First Great City of the 21st Century

San Diego

by / July 31, 1997
San Diego. With its balmy weather and beautiful scenery, it has been called the most beautiful city in the world. But San Diego Mayor Susan Golding has a different vision of her city -- to her, it is the "first great city of the 21st century." Golding envisions the city as an example to other jurisdictions around the world of how government can better reach its citizens.

With the help of its Web site, , San Diego is making progress toward that goal. This site -- filled with information beneficial to both San Diego's residents and visitors -- was launched in 1995 as the result of a request by the City Council. At that time, council members wanted to use the Web as a way to access the municipal code and allow citizens to learn a little more about their council members. The council's request and the subsequent launch of the site came "at a time when the city was really focusing on public access, through kiosks and other means," explained Diane Bebber, public access technology program manager for the Department of Information Technology and Communications.

San Diego Online
Following the site's initial success, many of the city's departments wanted to put information on the Web as well. At that point, Bebber and her colleagues had to step back and decide what the direction of the site should be and clarify its primary goals and objectives. Today, most of the content is developed by the departments themselves, and all the art and layout is done by graphic designers in the city's print shop. Some of the departments do their own HTML, but Bebber's department has a team available to do it as well.

"What I'm really proud of," Bebber said, "is that this was all done using the talent we had within the city staff. We didn't use any consultants or outside sources -- we did it ourselves." Working together, the city's various agencies and departments have created more than 500,000 pages of information.

With an initial glance at San Diego's home page, the user can see that a lot of thought and effort went into creating the simple but interesting design. One of the elements that makes this a great site is immediately visible -- its organization and navigability. Through the use of a graphic "file," the information on the home page is organized into five sections labeled "Elected Officials," "City Organization," "Business Centers, "City Services" and "Regional Links." When one of these is clicked, it will open up to another level of organization, with well-labeled areas helping the user find what he or she is looking for.

Besides information about most of the city's departments, including contact information and a description of what each department handles, the site offers citizens a quick and easy way to interact with government. Through the mayor's page, citizens can offer their views as to what the city needs to do to move into the 21st century. If there is a problem with trash pick-up or recycling, users can fill out a form online that will get a quick result. If there is a problem with the streets, the city's street division can be contacted through another form. Citizens can also download Acrobat files of permit applications or the city budget. Despite all the graphics and technology involved, Bebber said they have really made an effort to make the site easy and fast for users of low- to mid-speed modems.

According to Bebber, two of the more popular areas of the site are the police department and the libraries. Besides offering information about the police department, this area also offers crime statistics for San Diego that are updated monthly, information on police department careers, auction information and more. The library's pages seem to be popular for two reasons. First,
users can access the library's central catalog and browse for specific books through a telnet session. The other popular area is the list of links the library offers, which features many megasites.

Life's A Beach
The site is also valuable for those outside San Diego. In the business and financial area, businesses can find out more information on the advantages of doing business in San Diego. And for those seeking a little more fun, the "Beaches" page offers descriptions of the beaches, their neighborhoods and some stunning pictures of the scenery. Bebber commented that she has received several e-mails from former San Diegans who have told her how excited they are to be able to keep up with their home city through the Web. Several said the beautiful pictures made them homesick.

The site has even helped bring fame to San Diego's lifeguards. A European company found the lifeguards' Web site, and now the city's lifeguards will be featured in a segment on the Discovery Channel on saving lives.

The number of hits the site receives is proof of its effectiveness. In the first six months of 1997, the site received more than 4.6 million hits and at press time was receiving 35,000 hits per day, with a steady increase of 20 percent per month.

Real Audio San Diego
According to Bebber, the site is on the brink of a redesign and is expected to add more departments and features over the next several months.

One of the exciting features that Bebber and her staff tested was making Real Audio versions of council meetings and a few archives available over the Web. "The mayor's office asked us to look into providing more audio and video over the Web, and since the audio technology is more advanced than video, that's what I decided to pursue," Bebber explained. Her department contracted out with a local company to transfer the City Council proceedings from a phone line to the Internet over a one-month period. This allowed users to listen to the council meeting or search the archives. "This was really a test. It was not widely publicized. ," Bebber said. "We only advertised it in areas where people who were interested in the City Council docket information would normally come, i.e. in specific areas of the site, in City Hall, etc." Bebber stressed that the experiment was a learning experience. "We learned that people were familiar with Real Audio, but that the live version of the City Council was not as helpful as the archives. This venue will be good for special hearings or events." Overall, however, Bebber is proud of the effort.

Soon, she said, the site will add information on housing and government employment -- areas for which Bebber has received numerous requests. Other areas slated for expansion include the city's purchasing department, which will offer RFPs online, and extended options for online payment of water bills, business tax, rental tax and more.

San Diego's Web site is a great example of how a city or other jurisdiction can reach out to citizens, help make government work better and give people another look at the community they live in. "This is really how people think about public access," Bebber said. "This is our chance to show citizens who we are and what we can and do for them."

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