Teams of Web-savvy programmers descended on Joplin, Mo., the weekend of April 27-29 to come up with proposals for a new online community engagement platform for the Midwestern city. In full rebuilding mode from the deadly tornado that struck the city in May 2011, claiming 160 lives, city leaders see the online overhaul as an extension of its physical recovery from the disaster.

In an interview with Government Technology, Joplin Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean said, “We've been doing a continuous job of building back houses, building back businesses, getting the community drawn together and everybody pitching in to make sure Joplin gets built back. This hackathon is just another form of rebuilding Joplin. It's just helping us to rebuild Joplin’s digital home.”

Sponsored by CivicPlus, a developer of government websites, the event pitted nine prequalified teams against each other in a competition with prizes in three categories: overall design, citizen engagement and emergency communications. More information about the event is available here.

In the end, however, Mark Morris, Joplin information services director and event judge, revealed to Government Technology that while winners were selected in all three categories, the caliber of ideas each team presented inspired the city to incorporate elements from every entry into the final website design.

“Those folks that came [to the hackathon] don't swing hammers, don't use saws, don't build schools and restaurants and homes — they build websites, so that's what they came to bring,” Morris said. “We are including some piece of each team's focus into the overall design.”

Among the winners was a team from the University of Missouri that offered ideas on how to build effective emergency communications into the site by enlisting citizens to select what they want to be notified about and how to receive communications. A team from Southwest Baptist University took home honors in the community engagement category, suggesting that the city utilize pop-up windows for urgent notifications. A road detour, for example, might prompt the creation of such a pop-up, allowing citizens to get more information, or alternatively close the ad if the notification does not affect them.

Solo designer Scott Runyan, originally from Kansas, was named the overall design winner at the hackathon. His engaging design, noted for its effective use of color and graphics complementing Joplin’s logo, will run throughout joplinmo.org.

Joplin officials are optimistic that they will meet an ambitious May 18 go-live date for their new website. The new site will pull together seven different Joplin websites into a single, user-friendly portal, using the winning design from the hackathon competition. The main website will also incorporate the Joplin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the health department, airport, parks and recreation, police, fire and public works. Morris explained that following the initial rollout, site operators within the city will have the ability to add some distinct features.

People interested in following the city’s rebuilding efforts will find enhanced public works data online, bringing together related information from a variety of disparate city sources. “We're bringing that all together under one umbrella, so that folks can see public works, community development, economic development, zoning, planning, all in a very easy to find format,” Morris said.

Other priorities for the redesign will be building a more intuitive, citizen-focused online experience. Rather than talking about “solid waste,” for example, the site will employ the term “trash” — a more familiar term indicative of the thinking that will guide the organization of the new site. Central frequently asked questions will be highlighted as appropriate on individual department pages as well. Joplin will also take advantage of public engagement modules available from CivicPlus to encourage transparency and ongoing dialog on the site.

City officials are confident that the new site will meet the needs of Joplin residents, who offered ideas and input in advance of the hackathon. They are also hopeful that the new portal will provide a window into their rebuilding efforts for a worldwide audience.

“We have people all over the world that are still interested in knowing what's going on with our rebuilding progress,” Colbert-Kean said. “This will be a way for them to connect instantly through a click and they're right in the middle of it with us, seeing the progress and seeing what's going on.”

CivicPlus is donating Web services to the city of Joplin, including a premium website package, ongoing training, support and hosting fees.

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.