Austin Web Portal Ready for Redesign

Austin gauged citizen preferences before redesigning the city's portal.

by / October 5, 2008

Austin is one of the nation's leading high-tech cities, so one would assume it had a cutting-edge city portal. But the city doesn't.

The Austin portal uses a 2003 design that citizens struggle to navigate. It offers only a few types of online transactions with the city, and the various agency Web pages within the site lack a consistent appearance, said one city official. Until recently, the portal's Web traffic tracking software told the city little about usage and the site had an arcane search function. City officials are trying to eliminate this little embarrassment with an ambitious portal redesign they hope to finish by late 2009.

State and local governments often design tools to help citizens without collecting much citizen input, and project leaders craft citizen-facing IT as if government insiders were going to use it instead of everyday people. What appears easy to navigate for those familiar with a government's bureaucracy is often hopelessly confusing for outsiders.

Austin aims to avoid those pitfalls. The city's Department of Communications and Technology Management (CTM) partnered with Austin Councilman Lee Leffingwell to survey the public's preferences for the city's portal. The city is designing the Web site from the outside looking in, which is based on what the public wants. The process led to a treasure trove of citizen input the city will use to rebuild the portal and make it a critical access point to government.

Will of the People
In November 2007, the CTM released a Web survey and marketing campaign enticing users to take that survey. The effort drew 1,800 citizens, the highest survey participation ever for the city. The feedback helped the agency craft discussion topics for several town hall meetings it held in libraries and schools. Citizens offered feedback related to viewing City Council meetings online, community awareness, better search functionality, accessibility for individuals with disabilities and other topics.

The city has already implemented one of the citizen demands resulting from the marketing campaign: a more accurate search function. Previously the city used free open source software that searched based on the amount of times a word appeared in the main body of a document.

"For example, if you were to search the word 'water,' it would probably bring up a council meeting that had a thousand uses of the word 'water,' as opposed to the city's Water Department Web page," said Austin's Web Supervisor Matthew Esquibel.

The city implemented a Google-based search engine, which gave each document a "meta tag" indicating the document's relevance to the search topic.

"A meta tag is a way you can categorize Web pages in the header of a Web page. The meta tag is not visible to the public in the header, but you can put key information there that helps the search engine find your Web page better," Esquibel explained.

Citizens also requested a user-friendly way to keep tabs on City Council. Those unwilling to spend hours at tedious City Council meetings will be able to view the meetings via Web streaming. The feature will let users skip to agenda items that don't interest them.

"Citizens don't want to sit through eight hours worth of video," said Esquibel. "They can just pick the item they want to go to, and it will jump exactly there. It's just a little drop-down menu, and the agenda is listed right next to it. As you're watching you can actually read the language of the agenda item and watch the video at the same time."

Town hall meeting attendees frequently asked for more from the portal about events and resources in their neighborhoods. The redesign team is developing a solution. 

Maybe you could type in your address and get notifications about things that are happening in your neighborhood," Esquibel said. "It would basically mash up data. We might have data from a lot of different sources that can fuse in one window or dashboard. If you type in your address, you might be able to see the libraries in your area, what event might be happening or what development permit has just been applied for."

Austin residents currently can pay electricity bills and parking tickets online, however, the city wants to offer several types of online transactions. The portal team is still brainstorming.

"It would be cool if you could reserve a park facility online, or if you had some type of permit you needed to get and you were able to do that process online," Esquibel said.

Citizens frequently complained that the city's portal should be more accessible to individuals with disabilities. For example, visually impaired Internet users often utilize software that reads aloud text on Web sites. This software has trouble interacting with sites that use Adobe Flash. Austin plans to program the site's text to be separate from the graphic features needing Adobe Flash. Access software for visually impaired users will be able to read text without graphic software obstructions, said Esquibel.

"We're still in the requirements gathering phase. We're meeting with departments. We met with the citizens. Now we're meeting with departments and talking about how we're going to organize content," Esquibel said.
One of the first portal projects will be a new, consistent appearance.

"Right now if you go to our Web site and travel from department to department or Web page to Web page, they can be night and day in terms of quality and how they look," Esquibel said.



Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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