Some Superclean Suggestions for CityofAlamedaCA.com

The new management at the City of Alameda is unhappy with the website they inherited, and I can hardly blame them. They recently posted a survey to gauge citizen satisfaction but I think discussion of the nuts-and-bolts could be useful.

Instead of discussing the visual aesthetics of the website, I would like to focus on the functionality. Aesthetics are the easy part… and should be relatively easy to change on the current site if they wish to keep the back end.

But for the sake of usability, search-ability, and longevity, they might need to go back and do it again at some point anyway.

Build it with an open-source CMS platform

The City made a big mistake when they built the current website. They hired an out-of-town developer who built it on a proprietary Content Management System (CMS) which means that they are stuck with one firm for all future improvements and customizations.

So unless The City wants to start anew, they are pretty much stuck aside from aesthetic improvements. Yes, you can switch out the graphics, improve the color scheme, and so forth but will it really improve the usability of the website?

If they are considering starting anew, I would recommend going with an open source CMS platform such as Drupal. There are many advantages to this. First of all, it's a mature platform currently used by many high profile websites such as WhiteHouse.gov and Rolling Stone. I have a larger list here.

Because it's been widely adopted, there are literally 10's of 1000's of developers all over the world constantly improving the platform and adding modules. The question is never "can Drupal do this?" The question is only "What's the best way to make it work for me?"

If things don't work out with your web developer, there are plenty of others with the skills to take over your site and keep moving it forward without much of a learning curve. And there are no software license fees… it's free!

Organize by taxonomy

One of the core Drupal features is Taxonomy, which is a way of organizing vocabularies and terms (otherwise known as tags.) Using this wisely could greatly improve the ability for visitors to find information on the city website.

This is exemplified in our community site AlamedaPointInfo.com. In the right sidebar, you can view all content by topic. When you hit one of those tags (or conduct a search), you get a list (we call it a "view" in Drupal) of all content matching that term. But not only that… it is sorted by newest on top and also indicates what kind of content type it is -- such as a News Story, Document, Event, or whatever.

With this system, you will be able to find what you are looking for within a click or two.

User customization and notifications

I don't expect our city's website to be comment-enabled but that doesn't mean it can't be more interactive. We should be able to customize our experience on the website so it's more useful to us. This can easily be done.

By creating an account, you can set up your own City home page that only has the content "blocks" of your choosing. Better yet, you should be able to set up Notifications for only the topics of your choosing.

For example, you could Subscribe to all Events and News that are tagged "Animal Shelter" or "Trees." You could even tweak the frequency so you can get instant Notifications or daily digests. Or weekly digests, whichever you prefer. This way you are always on top of the topics that interest you. Isn't this what we really want?

Streamlined mobile version.

Another great feature for an improved city website would be a mobile version. Hit the website via your iPhone or Android and get a slick, stripped down jquery mobile version. While the desktop layout is full-screen beautiful, auto-detection of your device serves up only the core menu's and content. Find those meeting dates and phone numbers easily from anywhere.