Have you ever gone to a favorite website only to discover it was upgraded and you couldn’t find anything? Roanoke County, Va., officials are hoping that by hosting a free discussion forum that trains citizens on how to use the county’s new interactive website, residents will avoid that frustration.

The Community Digital Forum, to be held Wednesday, June 29, will feature hands-on instruction on how to navigate the website and use features such as emergency alerts and mobile applications. CivicPlus, the firm that developed and designed the county’s updated Web presence, will also be present to provide technical details.

While Roanoke County’s latest website has been active since mid-March, it was a small training seminar with a local civic league conducted about the site a few weeks ago that spurred the idea that a bigger educational component was needed, according to Teresa Hamilton Hall, the county’s public information director.

“We saw through the civic league meeting the excitement with citizens that they can find information they didn’t know was available,” Hall said.

Hall added that the audience was “like a sponge” and absorbed the knowledge she and Gray Craig, Roanoke County Web content manager, gave them regarding all the website’s features. The experience indicated a need for a larger meeting.

As it turns out, CivicPlus officials were thinking along the same lines. Roanoke County and CivicPlus personnel will be on-hand during the forum to field questions about the website and its functionality.

“We really had thought about embracing more community training meetings, and about the same time we were putting this together, CivicPlus contacted us saying they’d like to do a pilot program,” Craig said.

The forum will take place at the Roanoke County Public Safety Center and will sit approximately 110 people. A 20-foot screen with projectors will allow the audience to see the website’s new features in action, while 10 to 12 laptop workstations will be set up so that attendees can learn the ins and outs of the various messaging tools and interactivity available at the county’s online home.

Public safety officials will also be available to show attendees how to access the latest county information online, such as road closures, evacuation notices and various emergency instructions in a crisis situation.

“It is our hope that this community event will become a model for public-private collaboration in technology education,” said Ward Morgan, president of CivicPlus, in a statement.

  

Going Social

Craig explained that while the county did a fairly low-key relaunch of the site in March and has received generally positive feedback, it wasn’t until about a month later that that some difficulties surfaced, particularly with the “Notify Me” notification system. Most of the issues, while minor, concerned people over-subscribing to informational categories and then getting bombarded via e-mail or text message.

But Craig was confident that with a beefed-up calendar system that allows for attaching documents and pictures, RSS feeds and widespread use of social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, citizens will ultimately find the new system tremendously useful.

“Being able to disseminate and distribute information and share more socially is what we’ve been trying to accomplish [with the site] and we’ve been pretty successful so far,” Craig said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.