Austin’s website may get redesign if city wins fellowship

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Austin has made the short list of potential fellowship recipients from a national nonprofit dedicated to improving, updating and redesigning government websites.

If Austin is one of the five to eight cities chosen, Code for America would send three web developers to work with city officials to make the city’s website more user-friendly and interactive. Matthew Esquibel, web supervisor for the city’s Communications and Technology Management Department, said the fellowship could allow for further development on the website beyond what the city can afford.

The city council approved $150,000 to fund the potential fellowship in a meeting last May, which Esquibel said is a reasonable price for the project.

“You get the top-notch developers at a below-market price,” Esquibel said. “$150,000 pretty much pays for only one contractor these days.”

Esquibel said a fellowship would allow Austin to access technology created by other program fellow participants from around the nation.

“If one city creates an asset tracking system, we’d also have access to that by being part of the fellowship,” he said.
Chris Florance, web content manager for the city’s Internet Public Information Office, said the city started redesigning the website in 2010 after concerns arose over using the 10-year-old content management system, which doesn’t have a consistent navigation system and has a poor search engine.

“It’s really become a barrier for [residents] of the city to access information,” he said. “It’s become inefficient to maintain this old system that is not best practices and doesn’t give us the kind of control over our content that we need.”

Florance said the city has budgeted $977,000 to redesign the website if the fellowship is not awarded to Austin.

“It will add a lot of efficiency to the city organization and a lot of efficiency to the way people access information,” he said.

The application the city submitted to Code for America included a proposal to use gaming technology to create programs that would allow users to create models of things like budgetary impacts and community modules like an agenda management system. Code for America spokesman Abhi Nemani said Austin was one of 20 cities that applied for a fellowship position and said the finalists were chosen based on evaluation of the proposals, city leadership and
community support.

Sherri Greenberg, a public affairs lecturer, said the city of Austin’s website needs to be more user-friendly so people can conduct their own analyses of data and connect with officials through social media.

“In order to engage with your constituents today, you need to have a website which is transparent, where the data is easily accessible and usable,” Greenberg said. “I’m not saying that you don’t still have town hall meetings and those other venues, but there are many people that today the way to reach them is online.”