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May 10, 2012

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When it comes to spending money from the taxpayer’s till, the city of Chattanooga can frustrate its citizens just as well as any other government entity that has ever existed.

On the order of what to spend money on, what it’s allocated to and the timing, there are myriad opportunities for citizens to ready their pitchforks and torches and descend upon city hall.

With last week’s launch of the new Chattanooga city website (chattanooga.gov), we can test out the months of work that caused a good deal of controversy with the $328,000 cost ($128,000 for the website, $200,000 for improvements and additions over the next four years). The winning bid for the work went to local branding and design firm Maycreate, who worked closely with the City Information Services to develop the site’s content and its more than 10,000 pages of information.

I asked Aaron Hoffman, project leader at Maycreate for the city website design, what the biggest challenge was in building the website.

“Our biggest challenge was making all the information easy to find and easy to update for the departments,” he said. “At first glance, the website appears to have a moderate amount of content. When you dive deeper, you find over 51,000 pieces of content that are being managed by 18 different departments. It wasn’t as simple as just building in a killer search engine and having intuitive navigation. We also had to train 50-plus people in updating the site in the correct manner so that the content could be found with search and navigation.”

Anyone who has ever had the experience of performing hands-on content management with a website knows ability to update and add content is paramount. No doubt at least some of you have been frustrated with not being able to execute seemingly simple tasks on a particular platform.

The face of the website has dramatically changed, of course. Navigation has been clarified and refined, as have aesthetic attributes. The architecture, design and initial content population display the true functionality of a great municipal website. That work is the initial phase that will be followed with further enhancements of the site departments and sections.

“The first phase was to get the whole city on a new content-management system so the website could be easily updated and built upon further,” Hoffman said. “Now that Chattanooga.gov is on a solid platform, there are plans to further enhance the functionality of each department and address wish lists that the departments have wanted, but had no way of accomplishing on the old system.”

Addressing these issues has the potential to accomplish some important things. First, making the city government and its available information more accessible. Second, making it easier and more accommodating for city departments to add and update content so that when you do need to access information, it will be there. Third, what all of that ultimately has the potential to do is make the city government more transparent.

We can debate the cost of this project, but because we are talking about a website and not road repair, it always has the potential for controversy. But when you examine the amount of skill and effort it takes to build such a platform and then train people to use it, that price seems even more reasonable.

There are subjective aspects to any project—especially those in the world of design. But creation of a municipal website for a city our size is a challenge. Additionally, having a navigable, well-organized website for our city is not a luxury, nor is it optional. Now the debates on the aesthetics of the new website can commence. That is if anyone cares more about its looks than its brains.

by

May 10, 2012

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