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Happy birthday, Boston.gov

July 20, 2017

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Digital Team

We’ve learned a lot in the past year, both from our successes and our failures.

Well, that was a quick year.

It seems like only yesterday we launched our pilot site (with 5 pages in total!). We now have close to 30,000 pages on Boston.gov maintained in part by more than 30 content authors from across the City contributing to the site.

Just like any other 1 year old, we’ve learned a lot in the past year, both from our successes and our failures. In honor of this anniversary, we decided to reflect back on some of the Digital Team’s highlights since launching Boston.gov last July.

Feedback, feedback, feedback

We asked you to write to us, and you listened. We’ve been blown away by the amount of feedback emails we’ve received from the public.

A good amount of it has been positive, but more important to us has been the amount of constructive feedback we’ve received.

In the months right after we launched, you sent us more than 1,000 emails. About 90 percent of them gave us actionable ideas to improve the website. We hope you keep up that level of engagement as we continue to improve Boston.gov and the digital services the City offers.

A more accessible website for everyone

We won’t go into the details here on the changes we made — we dive into that in a separate post — but thinking about what accessibility means for Boston.gov has been eye-opening.

Accessibility isn’t just about writing in an easy to understand way. It’s about creating a website that works for everyone.

We’ve made some important adjustments, and we’re working constantly to meet AA compliance based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. We also have new software that allows us to see if we’re keeping up with our compliance. It even helps us check our reading level across the site to make sure we’re hitting our 8th grade reading level goal.

Easy access to Public Notices

One of the biggest projects we jumped on after our launch was public notices. For many years, notices sent to the City Clerk were added to the calendar on the old City of Boston website. We continued this practice after the launch of Boston.gov in July, but realized this system left a lot to be desired.

Instead of just dumping this important information in the City calendar, we created a new content type specifically for public notices. Now, you can find all information about public hearings and meetings in one centralized location. We even have an archive. If you’re interested, we did a deep dive of this project on our public notices case study page.

Thanks to our work and the hard work of the City Clerk’s Office, we were able to make the site the official, legal resource for public notices. Instead of checking a corkboard on the first floor of City Hall, you can now just check Boston.gov.

Welcome to the Career Center

We have lots of jobs open at the City, and lots of different ways you can get involved. But, the City has struggled in the past to let the public know. So, the Digital Team stepped in.

In the outreach campaign we created, we decided to focus less on open positions, and more on personality types that fit. In City government, there’s no time to waste. We just need people who know how to get stuff done. We wanted that to come across in our simple and direct "Now Hiring" campaign.

We created a brand new website that includes information about how to apply for jobs through the Career Center. We even detailed how to apply for some of the more complex positions at the City. We also interviewed four current employees so they could share their experiences and add a human face to our efforts.

As part of our campaign, we advertised on Facebook for the very first time. So far, our ads have reached close to 280,000 people, with nearly 1 million impressions. When you compare the three months before we launched the campaign to the three months after we launched the campaign, we saw a 77 percent jump in traffic to the Career Center website.

And then there’s the ‘little’ things

We’ve also been involved with a number of smaller but noteworthy projects since our launch:

We open sourced the whole website. And, we’re building everything open sourced and making our code available to the public from here on out. We’re up to 19 open source github repositories for Digital projects and guides to get developers set up with our technology stack more quickly. Why’s open source important? We explain here.

One big thing you might have noticed at the start of 2017 is a change to our search. We switched to a more user-friendly layout with better filters. We’re also using a system that allows us to surface popular search results up to the top. Over the past three months, only 3 percent of our searches returned no results.

It’s less of a public project, but we also redesigned our employee website at the same time we redesigned Boston.gov. We actually launched that new internal site about a month after we launched Boston.gov, and put it on the same codebase.

Ahead of last November’s election, we worked with the Elections Department to get early voting information on Boston.gov. This included a “how-to” and a page of all voting locations in the City. We hope our efforts helped get the more than 11 percent of Boston residents who voted early to show up to the polls.

Our design team has worked on a number of campaigns for departments across the City. One of our favorites was our work on Preservation Month for the Landmarks Commission. Our posters were a hit — with City staff and the public.

To help better engage with the public, we worked with the Parks Department to build out more than 20 parks project pages. To ensure the pages stay up-to-date, we trained Parks project managers on how to update the website.

We built a signup for emergency alerts that we can now drop on any page of Boston.gov. This will be especially important during snow emergencies, and other big events around the City. You can see an example and sign up here.

In the very near future (hopefully this week), we’ll be releasing a better maps experience on Boston.gov. This includes both static and interactive maps. It’s something we mentioned when we first launched last July, and something we knew we had to make a priority.

We’re slowly, but surely moving all paper forms onto the website. You can track our progress here, but so far we’ve identified almost 385 and moved 76 online.

Some people are still struggling to find information on Boston.gov. So, we’ve been user testing adjustments to our navigation and general layout. You should see some big changes soon.

What we’re working on now

  • Transparency around legislation: Understanding and explaining the legislative process is tricky. We want to give people the ability to follow a bill from its creation to its adoption, without getting lost along the way. We’re currently looking at open sourced solutions to help us solve for this problem.
  • Reimagining 311 online: The Digital Team has been working on rebuilding the online portion of the City’s popular non-emergency service BOS:311. The goal is to not just migrate BOS:311 to Boston.gov, but also create a more user-friendly and intuitive system.
  • Engaging the unengaged: The majority of Boston residents don’t follow us on Twitter, or regularly attend community meetings. How do we reach these people? We’re continuing to experiment with different channels and strategies. We plan to roll out a new email marketing platform soon. We’ll offer training for departments on how to measure and set campaign goals. We’ve also explored using guest posters on other social media channels, like Instagram and Snapchat, to further engage with residents.
  • Translations: Finding a translation tool for Boston.gov has been a tough nut to crack. It’s something we mentioned when we first launched, and it’s remained a top priority for us. The truth is, the best solution is very expensive. We’re trying to straddle the line of finding something that is useful but also cost effective.
  • A better calendar: Our events page on Boston.gov lists everything happening in the City. But, there are features we can and will add that we hope will make it much better. We’re in the middle of exploring our options and should have an update soon.

That’s a lot for just one year. The more we keep digging into how government works, the more we find opportunities to make it better. We’ll continue our efforts through the rest of 2017 and beyond. So please stay tuned.

If you want to be part of the work, contact us for ways to get involved. We’re always looking for users to test ideas, contributions to our git repository, and any generally creative ideas.