LimeSurvey is a peachy polling program

On the Web you can find many little utilities for doing quick polls, but if you want a professional open source survey tool, the first name on your short list should be LimeSurvey. It lets you create web surveys with many different kinds of questions, employ skip logic (that is, show a follow-up question only if a previous question had a certain answer), define open or closed surveys, and monitor the whole process with participant administration tools, quotas, a WYSIWYG HTML editor, email invitations and reminders, assessments, basic statistics, and more. Last week the project released its latest version, and this week it’s among the top 120 most active projects on SourceForge.net, with more than 400,000 total downloads and about 20,000 downloads every month.

LimeSurvey is especially useful for people who aren’t hesitant to code an additional line or two of JavaScript to make the tool do exactly what they want it to do. Because its source code is available to every user, it can be more powerful than any closed-source commercial tool – not to mention a lot cheaper.

Australian Jason Cleeland started the LimeSurvey project in early 2003, and worked on it for more than a year almost alone (besides user-submitted patches). Eventually other developers joined the project, and Cleeland turned over project leadership to Carsten Schmitz, though Cleeland is still an active team member.

Schmitz says the core team today includes three to five developers, a project and quality manager, at least three members helping in forum support, about 10 steady translators, and a horde of casual translators. LimeSurvey is available in more than 50 languages and dialects. To coordinate everyone’s efforts “we have a weekly development meeting on IRC (channel #limesurvey on Freenode.net) where talk about our next steps,” Schmitz says. “We are like a big family; I try to have an open ear and open mind all the time.”

While each team member decides what tools he will use for PHP development, the project was “lucky to get some free PhpED licenses sponsored by NuSphere, which we really appreciate since it is a great PHP IDE. We pay close attention to the HTML output, so LimeSurvey is 99.9% W3C complaint (XHMTL transitional). For that we are using mainly Firefox and plugins like HTML validator, the web developer toolbar, and Firebug.”

While Schmitz says “the project was basically born on SourceForge.net,” it has outgrown the site in some areas. “In the beginning we used almost all of the sf.net resources, like the forum, tracker, etc. But we found these tools to be very limited in function, so we set up our own server to install Joomla! and needed components. We also moved the documentation to our own wiki and the bug tracker to Mantis.” But the project retains a presence on SourceForge.net. “It’s a great platform to be ‘seen.’ We appreciate the file hosting and Subversion hosting very much since it is reliable and fast. We also use the mailing list functionality, which is working great.”

LimeSurvey is under very active development. “We have two main branches: one is the actual 1.x branch, the other one is the future 2.x branch which is still under development and completely written from scratch. For the next 1.x versions we will focus mainly on usability issues we learn about from users via feedback from LimeService, which is our own ASP platform for LimeSurvey. Thanks to LimeService I am able to work full-time on the LimeSurvey project; because of the huge number of LimeSurvey users and downloads, and the big load of project management, it would not be possible to do this part-time.

“For LimeSurvey 2 we will continue and focus development during the Google Summer of Code.”

Schmitz says, “We follow the basic line ‘Release early, release often.’ To be able to give people the latest fixes we have weekly so-called ‘Plus’ releases. They are the same basic release version but with all fixes applied so the version is rock-stable after a few weeks. Bigger versions are released about every three to six months.”

The project leader says LimeSurvey could use help in a couple of areas. “We need a translation community manager – someone to take care exclusively of translations and translators. We also need PHP developers who can commit on a steady basis and who maybe have experience with surveys. We also have a list with many more tasks. LimeSurvey usually does not attract lots of coders, since the topic ‘surveys’ is usually not so close to the coding geek. Therefore we are always happy to welcome new people to our team.”

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