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City government’s Web site turns 10 today

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 | 6:18 p.m. CDT; updated 1:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — From his fifth-floor office atop the Daniel Boone City Building, Sam Shelby has a singular view of the city.

Working two computers simultaneously, he sees Columbia from a perspective of pixels, page views and most importantly, “usability.” As e-government coordinator for the city of Columbia, Shelby is constantly trying to improve the city’s digital presence via GoColumbiaMo.com.

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Columbia’s official government Web site, unveiled on June 12, 1998, turned 10 years old today and continues to evolve under Shelby’s reign as Webmaster.

“Dull” is how a City Council member described the initial site, which was mostly text-based. Each governmental department maintained its portion of the site separately, despite the city having its own server.

Before 1998, the Columbia Online Information Network, or COIN, hosted information about Columbia.

Shelby was hired as the city’s first e-government coordinator in 2002 and immediately weeded out obsolete materials, revamping the site to give it a “consistent look and feel.”

Another of Shelby’s goals was to improve the site’s usability, or make it easier to navigate. Shelby created logical categories to organize information, such as “About Columbia,” “Transportation,” and “Jobs,” and fine-tuned the site’s search function, in part by adding top searches.

Improved usability remains a constant goal at the site, which adds news features and attracts more users every month. The objective is to increase traffic by more than 15 percent every year, which Shelby said has been an easy one to meet. The site now links to more than 44,860 different pages, or URLs, and last month alone it attracted 568,624 page views over 138,096 separate visits.

In 2002 after being overhauled, the site’s statistics showed a lower number of page views, despite an increased number of visits.

“More people were coming to our Web site, but they were finding the information without having to go to so many pages,” said Shelby, who believes the data indicates usability improvements.

Since the initial plummet, overall site traffic, including page views, has increased.

One likely explanation for this trend is the online utility payment system. Implemented in February 2005, this feature allows residents to pay utility bills and view their water and electricity consumption habits directly on the city’s site.

As the site’s most popular feature, it drew about 11,710 visitors last month. Shelby said as of this month nearly half of Columbia’s 55,268 utility accounts are signed up to use the online or phone payment service.

City Finance Director Lori Fleming believes the online payment system is expected by customers nowadays. It has also had benefits for her department.

“It has allowed us to maintain staffing levels as the city grows, so it has been a cost benefit to the city to have online utility payments,” Fleming said.

Another likely boon for site traffic is its current address, “GoColumbiaMo.com,” which was changed from the less memorableci.columbia.mo.us address. The change came at the suggestion of the Internet Citizens Advisory Group.

Established in 2000, the ICAG is a seven-member board comprised of volunteers, most of whom have expertise in marketing or technology.

Members are appointed to three-year terms and, according to city ordinance, serve as “a focus group to assess the user friendliness and effectiveness” of Columbia’s Internet activity.

Shelby meets with members of the group every other month to continually assess the site and conduct what he calls “standard usability exercises” in the Web industry.

Before every meeting, he e-mails the board members sets of “scenarios” derived from the Columbia government’s various departments.

For instance: “Columbia Carl wants to know who made the large sculpture at the ARC,” or “Kenny is new to Columbia. He has come to the site to locate information on voter registration.”

ICAG members run the assigned searches and report back to Shelby, who uses their feedback to make the information easier to find. The fewer clicks, the better, he said.

Users can currently report the exact location of a pothole, download a bus schedule, or learn City Council members’ names with just three clicks from the main page. With just two clicks, users can view Columbia’s monthly crime statistics or register for Parks and Recreation programs. In one click, they can read the latest CrimeWatch Newsletter.

The newsletter, published by the Columbia Police Department for Neighborhood Watch, is a recent addition to the site, and in a related feature, users can sign up for the Public Safety Announcements WebMail service, which so far has 335 subscribers.

The most popular active WebMail service is the Leisure Times Activity Guide, which currently has more than 725 subscribers.

Eventually, Shelby would like to enable users to pay court fines and parking tickets online, although this effort currently faces financial obstacles.

He would also like for GoColumbiaMo.com to have a single, interactive mapping system that would tell residents which utlitity company provides service to their area or which City Council ward they live in.


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