, Spain, Germany and Brazil, followed by South Korea, Mexico, Canada, France and China.

What is the "rush hour" for traffic [to the site]?

The busiest time is between 3 p.m. and midnight (Rome time).

What are the most wanted items?

The search engines record the most typed words as: "vatican o vaticano", "catholic", "romano", "osservatore", "church", "santa". [Translator's note: the bishop is giving us a literal, multilingual list of search terms]

Is it possible to trace the identikit of the Web surfer while he (or she) is moving around the information universe of the Holy See?

Depends on the time and occasion. For example, during Holy Week, it is a more spiritual presence; in the case of special events such as the travels of the Pope, it is more journalistic and general information instead. When John Paul II died and for Benedict XVI's election both streams coincided, the religious one and the informational one.

A fascinating theme is security and hacker attacks. Can we talk about any?

There have been several incidents over the years, not to mention the daily attacks from different entities, but it's better not to linger on this for security reasons. There has always been a good relationship with Interpol, the telecommunications police and Italian intelligence to help us in our daily analysis and careful protection of our systems. We also have a lot of help from the companies that produce safety systems, in addition to the customer-supplier relationship, there is great affection for the Pope that pulls together really important efforts. Like all large systems, we are subject to the appetite of the "hacker" or the professional. We must always be careful and follow the development of information security issues.

At this point, let's talk about the Internet service.

It's something that has a double duty: the Internet service and the Internet services, namely, to provide, to all the Apostolic See, Internet access and all services connected to it (web, mail, etc..) to put forward on the one hand, the digital presence of the Pope, the Holy See and Vatican City in the Internet universe, and on the other hand, to bring the world to the Pope and the Holy See in the opposite direction, stimulating the flow required by the Church for a new evangelization in a "new culture". This depends institutionally on the Telecommunications Directorate of the Vatican City State, which brings together the various telecommunications services with the intent to offer effective and efficient service in this area.

How is it organized?

We are twenty people in a double structure, like a body that has two lungs: the technical staff and the documentary-graphics one. The first takes care of the technological aspects for two purposes: to give access to the Internet and provide Internet services, the second coordinates and places the content that comes from the Holy See and the State of Vatican City and is destined for the site. Therefore it deals with the organizational and graphical aspects of Similar work is done for related sites which are autonomous because they are particularly complex, but at the same time interact with us. Among the biggest ones I can think of are Vatican Radio and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples with its agency, Fides, but now we have eleven awaiting launch, including "L'Osservatore Romano" too. But the thing to emphasize is that this dual structure, the two lungs, have the consciousness of being part of one body and this unit not only creates a synergistic force of mutual aid but, above all, of studying and understanding the great mission to be accomplished for the Church, to bring the Pope's persona, his presence in the Internet world "to the extreme ends of the earth."

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