Gone But Not Forgotten

Hello, you've landed on DATA eh? - Open Data Toronto's original blog space for data discussions. This is not an active blog at the moment but legacy posts are still here. Have a read ... you can still provide comments.

Friday, March 26, 2010

7 .... lucky 7

NOTE: This is content from the web re:Brand posts going back to November 2010. We have kept the re:Brand posts as a legacy archive but, on a go forward basis as of October, 2011, the new DATA eh? content takes over this space.

I'm heading out on assignment for the next few weeks so this is likely the last post while I'm out. People on the team are going to monitor any comments so don't let my absence deter you!

Thought I'd outline the 7 things we've identified as the major areas for improving toronto.ca ... lucky 7 you might say:
  • Look and Feel
  • Search
  • Navigation 
  • Content
  • Services 
  • Accessibility / Customization / Personalization 
  • User Engagement 

What I want to do on my return is set up a post for each category so blog readers can go to any of these areas and provide focused comments right in the appropriate section. We're getting such uptake on the "cut to the chase" page, it sure seems likely that my ramblings aren't as important as just giving a comments space. Fine with me.

These links are on the top right side of the mighty blog for everyone too. For the full deal, allow me some license to write more here. Here's the 411 on how we arrived at the 7:

Look and Feel:

Our testing indicates 59% of respondents chose “Visual Elements” (e.g. graphic design, photos, and icons) to be the most important factors that could improve how people access information and services on the City of Toronto website.

Some user comments:

“The look is so "dry" - there is no enjoyment using the site… All looks like a big plain newspaper.”

 “Looks like it was designed in 1999 for 640x480 screens.” 

 “The City's current website is pretty boring to look at - ultra corporate and uptight looking without any photographs or compelling visuals or design.” 

 “Design, design, design... Usefulness is not the only criterion. Your pride as a City employee should radiate in its design. The website should have some kind of character, just like the front page of a newspaper.” 

 All this is tied up in the design looking outdated, not very inviting, encouraging or inspiring and not exactly youth friendly.


Our testing indicates that 71% of respondents chose “Search” as the most important types of services to offer on an improved City of Toronto website.

Some user comments:

“Unless search words are nearly 100% accurate, few relevant "hits" come up.

"Allow users to find a person, service, facility, or city resources through a single search window; Currently search pulls a lot of old irrelevant content.”

 “Search function should return useable hits [not the zero or thousands and nothing in between]." 

"I would like to search for information on, for example, swimming pool hours without having to open and search through a pdf document. I live on the border between North and South districts so I sometimes have to search multiple pdfs because I am looking at locations in the two areas."

"You can't search for a report on a Council agenda unless you already know which Committee/year it went through.”

“I should be able to use the search function on the City's web pages to find anything from by-law regulations to demographic to swimming classes.” 

All this is tied up in search not finding information. A special reference to mapping being considered as search is significant. We need to display more specific information on a map, the application is slow and has a small viewing area.


Our testing indicates 65% of respondents chose “Links to services/information on other government websites”

 Some user comments:

 “Take away the organizational structure and concentrate on the functions". 

"Information should be organized by subject/service such as: taxes, water, trees, parks, parking, roads, transportation, etc, to make it easier to find, (and NOT under the name of the department that provides the services." 

 “Organize current events for specific groups - parents, teens, cultural, community events like children festivals, etc.” 

This goes to providing easier access to information, grouping relevant information in one place and organizing content around topics and functions.  


Timely updates are really important.

Some user comments:

“It has become apparent to me that people do not trust the website/ or do not understand it. If they did we would not get lots of calls asking questions like: 'I just want to check if what I read was correct'" 

 “Have a news section on the homepage to highlight current, important events. Update it daily. Have strict parameters that outline what can and cannot be posted.” 

 “Cue groups or divisions to remove old information so that you don't run across a page that's from 2000 that hasn't been updated and has old, inaccurate information.” 

 This is tied into providing timely updates, archiving and removing old content,providing better content delivery and, even using multi media better. We also are being asked to provide more advice and suggestions to users - career development and better citizenship.  


Our testing indicates that 42% of respondents chose “Requesting a City Service Online” (e.g. road repair, garbage pickup, tree work) and 39% of respondents chose “Paying Online” (e.g. bills, permits, tickets, fines, program fees) as the most important types of services to offer on an improved City of Toronto website.

Once people used Online Services, 92% of them indicated that they would use them again.

In general, the users’ comments suggest that citizens would like to see new and more sophisticated online services made available, particularly in areas like bill/fine payment, permits and registration.

Some user comments:

“Anything the City sells should be available to be purchased online

"Ability to do payments online for all types of Services - pay bills, provide feedback, submit forms and request city services.” 

 “Have debit payments online.” 

 “Parking is one service that NEEDS online services to allow people to be able to pay bills online. They should also have the ability to dispute tickets online and to arrange for a date in court online, as currently they must either come in person or mail in a request to fight the ticket.” 

 “Why don't you allow online payment of property tax bills?” 

 “You should be able to get a history of your property taxes online without having to go to a municipal building, wait inline and pay $5 per statement." 

This is tied into automating services with a single log-in for easy registration and payments.

Accessibility / Customization / Personalization

Our testing indicates 30% of respondents chose “Accessibility” (e.g. text size, captioning, and screen reader use) the most important factors that could improve how people access information and services on the City of Toronto website.

32% of respondents chose “Non-English language options” the most important factors that could improve how people access information and services on the City of Toronto website.

37% of respondents chose “Customization Features” (e.g. logging in, setting preferences, user profiles) as the most important factors that could improve how people access information and services on the City of Toronto website.

Some user comments:

“The City's web site needs to increase its accessibility features for residents with special needs and needs to increase the options for people who do not speak English.”

“I believe strongly that every single page fails W3C validation, sometimes multiple times due to simple errors such as a lack of ALT image tags, no Document Type descriptions… Unacceptable for a government website to have this many W3C Accessibility errors in 2007.”

“There's really no reason that most of the documents published as PDFs and can't be published as plain HTML files with an option to produce a PDF for printing if necessary.”

“e-mail notification of events, activities etc based on preferences.”

This ties into sorting out full compliance with W3c standards, providing more translations, offering the ability to get updates,delivering more choices and options.

User Engagement

Our testing indicated that 40% of respondents chose “Communication” (e.g. email, newsletters, alerts, and blogs) as the most important types of services to offer on an improved City of Toronto website.

53% of respondents chose “Submitting suggestions and feedback” (e.g. via email, surveys, blogs) as the most important way that people could use an improved City of Toronto website to engage and interact with the City.

35% of respondents chose “Contact information” as the most important area where information on the City of Toronto website could be improved or presented differently.

Some user comments:

“Having online discussion forums, especially for public forum consultations would be a great way to involve more people in these discussions without incurring greater costs for booking larger rooms. Also this would be a way for people with Accessibility issues to take part easier in discussions without being restricted to only doing so at an accessible, i.e. Wheelchair Accessible, location. City needs to realize the full potential of its web presence…, and hopefully realize that by investing in a good web site that they can save money in other service areas.”

“I believe that things like blogs where people can start their own threads to discuss various issues are very important. This will allow for the public to voice their opinions and at the same time provide feedback on the issues for the city employees.”

“Many citizens do not know about opportunities for public consultations. These opportunities (including online opportunities) should be highlighted. For every public meeting (e.g. community input on budget, there should be an online opportunity to solicit comments). A lot of people are unable to attend meetings. Citizens should be easily able to submit comments and feedback to the City, and receive a prompt response from appropriate staff.”

“I think communicating online is important, but please do not take away the other methods of communicating with the City e.g. phone, letter mail, etc.”

This is tied to having more web 2.0 features with online discussions and allowing feedback and e-contacts.

And so

...Some things we are doing already. Some things will take a bit longer. I would be remiss not to note that this blog is our first step in using web 2.0 for a project as large as a rebranding of the web. You can help out by letting others know we are in play here. And, yes, please comment yourself.

See 'ya real soon.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

That "toddlin' town" website a model for toronto.ca?

NOTE: This is content from the web re:Brand posts going back to November 2010. We have kept the re:Brand posts as a legacy archive but, on a go forward basis as of October, 2011, the new DATA eh? content takes over this space.

Chicago is getting the word out about their "new" web: http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en.html

Lots of nice things happening there. What do you think and how would you like to see toronto.ca adapt/adopt from their efforts?

City of Chicago website front page
Chicago's new website

I like these things about the front page:
  • front page lean and mean but clear 
  • decision points use intuitive language
  • not overwhelmed by huge visuals but tasteful blend of text and image
  • search works well on a few tests
Once inside:
  • nice use of layering off information  
  • I like lists and they like them too
  • unique presence for visitors 
  • use of images isn't consistent in size and placements at inner levels
  • link back to Chicago main site from visitors kind of buried
  • separate browser windows open for links to residents, visitors etc (maybe that negates the link back)
  • good discipline in not overloading things like "what's new" with hundreds of items
  • bureaucratic writing 
Here's an example of what I mean by bureaucratic writing:
  • In partnership with the non-profit groups Breaking Ground and the Safer Foundation, the City is using $4.6 million for a two-year program to provide job training and temporary jobs for about 140 formerly-incarcerated persons to take part in a new building “deconstruction” work program. In this program, city-owned buildings are taken down in an environmentally sound way that salvages the materials for re-use in the building industry. Breaking Ground is already training 32 workers, who soon will be traveling daily to work sites where they are removing nails and salvaging lumber from dilapidated buildings. The program not only provides income and job training to the workers, but also helps create a new green “deconstruction” industry to Chicago.
    The Boeing Company, as part of the City’s ongoing Recovery Partnership with Chicago’s philanthropic community, provided a two-year grant to the Chicago Workforce Investment Council to bring a leading deconstruction expert to Chicago to help the City design this program and to help Chicago build a market for deconstruction in the future.
  • The City is using $3.75 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for a two-year Neighborhood Clean-Up Initiative that will provide about 230 year-round jobs and job-training services to Chicago’s hard-to-employ populations, with an emphasis on the formerly incarcerated.
    The workers will gain practical experience and marketable skills in vegetation control, debris removal and the cleaning of neighborhood commercial strips.
  • The City is using $7.425 million in federal economic stimulus money to create about 295 community-based green jobs for the hard-to-employ, including the formerly incarcerated, over the next two years.
This is taken from:  http://mayor.cityofchicago.org/mayor/en/press_room/press_releases/2010/march_2010/0311_ex_offenders.html

The example is also inside bullet points and seems to negate one of the advantages of using a list - to set the page free of clutter. It's also from a media release page (but linked off of the front page). As a non-media person, I would much rather read about such news in a non-news release format. Why not make the page speak to me vs. media?

Speaking of which can you imagine media reporting all of the items in the bullets? No way.  Too much information perhaps for us all.  Drop the full details into another layer so the research geeks who want that much can get it but I'm not saddled with plowing through it.

Even the headline is a mouthful: 
Chicago Uses $16 Million In Federal Economic Stimulus Funds To Create More Than 650 'Green' Jobs For The Formerly-Incarcerated          
I also notice they are using caps for all the words in their titles which differs to us.  We haven't been able to get our content providers to be consistent with this practice however.  Maybe Chicago just decided: if you can' t beat them join them? Or would it be: If You Can't Beat Them Join Them?

What say you?
So that's some personal opinion.  I tend to focus on content vs. the look and feel since the content (and what it says to me) is most important.  I do like the look and feel (for the most part) of their pages - especially because I am not overwhelmed by any one thing. It's a pretty straight drive to get to where you want to go.

Love to hear what you think and what you think we could take from the "new" Chicago web.

person sitting in front of large painting of toronto.ca front page
Helping to evaluate toronto.ca - this could be you

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Join the dialogue

NOTE: This is content from the web re:Brand posts going back to November 2010. We have kept the re:Brand posts as a legacy archive but, on a go forward basis as of October, 2011, the new DATA eh? content takes over this space.

Getting great uptake on our Tell Us What's Right or Wrong With toronto.ca "cut to the chase page" - join the dialogue.

person standing in front of huge mural of toronto.ca webpage

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Climbing up the Comments Wall

NOTE: This is content from the web re:Brand posts going back to November 2010. We have kept the re:Brand posts as a legacy archive but, on a go forward basis as of October, 2011, the new DATA eh? content takes over this space.

Our toronto.ca Comments Wall has been up for close to a year now.

I recently re-read all of the comments from start to finish - it's getting to be quite a climb.  We are getting good pick up on this space - especially since we started providing links to it on the bottom banner of the toronto.ca web pages. Dah, what took us so long?

This is good for us and good for you.  Now you can find us and use the space to provide some feedback. And, boy we are getting feedback! When I compare it to the blog, the Wall is by far the most active.

One of the things that works well over there is the easy way to post a comment. I mean, the comments box is staring you right in the face when you land on the page.  You don't have to register or go through any process other than type and hit submit.  That's good!

Down side
If there is a down side for me it is the anonymous nature of the Wall.  I can only chat back to anonymous posts.  And for a longer follow up, I have no guarantee the person will come back to the page and see if there is a response. I can't connect with a poster via mail or other means.

I don't feel as close a connection with the anonymity as I would if there were an identified name.
Even if it isn't a true name, having a name listed at least differentiates one posting from another.There are reasons why the Wall is anonymous.  Privacy concerns and privacy laws are stringent coming from our side of the fence.Even here on the blog, we don't force you to post by having to register or use an ID. I have to remove personal info before accepting a post to the Wall or here.

But I digress from the content of the Wall comments.

We've recently upped the max. number of characters to 500 and that's in large part because we are seeing you want more space. Let's take a look at some comments to date.

A lot of the comments give us pause such as this one:
You want people to recycle? Simplify your recycling rules.
Stop making me hunt for them, and when I want them, give them to me. No one cares about your "recycling sins" ads. They give me no information.
I go around in circles in links. I wanted to recycle something but I don't know exactly what it's called, and I can't just browse the list to find it.
Recycling is complicated. Recently an app showed up on toronto.ca for users to find out what goes where. See:   http://app.toronto.ca/wes/winfo/search.do

I personally think this goes along way to addressing what the person wants from us in their comment.  How much more simply could you present the info? Perhaps they simply didn't find the page in their search? And that reminds me - lots of people are using what many consider the "perfect" site to find content..  Take a look.  Did you know our internal search engine is actually Google?  Maybe we should more overtly "go that way" for our home page at toronto.ca? We've seriously considered it.

That raises the issue of finding what it is you want when you search for it. A lot of Wall comments mention lack of success in search. It's one of the reasons we chose to talk about search early in a few spots on the blog.  We recognize it's a key issue.

Here's another example:
It sucks, and needs a redo. The search function is utterly useless, and not enough services are online, although that is improving. The problem isn't the aesthetics, that's easy to fix; its the functionality that needs vast improvement. The ability to get what you need when you need it, looking pretty is secondary!
The comment is valid but what's most helpful is when a person lists their process and thinking.  How did they approach getting information? Such as:

Please consider creating a search form for parks that allows you to search by specific service (eg, playgrounds, sports etc) and by area. I've been using the website to try to find a park near me that has a playground, and it's been a very tedious process. Hope the rest of the rebrand goes well. :)

Beyond making our search engine respond with better results, we also are also going to have a kick at how we structure the navigation elements of toronto.ca.  I agree with the point about "functionality" - the functionality of the site is important and we need to rethink it.

I'll have more on our ideas for that a few posts from now.

It sucks vs. it's wonderful and I want it vs. I hate it
The other thing that stands out is how difficult it is to find consensus.  For every "I love it" there is an "I hate it"  Take these two:
Too much text information is presented (website seems congested & it is rather overwhelming to explore it). Visual elements are needed since text quickly bores the avg user. A "flash" based platform is more appropriate for a website catering to youths and adults alike (animations a welcome addition)
Don't use flash.

How is changing one page a site rebrand? BIG FAIL!!!!
I love it, it is great, less clutter and it is more KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) method.

And what about 5 years on?
If social networking and social media is telling us anything it is that interaction back and forth is a keeper!

We don't intend to ever stop asking for comments so we're going to have to figure other ways of presenting the Wall at some point. I hope we'll see specific commenting on all of our pages - not just a general catch all spot page. We're talking about introducing "was this information helpful/not helpful" checks on all of our pages.

By the way, after climbing to the top of the current Comments Wall, I can tell you I distinctly saw light over the horizon.

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