CHICAGO, March 12, 2010 - When the City of Chicago has tried its hand at computerized technology of recent, it hasn't exactly been a hit with citizens.
Those fancy electronic signs on public transit platforms? They tell you everything except the time the next trains will arrive, a la London’s Underground. Those year-old parking meter kiosks that take credit cards? Convenient, perhaps—though they also ushered in an era of quadrupled parking fees.
So when city officials unveiled Chicago’s official new website Friday, they took great pains to emphasize that www.cityofchicago.org would make life simpler for residents, businesses and visitors alike.
And just in time, too: with more than 1,000,000 visitors a month, the old website at the same address was feeling the strain of outdated design. With online transactions for city services more than doubling in the last three years—to more than 600,000—it also makes good business sense, too. (Case in point: One in five Chicago vehicle stickers were bought online in 2009, up from 8 percent the year before.)
“This is the first updates to the city’s website in nine years,” said city chief information officer Hardik Bhatt at a press conference Friday. “The underlying infrastructure was outdated and couldn’t support the demand. We knew that our job was to use the most up-to-date technology to create a website that is easy for residents to use. It also helps up to tell Chicago’s story around the world in a way that brings visitors, business and jobs.”
City web designers started with a clean slate, looking at the top 10 websites in the country to make a new portal that, as Bhatt put it, would be “fast and convenient. Nothing on here, as you will see, is more than one or two clicks away.” To do achieve that goal, the city spent $1.8 million, financed by information technology bonds.
With more than 3,500 pages of information, cityofchicago.org has some neat features you won’t find on the typical municipal website. It makes use of embedded video, 225 social media tools (including Twitter and Reddit), RSS feeds—and takes advantage of a service called TechLocator to pinpoint WiFi hotspots in the city.
And yes, Mayor Richard M. Daley has his own YouTube channel.
The site sports a sleek welcome page design, framed on a wavy blue background that features the downtown city skyline as seen from Lake Michigan. Under that panoramic shot, an orange horizontal rail allows users to seek out city services, programs and initiatives, or learn more about Chicago government.
To the left, an expanded city services block allows users to “pay for” a bill, or “apply for” a license. Bhatt demonstrated how the drill-down format allows residents to start filling out an application or making a payment in just a few mouse clicks.
For those who prefer searching, the new website has a Google engine embedded in it for quick searches. Quick, that is, if you can get on the site. The city’s wireless network at the Department of Innovation & Technology slowed to a crawl during the press conference, making the site impossible to access on this reporter’s laptop.
But on computer kiosks provided at the press conference, navigation proved smooth and effortless—something that might freak out the typical Chicago resident used to waiting in horrid lines at city departments for half an afternoon.
Residents may also be surprised to learn that the new site comes with a promise of increased government transparency.
Bhatt insisted that the new site will provide, and continue to further facilitate, city documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act, city contract information and other documents that reflect how city money gets spent.
“We’re trying to make city of Chicago information more accessible to residents,” Bhatt said. “But we’re trying to remind everyone that this is a work in progress. There will be glitches, and improvements over the next few months. We want to hear from users. We need to know if we have overlooked anything.”