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Cambridge’s Water Department turns to the Web to educate and serve its publicThe question: If you lead a horse to water, will it drink?

The basic technique for moving water from one place to another hasn’t changed much since the time the Romans built a series of aqueducts to carry water throughout their empire. Gravity and pumps are what the Romans used, and those are still what we utilize today. What has changed is the technology to manage this valuable resource. State-of-the-art treatment plants make our water safe for large urban populations to drink. And because of the Internet, our ability to interact with municipal water departments is changing, too.

Today, contractors have easy access to permits and regulations, while customers can pay bills online. And the public, including customers and students, are given insight and knowledge into the control and management of a resource that generally is taken for granted.

So, when the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts invested $80.2 million in a new, state-of-the-art water treatment plant to replace its old facility built in 1923, officials felt it also was time to modernize its Web site to help the public better understand and use this valuable resource. (www.cambridgema.gov/CWD/).

The answer: Yes, the horse will drink, but first you have to start over and organize

The department contacted Studio 180, 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. Christine Weatherwax, a principal of Studio 180, gave her quick assessment of the water department’s old site. “When we first looked at the site, it was apparent that it had grown organically. This is typical of older sites that were built quickly then information was added in an ad hoc fashion.”

Older sites also tend to present information about the organization, giving mission statements and company histories prominence on the home page. While this information is important, it may not necessarily be the primary reason people visit a site. A site that is more customer-centric, however, immediately presents information and links on the home page that the visitor can use.

In the water department’s case, a wealth of information was available but the site was organized in such a way that visitors had a hard time knowing where the information was located. “The old site was chaotic,” explained Sam Corda, managing director of the city’s water department. “It was archaic-looking, and hadn’t been updated in a long while.” And while the site did offer customer-related information and links, more of this type of offering would have dramatically increased the site’s value to visitors.In the end, the Web project came down to a matter of organizing the site’s current information and adding more customer-related links. Finally, the site’s layout also was in need of a facelift to make it more attractive and reflect the department’s importance in the community.

The Site: Designed for the customer

While Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology designed and built the new site to serve the needs of both the department’s customers and the organization itself, it is clear upon arriving on the home page that the site is designed with the customer in mind. Five main links are centered that correspond to the five main types of visitor, from customers and students, to contractors and surrounding communities, while smaller-sized links to areas in the organization are positioned across the top.

Sweeping lines that mimic waves of water, a pattern of blue tiles, bullets in the shape of water droplets, and small images of a fish and one of Cambridge’s reservoirs are reminiscent of water and fresh air and reinforce the department’s role in the community. Repeating these images and positing the graphical elements consistently throughout the site help visitors ground themselves as they navigate through the site.

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.

“Studio 180 is helpful, supportive, and always available,” said Corda. “They first learn your business and your business operations, and they have a whole process they take you through at the beginning of the project that identifies your goals and requirements. After the initial meetings, they presented a number of design options, all unique, and all viable solutions to our problem.”

The Engine: Blue Note Technology’s content management system

It was a requirement of Corda and the water department that changes and additions could be made easily to the Web content. While the department’s personnel are by no means non-technical—computer equipment is used regularly in the performance of their jobs—they are so busy that making changes couldn’t take up a lot of time.

Blue Note Technology’s content management application is the engine for Web projects like the water department’s, and makes publishing Web pages as easy as creating and managing a Word document. It is powerful and full-featured enough for technical personnel, yet offers tools that are so easy to use that non-technical staff can author, manage, publish, and archive their own content.

The Result: Water may be out of sight, but not out of mind

Corda and Cambridge’s officials are very pleased with the new site. “Awesome,” is the word Corda used to describe it. In time, Corda plans on adding online water monitoring, so a household could log on to the site and determine how much water they are using.

Corda feels that it’s important that municipalities make the public aware of its water resources, and that this site succeeds in doing that. “Everything about drinking water is out of sight, out of mind,” said Corda. “We felt it was important to let people know how they get their water. It’s a precious commodity and we felt the more that people knew about it, the more likely they would protect it.”