City staff defends maligned Web site

Technology-department members say it's an improvement, but users cite site's problems

Nearly three months after the City of Palo Alto's debuted its new, widely unpopular Web site, three of the site's managers maintained Wednesday that the new site is an improvement over the old one.

No major changes are planned for the public site, said Information Technology Manager Lisa Mainarick-Bolger, Chief Information Officer Glenn Loo and Senior Technologist Chris Caravalho.

But site users have said more work is desperately needed.

One resident, who was trying to figure out how to renew a library book, called the site a "train wreck. When it is up, you can't find any information, like about trash pickup, recycling, etc.," she wrote to the Weekly.

Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto and Planning Commissioner Arthur Keller agree the site needs improvement.

Keller -- who earned his doctorate in computer science -- drafted a 16-point response to Mainarick-Bolger's Oct. 1 report to the City Council. He pointed out problems with font size, search results and the $240,000 cost of the project.

But Kishimoto urged patience.

"It's a fairly massive transition, and it's going to take more work to bring it up to what we would like it," she said. "The reason why the transition was so difficult was there was such a massive Web site."

Loo said three people spend nearly all their time keeping the site updated and fixing problems -- an increase from previous staffing levels.

For the city's information-technology (IT) staff, the site is a drastic improvement, Mainarick-Bolger said.

The new site -- based on a "Content Management System" -- is helpful because it standardizes all pages operated by the city and allows employees to add information without using complex coding, Mainarick-Bolger said.

"It's way easier for us to keep the content fresh," Caravalho said.

By clicking several boxes on a form, Caravalho Wednesday demonstrated the ease of adding a graphic depicting a book cover to the city library's page, a task that would have been more challenging on the old site.

They can also program a "news release" to appear live on the site at a certain time and to go off the site months in the future without needing to manually take it down, Mainarick-Bolger said.

Perhaps the most-blasted feature of the new site is the search function.

But Loo said the staff has focused on improving the searchability of the site.

For example, it was hard to find a map showing child-care facilities when the site was launched in August, Caravalho said. In response, city staff members created an "entry" page with a link packed with keywords such as "child care" that would grab the attention of the search engine, he said.

City staff has also added fixes to allow the search engine to recognize common misspellings such as "Rincanada" instead of "Rinconada."

If users have a problem with a search, they can fill out a "Missing Content" form available at the bottom of the city's Web site.

The staff couldn't place a Google search bar on the site because it would provide advertising for the company, Loo said. In fact, staff had to negotiate with site creator Civica Software to ensure the site didn't tout a Civica brand, he said.

Mainarick-Bolger said city staff will continue work to improve the site's readability, but they believe the font size, in general, is adequate. Users can switch to a black-and-white view by clicking on "Text Version" above the Search blank in the upper right corner of the home page.

The former site took more than a decade to accumulate more than 10,000 pages of information. This site just needs some time to develop the same breadth, the IT workers said.

"The (old) site had become cumbersome, the search function ineffective, the look outdated and the navigation style variable," Mainarick-Bolger wrote in the Oct. 1 report.

In response, the city hired Civica Software and Creativewerks, Inc., at $132,700 and $92,400, respectively, in January 2006 to create the new site.

Mainarick-Bolger and Caravalho defended the cost as reasonable Wednesday.

The companies actually created two sites, the Web site accessible to the public and a sizable internal site, she said.

When broken down by the number of pages and the amount of time needed, the work couldn't have been done for much less, Caravalho said.

Responding to criticisms the site could have incorporated more Web 2.0 interactive features, Mainarick-Bolger said focus groups were involved planning the site.

In addition, the goal was to create a standard site that could be used by all city departments, she said.

The decision to craft a site with a pro-Palo Alto tone was intentional, she said. The city's "Executive Team" -- which includes City Manager Frank Benest, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and other department heads -- were aiming for a Destination Palo Alto-esque site that would attract visitors, businesses and residents to Palo Alto.

The city couldn't leave the old site up while the new site was being finalized because it would be confusing, she said.

Users, and search engines, wouldn't know which site was current and staff would have to work on both sites simultaneously, she said.

In the Oct. 1 report, she wrote the city plans to replace the stock images with photos of Palo Alto.

Next, the department plans to focus on fixing the city's internal Web site, Mainarick-Bolger said.


Posted by Palo Alto Online staff, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2007 at 6:28 pm

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