Grading the City's New Website: Incomplete
The city launches its new website, trailing bells, whistles, and bugs
Farewell, www.ci.austin.tx.us and www.cityofaustin.org. Hello, www.austintexas.gov. More than four years after City Council voted to redesign the city's online presence, the new-look website is up and running. City management says the new site – which was "launched" and went fully live on Jan. 26 – emphasizes accessibility, brings new functionality, and ultimately should change how people use the site. City Communications Director Doug Matthews said, "Now that we've got the bones in place, we start confidently building." So regular users must adapt to a completely new design, staff must adopt new ways of handling content, and all this has to happen while fixes are being implemented and omissions filled.
The redesign comes in two parts. On the main website, users will be streamed by their interest, with separate portals for business and residential users, a dedicated city government page, plus specific portals dealing with development and environmental issues. For hardened data miners, there's an open government portal, data.austintexas.gov, collating everything from city finances to restaurant inspection reports. The idea is to get more use out of data that went ignored on the old site. Matthews said, "We had nearly 10,000 pages – close to 60,000 with all the linked documents – and if you looked at the analytics, there was a pretty significant drop-off in use after about the first 500." That meant the new site couldn't just be a one-for-one port of the old site; while that would have been quicker, it meant a more systematic approach to creating a whole new architecture.
And that also means a rough transition for regular visitors to the old site – cranky and tough to navigate as it was, at least they knew where everything was.
However, the biggest change may be behind the scenes. The city has adopted Drupal 7 – the latest version of the system used by WhiteHouse.gov – as its content management platform. Instead of having communications staff handle updates, each department will be responsible for its own Web presence. Under the new system, Matthews said, "We have dozens of people in the city to make changes and to update content." That means his office will shift from content provision to content manager support, "so that folks that aren't full-time Web people are well-equipped to put good content in and organize that content appropriately."
To date, most of the project has been city-developed. Staff originally planned to hire an external contractor to oversee the site's development and introduction but instead handled the process in-house. The upside is that the city only spent about $40,000 on outside firms, and that reliance on professional volunteers continues with the city's new partnership with Code for America. CFA is a nonprofit, funded primarily by large corporate backers like Microsoft and Yahoo; it partners with cities to find Web-based solutions to previously unrecognized problems. For example in Boston, CFA created an Adopt-a-Hydrant program, through which residents can sign up online to clear the snow from fire hydrants, saving fire crews time and money: The same system has been repurposed for monitoring tsunami sirens in Honolulu. Three of CFA's 2012 fellows, including designer Emily Wright Moore, have just arrived in Austin, and their first job will be to work out what it is the city doesn't know it needs. Moore said, "There's such a large tech community and designers and civic hacktivists and people who would want to be engaged more, and I think the government would like to be a bit more open to the community so that they can contribute and collaborate and make things a little better by working together."
However, Matthews is aware that there's a lot of work to do and that the current site is far from perfect. On Dec. 16, the city opened up the site on beta status, giving the public a month to test it to destruction. The original Jan. 12 launch date was pushed back two weeks, which Chief Information Officer Stephen Elkins told council was to allow for additional user feedback. His team got plenty of comments, many of which were brutal and specific. In total, the team received 824 pieces of feedback, everything from minor typos to incorrect data to specific concerns about readability. Offline, City Hall regulars complained that the changeover was poorly handled, leaving them temporarily scrambling between two incomplete websites – one outdated, one still being built – to find essential info.
The feedback didn't come just from casual users; one member of the city's own Planning and Development Review Department had to ask why information about neighborhood planning was not in the obvious places. The single biggest source of complaints has been the recycling pages, which accounted for one out of every six pieces of user feedback – much of it about missing information. Matthews said, "At launch, we had to prioritize content. We had to get the high-use content on there, and we had to run it through its paces."
So now the city has launched a site that seems stable, if not complete. The feedback meant that some issues have been fixed, others are currently being worked on, and others have been pulled back onto the development server for a total rethink. However, the biggest issue remains how people will find what they're looking for. "Google has really spoiled everyone," Matthews said, "but Google's had a long time to aggregate all that information. We're using an open-source search engine, and essentially we're starting from zero." The system will get better as it tracks users' queries, he said, "but there's got to be a critical mass of use in order for it to effectively do that."