November 10, 2010 By Colin Wood
An online tool’s usefulness often depends on whether people know how to use it. With this in mind, the Council of State Governments (CSG), a regional forum and network for state governments, redesigned its unwieldy database of policy information. In May, the council opened the Knowledge Center, an online collection of more than 700 policy reports, resolutions, blog posts and magazine articles that have been narrowly categorized and tagged for easy access, rich content integration and seamless navigation.
The website uses the Drupal content management system, which allows the CSG’s content division of about 15 people to update the Knowledge Center, usually without technical assistance. As a result, the database is growing quickly — by about 50 items per month.
On the CSG’s previous website, all the information was there, but users had to hunt down each piece of information separately and needed to understand the structure of the website to find what they were looking for, said Jennifer Boyter, associate director of policy and special libraries for the CSG.
“With the Knowledge Center, you don’t have to know how we’re organized to find things,” Boyter said. “If you have a legislator who’s a chairman of a health committee, for example, he can find information just related to health and filter it that way and it’s all in one place.”
Connecticut state Rep. Bob Godfrey, co-chair of the CSG, said the Knowledge Center is a great hub of policy information that allows users to easily keep track of what’s going on.
“It’s on my list of favorites of the to-be-checked-daily column,” Godfrey said. “It’s just so handy. We need an abbreviated way to get detailed information on an issue we’re involved in that will allow us to ask intelligent questions.”
Godfrey, who has been working on bringing high-speed rail to the northeast, can check the Knowledge Center for information on broad policy areas such as transportation or energy, or he can filter those results down to the “high-speed rail” or alternative funding sources category. Once he has finished reading a news article about federal intercity rail funding, for instance, there is a box labeled “More like this” that contains closely related articles, which provides an easy transition to something else he may be interested in.
Staying in touch with what’s going on across the country and seeing all the information about a topic in one place is very useful, Godfrey said.
If he doesn’t have time to check the website, he can subscribe to one of those categories’ RSS feeds and receive updates in an RSS reader or stay in touch with CSG’s new posts via Twitter or Facebook feeds. In other words, he can customize the type of content he wants to come to him, rather than spending time hunting for one piece of data at a time.
An advantage of content management systems like Drupal is that they allow relevant content to be closely linked. Many posts have charts, graphs, spreadsheets and PDFs attached so users can take a closer look at the data if they want. Providing downloadable content within the articles also gives users an easy way of taking the data with them once they’ve navigated away from the website.
CSG Web programmer Jason Burgbacher said they looked at a number of different content management systems —free and open source systems like Joomla and Drupal as well as some expensive enterprise-level options.
“Drupal is one of the most customizable content management systems,” Burgbacher said. “It’s really polished looking.”
Drupal is known for its active support community and thorough documentation. The Drupal website has case studies that show working implementations of what Drupal can do, with detailed explanations of how the implemented features work. Burgbacher said he likes that.
Enterprise-level software was too expensive for the council’s budget, and Burgbacher said he didn’t see any particular reason to use expensive software anyway. In this case, Drupal fit the bill.
Looking forward, Boyter said the CSG plans to integrate more regional content into the Knowledge Center. She said they’ve been playing catch-up since launch, but their four regional offices (CSG East, CSG Midwest, CSG South and CSG West) have a lot of content to offer that may be useful to policymakers everywhere. Their plan is to put all of it in one place.
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