The Web Collective presents

Survival International

A case study from The Web Collective

Survival is the worldwide movement for tribal peoples. It's also one of the most innovative and successful campaigning organizations in the world.

The challenges

  • Build a network of online campaigners to respond to urgent human rights violations
  • Scale the site architecture so that it can cope with enormous spikes in traffic due to media interest
  • Increase sustainable traffic to the site
  • Build a flexible web and email publishing system to showcase the vibrant and successful ways that tribal peoples live, and draw attention to the governments and corporations who would destroy them

The strategies

Winning campaigns.

As well as online petitions and email actions, Survival's web platform allows supporters to write good old-fashioned paper letters to campaign targets. A ready-to-print PDF file lands in the supporter's inbox; tens of thousands of letters are sent this way, and subsequent letters can be produced with just one click.

Receiving hundreds (or even thousands) of printed letters from around the world has had an impact on campaign targets far greater than any number of easier-to-block emails.

We increased the conversion rate of online campaigns by over 50% by allowing supporters to sign petitions and send email actions using their Facebook details. Two clicks later, a new supporter has signed up to receive campaign alerts by email and their signature has been added to the petition. Those opting to not use Facebook can still sign with their name and email address: a real-time spam detection algorithm reduces abuse to almost zero.

Scaling to millions.

We helped Survival increase its average monthly site traffic to 200,000 unique visitors and beyond. But the real magic happens when, out of nowhere, a news story catches the world's imagination and millions of visitors descend on the site in a matter of hours.

By the time this happens, it's too late to start making plans to scale your web servers. You need to have everything in place ready to go, but you don't want to pay for enough resources year-round to deal with the occasional mega-spikes.

Because the resources used by our technical strategy are effectively pay-as-you-go, there is relatively little overhead needed until a big news story hits.

Achieving scale: the techie stuff

  • Pushing all static assets onto Amazon Cloudfront-backed asset servers, meaning that images, documents, video files, stylesheets and javascripts are distributed to data centres around the world for lightning-fast delivery, and taking much of the load off the application servers
  • Making every task interfacing with third-party systems asynchronous using a queuing system (subscribing to a mailing list, emailing a PDF file, sending a thank you message…) so the response time to supporter actions is measured in milliseconds and the queue workers catch up in their own time
  • Caching aggressively in-memory using memcached, reducing load on application servers and cutting the database servers out of most requests
  • Using cloud hosting with the good folks at Engine Yard, so new servers can be spun up and a full production environment deployed within minutes -- this is also a huge benefit for disaster recovery, so the whole site and all its data can be relocated to any Amazon data centre in the world in 10 minutes
  • Selectively turning on full-page caching to disk for certain pages when under very high load, so nginx can serve static pages at extremely high speed: this is all managed through a web-based front end so all application servers are working in unison
  • All embedded content (e.g. film and petition embeds) is served directly from Amazon S3, and as the content is updated through the CMS a worker process updates the S3 files accordingly. Gawker wants to embed a video? Bring it on!

On film.

Survival's films have been watched well over 7 million times online, and reached countless more viewers on TV and DVD. Celebrities including Colin Firth, Joanna Lumley, Julie Christie, Gillian Anderson and David Mitchell have provided voiceovers for Survival films produced by members of The Web Collective.

Producing films that inspire, entertain and drive people to take action is tough, but building the architecture to distribute them is another challenge.

Example: 'Mine: Story of a Sacred Mountain'

  • Narrated by Joanna Lumley
  • Produced and directed by Toby Marsden, with cinematography by Lewis Davids
  • Won 'Best Human Rights Short' at the Artivist Film Festival, Los Angeles
  • Went viral online, and has had 1m views to date
  • The Dongria Kondh have now won an historic victory over mining giant Vedanta Resources following a sustained Survival campaign

Survival films are syndicated to YouTube and Vimeo, but the primary delivery mechanism is a custom video player based on JW Player, with video content dynamically streamed in high definition using Amazon Cloudfront. This allows Survival to have complete control over the user experience, and means films can be instantly updated with new messaging and in-video campaigns -- even updating films that have already been embedded on third-party sites. It also reduces the organisation's reliance on other platforms, making the distribution process more resilient to attack.

Example: 'Uncontacted Tribes: Extraordinary Footage'

  • Narrated by Gillian Anderson
  • Written by Toby Marsden, edited by Lewis Davids
  • Over 4.5m views
  • Embedded on third party sites including Fox News, Gawker and the New York Times
  • We developed a custom plugin for Survival's video player, allowing a petition to be signed from within the video, even when embedded on other sites and even from within the Facebook News Feed
  • Result: 50,000 new supporters added to the email list in the 24 hours after launch
  • The film and campaign put paid to efforts by oil executives and government ministers to deny the existence of uncontacted tribes. A 100,000 signature petition made headlines when it was delivered to the Peruvian government.

Many tongues.

As an international organization speaking seven languages, Survival needed a web platform to match. But we wanted to go further than usual, to make every language a first-class citizen:

  • Films have subtitles in the correct language overlaid in real-time, and are fully editable through the admin interface
  • Complex, dynamically laid out pages can be quickly translated with no redesign work needed
  • It's not just the text on the page that's translatable: even the URLs of every page on the site are language-appropriate, too

We needed to develop custom tooling to enable much of this, but the end result is that everything can be published in every language on the same day it debuts in English, with very efficient use of staff time.

The release of this video of a West Papuan man being tortured by Indonesian troops triggered a huge DDoS attack against Survival

Secure by design.

Survival is regularly attacked by governments and corporations with effectively limitless resources. Although we can't talk publicly about most of the security countermeasures, the organisation takes security extremely seriously:

  • The site is protected by a worldwide network of filters to stop Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, such as the one by supporters of the Indonesian government that made headlines in 2010
  • No credit card data are stored anywhere on Survival's systems
  • Supporter data, even including names and email addresses, are encrypted automatically with some of the most advanced encryption algorithms available

Survival's extraordinary effectiveness as a campaigning organisation makes it a juicy target; keeping its systems secure and costs to a minimum is a vital job—and an interesting challenge.

Innovative publishing.

To get beyond template-driven web publishing, we created some software which lets non-technical people create their own web page layouts. Standard styles and fonts are applied so the pages fit in with the rest of the site, and the resulting pages are automatically fully responsive -- so they look great on every screen from mobile phones up to giant projections. Take a look at a few examples: no coding was involved in any of these pages.
The MatsésGet CreativeRun a marathon!

The techie stuff

A custom jQuery plugin paired with some back-end magic allows for complex, responsive Bootstrap layouts to be designed using a click-and-drag interface with live preview. The layout information is stored in the database as JSON and rendered to HTML on demand, with the Liquid templating engine merging in the per-language translations on the fly.

Tech briefing.

Survival's website is built on Ruby on Rails: it's a complex application with 146 models and more than 42,000 lines of code. It interfaces with more than a dozen third party services, from credit card processors to direct debit agencies, database applications to real-time spam detection. Rails is the ideal platform for a project of this scope and ambition: a vibrant ecosystem of third-party software means there's no need to reinvent the wheel, and it's extremely fast to develop and easy to deploy.

Automation built in.

Survival's supporter services team use to manage supporter records. (The Salesforce Foundation donates licenses to eligible nonprofits.) Whenever an online donation is made, the web platform connects to the Salesforce database and enters the details of the donation automatically. It even handles the Gift Aid status both for new and existing supporters.

And when a monthly donation is completed, the payment processor sends an automated, secure message to the Survival website, which in turn updates the Salesforce database accordingly. This level of automation has helped Survival do even more with its resources, and virtually eliminates administration and data entry for online giving.

Any questions?

Let's find out how The Web Collective can help your organization to revolutionize its online campaigning and fundraising.

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