If we have learned anything from the rollout of the Affordable Care Act's website, it is that these things need to be tested heavily before they launch. The failure of the Obamacare website underscored the lessons I've personally learned in 15 years of building websites for customers, primarily that you must be able to deliver on expectations or there will be serious consequences.
So, when I read about the new City of Houston Newsroom website, I was interested both as someone who often covers news items on Hair Balls and in the pages of the Houston Press, but also as a person who works on the web for a living. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectations.
A little history... Trying to find relevant and updated news from the city departments online has long been an issue. The average person probably doesn't care much, but when part of your job is seeking out news, it's a big deal. For quite a few years now, the best way to get "breaking" city news was via e-mail (or the police/fire scanner if you worked a newsroom). The city sends media alerts via e-mail blast to anyone who signs up.
But, having all those alerts centralized where they could easily be obtained after the fact was a bit of a dream until this past week when the announcement sent via e-mail described that very thing.
Via the press release:
In an effort to increase transparency and build relationships with media from Houston and all over the world, the City of Houston is proud to announce the launch of a newly updated City of Houston Newsroom website.
Housed at houstongovnewsroom.org, the site will connect media with the City like never before. Updates from City departments about ongoing programs, new initiatives, and public safety incidents will be made available on the site, and users can register to receive these notices via email. Automatic connectors also allow for news releases and other media products to automatically post to City of Houston Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
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The key verb in the above statement is "will" because, so far, it hasn't quite gotten there. Whole portions of the site like the photos and videos section, have no information. When choosing the "media releases" for a particular department, the site provides nothing more than a link to the main website of that department. From there, it requires more digging to find the news releases.
Fortunately, the site does have the most recent fire and police releases on the front page and a "more..." link that goes to full feeds of their news items, but otherwise the site is rather sparsely populated. It would have made more sense to complete the information before launching the website. Didn't they learn from Obamacare?
Of course, this does nothing to solve one of the chief problems: the city's website is still ugly and difficult to navigate, but Houston is not alone on this one. Many big cities struggle to provide good information online. This is mostly, it would seem, due to an inability to integrate disparate and antiquated systems, as well as a simple lack of resources. Better to spend the money on fire and police than a pretty website after all.
Still, there are ways to improve the flow of information should they so choose and, unfortunately, the Newsroom website falls short in it's primary goal: delivering the news. Hopefully, it can be improved and citizens and media alike will be able to instantly access the information we want and need. Until then, this launch, like the Affordable Care website, seems premature.