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Cambridge’s Department of Human Service Programs’ new Web site gives greater access to its constituents

The Problem: Two years, and still no Web site

Jill Herold, assistant city manager for the Department Of Human Service Programs (DHSP) for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a different sort of problem. Herold’s department touches almost every sector of Cambridge’s more than 100,000 citizens from newborns to senior citizens, from non-profits to local businesses to the homeless. Usually someone in her position would say she doesn’t have enough money to run her programs. But that’s not the case for Herold. “One of our more significant problems we have in Cambridge isn’t money. It’s making sure people know what services are available to them,” she explains. “Once people recognize they need a service, the next step they have is how to find it. Nine out of ten times we do provide a service that fits their needs.” 

Two years ago, Herold realized that her department wasn’t taking advantage of the power a Web site offers, so she initiated an internal project to build a Web site. But at the end of the two years the site still wasn’t finished. Frustrated, she and her associate, Ellen Semonoff, met with Mary Hart, the City of Cambridge’s MIS director, who showed her two departmental sites linked to the city’s main site. Herold liked what she saw and contacted Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology, who had designed and built the departmental sites. Six months later she was ready to go live with a new, vibrant site that dovetailed perfectly with the City of Cambridge’s municipal site.

The New Site: Cuts costs while increasing access

“The new site (www. org) presents information in a much more coherent and useful way,” said Herold. “It will reduce our annual costs of producing our handouts and catalogs by about 50 percent, and I feel strongly that the new site will add significantly to the communication of our department.”

Herold attributes the speed and success of the new launch to her new partners. “A lot of the success had to do with the ability, skill, and talent of Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology,” she said.

Studio 180 is the design firm that, with partner Blue Note Technology, redesigned and rebuilt the City of Cambridge’s main site, as well as other Cambridge departmental sites. While still operating as separate firms, Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology have developed a cooperative and noncompetitive partnership whereby each organization delivers its particular expertise to a project. Studio 180 designs the branding, user interface, and navigation on Web projects, and also serves as client liaison for the projects, while Blue Note Technology designs and codes the back end application and database, using its content management application as a foundation.

The Process: Proven professionals deliver results

Initially Studio 180, Herold, Semonoff, and Hart met to agree on the process they would undertake and to establish a timetable. Then Gretta Olton and Christine Weatherwax, Studio 180’s principals, immersed themselves in the business, pouring over the old Web site and all of the department’s printed material. “They did a great job mastering what human services did and understanding our business, and then quickly coming back with a format for a new site,” said Herold.

Problems were evident and obvious. “Their old site was hard to navigate,” said Olton. “And DHSP offers quite a few programs, but a lot of them were hard to find. That was the main problem they asked us to solve.”

First, Studio 180 organized the site according to DHSP’s multiple audiences. That took care of the biggest problem. Then, a new, innovative look was presented using DHSP’s colors to give the department its own identity, while elements were incorporated from the Cambridge’s main site to give it the same look and feel as the city’s main site. “It’s important that people see us as a municipal entity so they have a clear understanding of what their government is doing for them,” explained Herold. Finally, images taken throughout the community by both DHSP staff and professional photographers are scattered throughout the site giving it a warm and friendly feel.

“The Department Of Human Service is an eclectic group, with a wide range of ability and knowledge regarding the Web,” Herold explained. “Almost every meeting was attended by both Gretta and Christine, and they are very adaptable. I was amazed by the quality and efficiency of their work. They stuck to the timetable, and gently held our feet to the fire to meet our end of the timetable, too.”

Content Management: Presenting complex information simply

The Web in no way replaces traditional forms of communications. Rather, it enhances marketing communications while adding another powerful information channel. A good example of this particular aspect of the Web is DHSP’s resource catalog. It is a comprehensive publication put out twice a year and is key to DHSP’s marketing, but it is also costly to produce and distribute. By putting it online, DHSP was able to significantly cut costs while opening a new channel of access to both homes and Cambridge’s many public access points such as libraries and schools. 

But putting something as complex and extensive as DHSP’s catalog is not a simple task. The catalog has multiple attributes to consider. For example, just some of the ways a visitor can search for a class or service include category, location, audience, and age, and searches can be performed using a combination of those criteria. A powerful database and management application are needed to make something like this work on the Web.

To meet the needs of DHSP’s new site, Blue Note Technology’s content management application was deployed. “There is some very complicated back end mapping being performed on this site,” explained Jim Noonan, COO of Blue Note, referring to the complex relationships that exist between the data. 

“To meet DHSP’s goal of making information accessible, we also gave the site a sophisticated search function that allows people multiple ways to search on the site,” he said. On the catalog page alone there are four ways to search, including quick links, key word, and standard search functions.

But as complex as the behind-the-scenes workings of the site are, Blue Note Technology’s solution still allows Herold and her staff to easily post a new catalog each season. The application is designed so non-technical users can post and update information on the site as easily as if they were making a Microsoft Word document.

The End: Proven professionals get the job done

Cambridge’s Department of Human Service Programs presents a good example of how partnering with established and proven technologists and designers can get an organization up and running on the Web quickly. By partnering with Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology, DHSP was able to quickly establish a Web presence, cut costs, and better serve its constituents.