A collaborative effort from fellow software developers in Saskatoon, making recommendations on the design and development of Saskatoon.ca website. The document received some great local press, as well as a positive response from the city.
Recommendations for the Design and Development of Saskatoon.ca
Prepared for Saskatoon City Council and Saskatoon.ca Steering Committee
Contributors: Aaron Genest, Dale Zak, David Mosher, Krystian Olszanski, Flavio Ishii, Scott Borys, Chris Enns, Blaine Korte, Daren McLean, Jeff Jackson, Shane Giroux, Francis Chary, Kevin Pierce, and many more.
This document makes recommendations to the City of Saskatoon with respect to the design and deployment of Saskatoon.ca. It does this in two sections: design and community recommendations, and technical recommendations. In particular, these sections make ten recommendations:
1) The city should take advantage of local developers and development companies who will have a strong interest in the development and maintenance of a high-quality end product.
2) The city should consider sourcing local developers to help with feature development through sponsored app competitions.
3) Effective engagement of Saskatoon’s citizens can be achieved throughout the development and use lifecycle using crowdsourcing initiatives already found to be effective in other municipalities and government projects.
4) Saskatoon.ca should be designed and built to deliver appropriate experiences for mobile users, at home users, kiosks, and other settings through the use of responsive design.
5) The city should consider the use of open source software to save money, include an active base of developers, and respond quickly to changes in technology or design requirements.
6) Data should be available in consumable formats, allowing citizens to incorporate city data into their day-to-day digital lives.
7) Data should be stored and managed in open formats, ensuring transparency, lowering barriers to accessibility, and allowing the community of Saskatoon developers to provide new and exciting tools for interacting with the city and city-sponsored activities.
8) The city should embrace open government principles to encourage citizen participation and increase transparency in government.
9) The city should implement a publicly-visible version control system for its online documents.
10) The city should host its website on a platform that can handle traffic spikes, such as a cloud-based service.
The City of Saskatoon has begun the rejuvenation and design of Saskatoon.ca, its flagship web site. Although the public consultation period has elapsed, we are a group of web designers, developers, and IT professionals from Saskatoon who have collaboratively identified several opportunities in the redesign of Saskatoon.ca. This document details our suggestions and reasoning.
With this document, we hope to achieve two goals:
1) Expand the conversation about Saskatoon.ca from the design of a website to exciting ideas about how Saskatoon can be on the forefront of online data services and application development while ensuring that initial costs and upkeep remain low.
2) Provide expert guidance to the city’s steering committee on the implementation and support of a newly designed Saskatoon.ca.
Design and Community Recommendations
This section details how local developers can be used in conjunction with app competitions and crowdsourcing to create a strong buy-in from local technology groups, interested citizens, and a large community of technology workers. It also addresses how Saskatoon.ca should be designed to be responsive to mobile platforms.
Saskatoon has several great local design and development companies and a very well established software development community. The city has the opportunity to partner and work with these local organizations.
This collaboration will keep money in the local economy and incentivize local software development entrepreneurships. There are many local companies fully capable of delivering solutions. This document highlights that this tech community is very eager to work and partner with the city to help build reliable and cost effective solutions.
The city should partner or retain local designers and developers and actively consult the local software developer community.
Mobile apps are becoming increasingly important as the adoption of smartphone devices continues to rise. The development of native mobile apps can be an valuable tool to provide important city information in the pockets of citizens. Hosting app competitions is a great way to engage the local software community in developing such apps and also an incredible return on investment.
For example, if the city invested $20,000 into hosting an app competition, which is approximately the price to develop one mobile app, the city may get multiple mobile apps as a result of that competition. Regina has been a big supporter of HackRegina hackdays.ca/category/hackregina/, a hackathon series that has been really successful in the Queen city for building civic apps.
The city should follow Regina’s lead and hold a semi-annual app competition.
The redesign of the city’s website opens the opportunity to better engage citizens through crowd sourcing by sharing ideas on ways to improve the city.
There has already been a number of successful community initiatives, such as YXE Voices yxevoices.com, but it would be great to see the city adopt a similar approach to crowd sourcing.
The Project for Public Spaces www.pps.org is a good example of embracing open source tools for increasing civic engagement and improving community participation. Examples can be found in Denver www.pps.org/placemap/denver/, Baltimore www.pps.org/placemap/baltimore/ and San Antonio www.pps.org/placemap/sanantonio/.
The city should encourage collaboration and consult the public as much as possible.
Responsive design refers to a website that responds to the device to deliver the appropriate output for the user’s screen size. This is increasingly important as more and more web pages are being consumed on mobile devices.
A responsive city website would make the city’s content much more accessible to all citizens, regardless of the device they were consuming it on. Good examples of responsive websites are the City of Saskatoon 2012 Election App apps.saskatoon.ca/app/qElection/, YXE Votes yxevotes.com and Where Is My Poll whereismypoll.com, all of which were responsive, making them easily viewable on a mobile device browser.
The city’s website should be fully responsive. All content should be available from mobile, tablet, or desktop platforms.
This section describes some technical recommendations for making Saskatoon.ca a leading example of how information technology can be implemented effectively at a civic level while remaining cost-aware. In particular, it describes how Saskatoon.ca can use open source software, consumable formats, participate in open data and open gov initiatives, manage resources with advanced version control and cloud services, and provide a platform for mobile application development.
Software is open source when it is free to use and the source code is freely available for others to re-use. It has a number of advantages over closed proprietary software.
1) Expensive software licensing costs are avoided.
2) Contemporary open-source projects have very active developer communities which can fix bugs and implement new features quickly.
3) Open source frameworks have a history of powering high-profile government websites such as whitehouse.gov and data.gov.uk.
The city should make use of open-source software whenever feasible.
There is a great opportunity to provide the city’s data in more accessible formats. By making this information more accessible, the City is encouraging developers to create rich applications to increase the quality of living for citizens.
For example, rather than just having an online calendar of events, exposing that event data in a consumable format allows citizens to use it their existing apps, such as Outlook, Google Calendar, or on their mobile phone.
The city should provide its data in JSON, CSV, XML, KML/KMZ, iCAL and/or RSS formats.
Open data refers to data that is free for anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute in an easily consumable format. The city has already agreed to invest in the development of an open data portal and it would be great to see a large percentage of the website redevelopment be invested into open data. By making more data available to the public, the city would be encouraging innovation and increasing the quality of living for citizens.
A good case study is the city’s support of the open Google Transit standard. This support resulted in three iPhone apps to help citizens take public transit: Transit360 transit360app.com, iTransit thetransitapp.com and Saskatoon Transit itunes.apple.com/ca/app/saskatoon-transit-touch-go/id564993383.
One way to approach open data is to ask city departments to adopt an “open-first” policy, whereby data produced would be expected to appear in the Open Data Portal, subject to any redactions needed to protect privacy, sensitive information, or other restrictions. This makes data provision for the public far less expensive in the long run.
The city should make as much of its data open as possible.
Open government is a movement to use technology to increase transparency and accountability in all levels of government. The City of Saskatoon has an opportunity to be a leader in western Canada by embracing open government principles.
One of the early adopters of open government movement was the New York Senate nysenate.gov/open, which introduced a number of innovative tools to engage citizens. One way for a New York citizen to become engaged in the New York senate is to send a text message to 41411 with the keyword ‘nysenate’ to receive information regarding recent house bills to their mobile phone. By making data publicly available, the New York senate has allowed citizens to become actively engaged in their governance.
The city should adopt open government principles to encourage citizen participation.
Version control is the practice of tracking changes to a document using a ‘revision number’ making it easy to merge changes from multiple people as well as maintain a rich history of edits. It’s been a common practice in software development but recently become an effective way for governments to track changes of legislation, showing the full history of the documents.
Hosting documents such as city bylaws on a version control system like GitHub github.com would make it easy to track the history of changes and permit citizens to recommend modifications to documents. For example, a developer in Germany recently posted the German federal government’s complete laws and regulations to GitHub making it easy for others to suggest modifications www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/08/bundestag/.
The city should implement a publicly-visible version control system for its online documents.
Leveraging cloud services like Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine can help avoid the expensive cost of upgrading computer hardware infrastructure. Since the data will be served from ‘the cloud’ it can also scale to handle spikes of high load periods, as well as automatic downgrade when loads are low.
This will avoid the problems similar to those that Regina experienced during the 2012 municipal election, with high loads causing failures and crashes.
The city should host its website on a platform that can handle traffic spikes, such as a cloud-based service.
With Saskatoon.ca, the City of Saskatoon has an incredible opportunity to engage an active community of local developers on a wide variety of issues.
From design to community involvement, from technical support to data management, Saskatoon can be a leader in information services to its population. This documented has highlighted a few of those opportunities.
We hope the city will seize this opportunity and reach out to our community, we have a lot to offer.