Thursday, July 23, 2009

The many shortcomings of the City of Calgary’s website

With the push toward open data at Calgary City Hall, and complaints about some members of council setting up their own, individual, websites to communicate with their constituents, the many limitations of the calgary.ca website are coming to the fore.

From slow update times, difficult navigation and the lack of a lot of information people might actually reasonably want from the city, to the use of proprietary content formats (such as Microsoft’s painful Windows Media Player format for city council streaming webcasts) and unintelligible and difficult to share URLs like:
http://www.calgary.ca/portal/server.pt/
gateway/PTARGS_0_0_771_200_0_43/
http%3B/content.calgary.ca/CCA/
City+Hall/Municipal+Government/
Office+of+the+Aldermen/
Office+of+the+Aldermen.htm
There is, as they say, lots of room for improvement.

Some commentators have been complaining about the websites set up by individual council members, portraying them as just self-promotion for those politicians. While there may be some of that at play, the question that really concerns me in this is: Why did those councillors feel the calgary.ca website wasn’t adequate?

I’ve had my own speculations for a while now; primarily around bureaucracy and difficulty of use. Today, however, I got the chance to ask some of the council members directly. There were some points that stood out in those discussions. The administration of the existing site has very restrictive content policies, limiting what can be posted; the councillors do not have the ability to just post information for their constituents. There can be considerable delays in content going through the required channels before appearing on the site, greatly limiting the capacity for the timely sharing of the information that is allowed. The site is awkward for end users meaning that even if the information is somewhere on it, many users won’t be able to find it.

There are, however, some cracks in the tower of the City’s web infrastructure. The existence of the individual council websites is one part of that, putting pressure for change by embarrassing the main site. The new “Calgary City News Blog” produced by some staff at the City and the City of Calgary’s Twitter feed are providing avenues that are opening up the City’s flow of information a bit, but which also end up highlighting inadequacies of the calgary.ca site.

I think we may, finally, be hitting the point where the City may be ready to begin replacing the old, inaccessible and restrictive, calgary.ca website with internet access for citizens that opens things up not just to rapid information flow and access, but also to citizen input in the vein of so-called “Government 2.0”.

This is looking to be quite exciting, and could potentially contribute to a real advance for local democracy. Colour me actually hopeful.

This could be an amazing project to be a part of. I actually envy those folks at the city who will get to be a part of designing and building the new systems. (Now, who do I have to talk to to get them to hire me as a project lead on designing this new web infrastructure? [he said with a sigh…] )

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4 comments:

Jeremy said...

Your end remarks make me sad. I hope you elaborate more on your points later on if you can. It would be interesting to hear. You also highlighted something that I have been noticing a lot: strong, strong, strong bureaucracy. Perhaps even too strong?

Grant Neufeld said...

Jeremy, it’s not clear to me why my end remarks would make you sad — can you clarify, please?

As to the points to elaborate on — were there any in particular you were wanting to hear more from me on?

I do think that the development of a new website (and other internet services) for the city at this time could be very exciting for those who get to be a part of it.

Maybe there will be an opportunity for a design committee at the city that could engage some of us from the community in looking at how to move the city’s systems more toward the “open source democracy” approach.

As to strength of the bureaucracy, there are many blog posts worth of points to be made there. I do think there are some really great folks working at city hall. A key problem they run up against, in my view, is the way council seems to end up mangling so many good plans for ideological or developer interests.

Jeremy said...

Oh I meant this part:

(Now, who do I have to talk to to get them to hire me as a project lead on designing this new web infrastructure? [he said with a sigh…] )

Sorry for the confusion

Mommy said...

I am actually positive that there are already key players in position to make the changes that you think are needed as well as the ones that you do not have an expertise in. Have you checked out the newest site that is simply Amazing? www.calgaryinfrastructure.ca I only see much more exceptional work from the City on the horizon.

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