While working on a new city website, technologists within city hall have their sights set on the bigger goal of making all that the municipal government does easier to find and simpler to understand for constituents.
Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT) is a relatively new agency, originally formed in May 2016, only a few months after Mayor Jim Kenney took office.
This office, which is helmed by Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski, is responsible, of course, for the city’s work with open data. But it has also been given a larger mission by the city’s leadership, one that is both public-facing and internal.
Publicly, the office is to redesign the city’s website, which Wisniewski described as “the biggest front door to government outside of the physical buildings.” While internally, the office is to work with the individual departments that make up the local government, helping them find ways to be more effective for constituents.
“ODDT is a new office that’s founded on this idea that we can bring specialized skills and practices from the tech world and the design world, and pair those with dedicated public servants inside government,” Wisniewski said, “and end up with government services that are easier to find, and understand, and interact with than ever before.”
This work is taking place while Philadelphia works to find a new CIO. Earlier this month, the city announced that Charles Brennan was out of the position, and that Deputy CIO Mark Wheeler would serve as interim CIO during a national search for a permanent replacement. This, however, will not affect the work being done by the ODDT, which does not report to the CIO but instead reports to the city’s chief administrative officer.
Wisniewski said the work on the new website, which is in beta and currently handling more than 40 percent of the city’s Web traffic, is extensive, due to the sheer number of services the government provides — from picking up trash, collecting taxes and putting out fires, to assistance programs for those who struggle to pay their water bills.
“It’s all over the place and it’s hundreds of different things,” Wisniewski said. “We’ve pored over tens of thousands of pages of content and information on the current website to start to think about what would an ideal online experience with government be.”
The team decided to build the new iteration of the website alongside continued use of its predecessor so they could collect feedback and have more flexibility to make changes during the process. Their user-centric design efforts are also being aided the PHL Participatory Design Lab, which was specifically built to assist with such work. That program has been made possible by an award from the John S. and James. L. Knight Foundation Knight Cities Challenge.
The website, however, is just the portion of this work that the public sees. As the design has coalesced and come into focus, the ODDT has been focused on two types of end-user research: the research conducted with the public and the research conducted among civil servants who help them. The office has worked diligently to make sure they identify pain points for both groups that their work can help rectify.