January 6, 2012 By Brian Heaton
It took the better part of a decade, but Austin, Texas, finally has a state-of-the-art official website.
The city published a beta version of its new Web presence on Dec. 19, 2011, featuring a revamped user-based navigation system, a centrally located search function and a rotating image and news marquee. The launch was a culmination of more than a year of work and the first time since the 2002-2003 time frame that there was a major overhaul to the site.
Chris Florance, the city of Austin’s Web content manager, said the long delay was due to budgetary problems and continuous personnel changes, including a lack of leadership in the departments that were primarily responsible for the site.
But once leadership was in place in 2009, preparations were made to move forward with an entirely new design. A vendor was brought in two years ago to evaluate the external and internal usage of Austin’s website and to make suggestions for the layout and the content management system (CMS).
The city started working on the site in mid-2011 after the vendor’s recommendations were finalized. AustinTexas.gov now features the open source Drupal content management system, and the implementation and migration of the site’s content took approximately six months to complete.
The new site is based on five distinct information portals. The city tailored its content according to the various groups that use the website the most: residents, businesses, developers, government personnel and those vested in environmental issues.
“One of the biggest problem areas [of the old site] was usability for the public,” Florance said. “People would come in and have to spend a lot of time to find the resource or access to the city service. That was the key problem that we had.”
Site navigation was previously structured around the city’s organization — not the user experience. So the city is now treating each of the main five content areas on the primary landing page as separate home pages.
The hope is people become vested in the area that’s most applicable to them and then each section will be further enhanced as interest builds.
“One of the big things we got back from the community is that they don’t care — with some small exceptions such as parks and police — what city department offers a service,” Florance explained. Users know what they want to accomplish when visiting the site. “We tried to … not create a website that you have to know what every department does.”
One of the key attributes the new Austin website needed to have was the ability to incorporate new technologies as they develop. The city’s old website operated on an antiquated ColdFusion publishing system that only allowed staffers to make changes on a page-by-page basis.
The new CMS changes the playing field, allowing for global changes to the site. In addition, by being an open source platform, as technology advances, the CMS can be updated to account for it.
The city also was concerned about how the redesigned site looks on mobile devices. Florance said the grid design used for AustinTexas.gov displays well on tablets and mobile phones — accomplishing a goal the city had for the project.
No separate mobile application was developed, but the website’s mobile version is automatically picked up by devices that go to the city’s URL.
In addition, a “Feedback” tab was incorporated into the website’s beta version. The function has been useful. Florance said more than 500 comments have been received since the site went live. Those comments have consisted of everything from simple typos to bugs that affected the website functionality — and even potential accessibility issues.
“What’s been invaluable is that drill-down, incredible focus some of the community has brought to the feedback,” Florance said. Users alerted staff quickly, which allowed the city to get the fixes done in a timely fashion. “They really caught some things that we weren’t seeing in terms of missing resources.”
Users have been so helpful that, even when the site reaches the end of the beta period later this month — Jan. 26 is the target date — the city will likely keep the feedback function active to help stay on top of maintenance issues.
While it has plenty of new bells and whistles, AustinTexas.gov is far from a finished product. The “In My Neighborhood” application, which lets users know what police district they’re in and where the nearest parks and libraries are, will eventually evolve to include much more data.
The app works off the city’s GIS map. In the future, the program will contain seasonal information such as pool closures and street closures for parades and marathons. Other additions to the site will include expanded blogging functionality to offer fresh content and further communication to citizens through email lists and online newsletters.
Austin is also a Code for America (CfA) city in 2012. The nonprofit organization pairs technology and Web developers, designers and enthusiasts with cities to foster innovation.
Florance said the fellows who are headed to Austin in February may be involved with future upgrades to the city’s new Web presence, as the site was built to align with the CfA’s vision of developing reusable civic technology.
“We used that open source [CMS] platform to hopefully create a best practice implementation for communities and share what we learned and what we’ve worked on,” Florance said.
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