City Sorting Through Web of Options

Website redesign process still in the works

The redesign reboot of the city of Austin website continues as the city prepares to pare down its initial pool of applicants for the first phase of the process.

In November 2007, the City Council voted to redesign the city's creaking Web presence. But when it came time to award the contract in March of this year – amid public outcry against awarding the redesign to an out-of-town IT firm – council decided to refresh the long-delayed redesign once again, with an eye toward local tech firms and possibly a collaborative, "crowdsourced" solution. The city ultimately decided on a two-tier process for the redesign, wherein firms would first pitch their plans and visions for the website, then a second request for proposals would be issued for the actual site builders. "Think of it like a major construction project," says Doug Matthews, the city's chief communications director. "Your architects are not your builders, so this first [request for proposals] is like the architect; the second one will be the builder. Once we have that architect in place and we have that concept and design ready to go, it will provide some clarity for whoever's coming in and doing that second stage."

In late September, the city named the 13 respondents to the city's RFP, nine of which hail from Austin: Ascendant Technology LLC, Catapult Systems, Ciber Inc., EMC Corpora­tion, EX Squared Solutions, KPMG, Prelude Systems, SteelSMBology, and Trademark Media. Matthews says the city will likely issue clarification and follow-up questions to the applicants this week; after receiving applicants' responses, the city plans to rank the RFPs, then bring in the top finalists for face-to-face interviews. Matthews says council action should be ready "definitely before the end of the year, but I would like to get it in front of them in November."

The possibility of a local, crowdsourced redesign – in which the redesign could be accomplished by several programmers working on individual parts of the project – generated lots of online excitement in the spring, after the initial contract with California-based Cignex was trashed. One of the crowdsourcing proponents was OpenAustin, a programmers' consortium pulled together by local open source advocate William Hurley.

OpenAustin was not one of the firms to apply, and Matthews says that "nothing to the level of the crowdsourced concept that was brought forward before" is present among the current applicants. However, OpenAustin is assisting the city by working to "identify content, content gaps, what exists, and where it exists" on the city website, Matthews says – "a lot of work that is going to be helpful to us regardless of who we happen to select for the RFP." As the website redesign has been stymied over the years and the second RFP – the "builder" RFP – probably won't be issued until late spring 2010, Matthews says the work should also prove helpful in improving the current website's functionality. "We've gotta start refocusing our content," Matthews says. "So we're going to go ahead and do that while this process is going on. Scrubbing the site, nailing down the content, cleaning things up. ... If there's things that we can do now, let's go ahead and do them."

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