September 3, 2010 By Chad Vander Veen
Consider briefly the number of devices that can access the Web -- cell phones, smartphones, computers, laptops, tablets, game consoles. Now imagine trying to build a website that functions well across all these platforms. The city of Boston did in recently launching a mobile version of www.cityofboston.gov to try to bridge the digital device divide.
As mobile devices evolve, some might wonder whether building a mobile version of a website still makes sense. Boston CIO Bill Oates and Raj Pareek, the city's manager of e-government initiatives, believe it does. They built an inexpensive mobile site they believe will put the city in a better position to communicate with citizens now and in the future.
Last summer, Boston launched its first iPhone application called Citizens Connect. The app was another avenue in a growing line of online municipal 311 services. Users who spot potholes, graffiti or any other nuisance can snap a picture and use Citizens Connect to immediately upload the photo to City Hall.
That deployment's success led Oates to ponder whether Boston and its residents and visitors would benefit from a mobile version of the city's official website. He asked Pareek to explore the feasibility.
"I talked to a lot of vendors, and some people were quoting a lot of money, like $100,000. We weren't sure that kind of investment was wise," Pareek said. Turned off by the expense, Pareek said he spoke with some private-sector associates who'd been working with Vancouver, British Columbia-based Mobify, a company that specializes in creating mobile versions of traditional websites.
"I was amazed how fast they were able to prototype for us and they helped us very, very fast in terms of turnaround," Pareek said. "We were shocked at the success, the low cost and the implementation." The cost, he said, came to $1,200 per year -- a pittance compared to the quotes he'd received earlier.
In late February, Pareek and his staff began work on development. The app was ready for launch just two months later, timing that ended up fortuitous. On May 1, the city of Weston, a Boston suburb, suffered from a massive water main break. Approximately 64 million gallons of water flooded from a 10-foot diameter pipe that delivers water to Boston residents. The break affected 2 million customers and forced Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to declare a state of emergency and even issue a "boil water" order for Boston and surrounding communities. The event was the mobile website's first test.
"For a couple of days we had to let people know that they had to boil their water, and that was for 2 million customers across eastern Massachusetts," Oates said. "Being able to present that information through their mobile device when they came into our mobile site was a huge improvement in our ability to communicate to constituents."
After the flood, business in Boston went back to normal. However, the mobile version of the city's website had proven itself valuable and numbers indicated the city was reaching residents who didn't normally make many connections to city government. "When we rolled out the mobile app, one thing that was interesting about it was that we were reaching a whole different constituency that had not traditionally come into City Hall or called the mayor's hotline -- or had even come on to do a Web service request," Oates said. "That was interesting to us because it was connecting the city to a whole different demographic."
The mobile site loads automatically when it detects a user is accessing the city's portal via a mobile phone. When the page loads, the user sees a pared-down version of the city's normal home page. Along the top of the page are three buttons: home, contact and payments. The payments button lists the city's available online transaction services.
In the body are links clearly designed with visitors and residents on-the-go in mind. The most accessed link on the page is information on parking in the city. When clicked, users can find information on street sweeping, towed cars, traffic advisories and even a link to pay parking tickets online.
Also prominently listed is a link for visitors to learn about Boston's history, or find historic neighborhoods and tours, parks, museums and other things to do in the city. Other content includes a city calendar, public events information and a city RSS feed.
The type of content chosen for the site was something Oates and Pareek said they thought about extensively. Because most new phones offer Web access but vary in terms of capability, it was important to deliver only the most meaningful content on a platform that was still relevant for users of powerful devices like Android and iPhone while also keeping it easily digestible by even the wimpiest phone-based browsers.
"I think we're really going to have to keep our finger on the pulse because when you look at it even now -- looking at it through a classic mobile phone or through a BlackBerry and then look at it through an Android or iPhone -- you see that you really are at a position to create a much richer presentation on some of these new devices," Pareek said. "My sense is that we need to have a continued development plan that allows us to make the easy-to-use mobile site be balanced with the easy-to-use and richer content."
Though it may seem like just a simple, stripped-down website, the mobile version of www.cityofboston.gov is much more to Oates and Pareek. They see it as a leading indicator of the changes that are fast approaching the business of government.
"I think [mobility] has come to the front and center for us," Oates said. "As we look at our priorities, at how we invest our resources, as we do our own deployment of mobile devices, even as we run city government, mobility has become more and more important.
"We're out there now with our mobile applications for constituent use [and] city employee use, all which are helping us do citizen engagement or just be more efficient as a delivery organization. How we present our overall Web information is integral to all that. So I think the whole concept of the importance of mobility has really changed how we're going to look at this, how we're going to track our development program on the website going forward."
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