March 17, 2010 By Russell Nichols
For the past nine years, Chicago residents had to deal with a city Web site that was sluggish and clunky, leaving users with more questions than answers.
But, city officials promised, the new Web site unveiled March 12 will make it easier for residents to pay their city bills and parking tickets online, apply for city licenses, use social media tools and find services even if they don't know which city department offers them.
Chicago officials had to update the site if they had any chance of keeping up with the city's surging Web-savvy population, said Chicago's CIO Hardik Bhatt. The city's site attracts 1 million visitors every month and in the past three years, the number of online payment transactions shot from 240,000 to more than 600,000.
"The technology has changed so much," Bhatt said. "There was a tremendous appetite in terms of people wanting to interact with city government online."
With a price tag of $1.8 million, paid for by general obligation bond funding, the new site offers 3,500 "people-centric" pages of information, including a tech locator feature to find Wi-Fi hotspots. Visitors can find information about city contracts and payments, budgets, Freedom of Information Act requests and other city data.
"The old site was very department-centric," Bhatt said. "You needed to know which department utilized the service to get the service."
Not anymore. Users only need to type in a keyword, and the resources will pop up. Even if people are looking for something the city doesn't handle, such as birth certificates, the site still points them in the right direction. Users can subscribe to content via RSS feeds, an embedded Google search engine simplifies the data hunt and a multimedia gallery provides links to various social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and city YouTube channels.
On the front page, the site displays a "Chicago, Did You Know?" fact of the day. For example: In 1900, Chicago successfully undertook a massive and highly innovative engineering project -- to reverse the flow of the Chicago River so that it emptied into the Mississippi River rather than Lake Michigan.
Bells and whistles aside, Bhatt said, the best thing about the new Web site is "being able to give people the services they want."
The site was designed by in-house project managers with assistance from Oak Brook, Ill.-based consulting firm of Crowe Horwath. For inspiration, city officials looked at award-winning government Web sites chosen by the Center for Digital Government. Bhatt said they paid particular attention to the sites that consistently placed high such as the Aurora, Colo. and the Tucson, Ariz. Web sites.
Chicago's new site was also modeled after the Explore Chicago tourism site, which launched early last year. But one major difference is that, for the new site, officials decided to simplify the infrastructure. Instead of paying for additional layers of licensing and a database to house and back up content, they chose to use only the prepackaged content for authoring and publishing and an open source operating system that hosts Web, content and authoring servers.
According to Bhatt, the city saved more than $100,000 in capital costs and about $15,000 in operating costs by making this decision.
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