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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Loss of the town web site

The town of New Paltz web site.  Wow.

How many years ago was it revamped?  Not many.  It was created in Joomla, a hard-to-learn system that no town employee ever really mastered, and even before it was hacked it was woefully out of date.

Now there are plans to spend something like $6,500 to make a site in Drupal, another system that, like Joomla, can be made to do anything, unless the thing you want it to do is be easy to update without having to relearn a lot of complex steps every time.

I worked on a Drupal site, and because I was paid to do it, I learned how, but it was hard for the non-techie.  I was once talked into allowing my own page be written in Joomla when I really wanted WordPress, and it was so ridiculously complex that I mostly abandoned it because it took me over an hour to post anything.  Kind of like the state of the town's site -- no one had the time or patience to post content.

Our supervisor found a company that specializes in municipal web sites, and has agreed to spend that money, plus a handsome amount for annual maintenance.

Meanwhile, the supervisors of Rosendale (already complete) and Marbletown are using a company based in Bloomingburg that's charging about $2,500 to make a town site that has a near-zero learning curve when it comes to adding new content.  And no annual maintenance fees, just a modest hosting fee, which the town could elect to pay to someone else, but will have to pay regardless.

I believe our supervisor, and her predecessor, failed to engage in a test of "what is it like to change a page or add a new one?"  Web designers, specialists as they are, invariably underestimate the complexity because they do this stuff every day.  No one ever asks, for example, a deputy town clerk or clerical assistant in the building department to spend a day trying to update the thing -- these people tend to be involved in the layout and collection of the information, which is very important, but the ongoing work is even more so.

It's not my intent to use this as a way to trash the supervisor -- I think it's a grave error, but one that many people make because they do not understand the many layers of the process.  It's unfortunate that she decided to spend so much more money than our neighbors to get a site that will likely be too hard to use for most employees, but I really don't think it was vindictive on her part, or manipulative on the part of the developer.  But I do not expect the newest, overpriced version of the web site to do much better than its prior incarnation.

When it comes to sites which must be updated by busy people for whom complex computer skills are not the priority, it's best to keep things simple.  This site will surely look snazzy and may well be easy to navigate, but I predict that updating it will soon become lost knowledge, kept only by the developer, and we will not see very much in the way of current information.

Is it too late to find another option?

Edit:  according to the comment by user Josh, I reversed things.  The old site was written in Joomla, the new will be in Drupal; my original text switched the two.  I have corrected the error, which was caused by trying to keep track of two hard-to-use platforms with similar-sounding names.

8 comments:

Poor Paul said...

So...it is also 'Techie Terence'.

I'm duly impressed. Will wonders never cease.

Terence, you are right. It is not vindictiveness.

It is incompetence.

Poor Paul

josh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
josh said...

The sight redesign that went live in 2009 was developed in Joomla, and the editing of the pages by town officials was very simple. The issue was that once the pages were edited they got put into a queue for review by the Supervisor's assistant before they went live on the sight. Guy never had a problem with the interface, and I suspect the Carol would not have either if she ever sat down and received the training to do so.

I can not speak to your experiences with Joomla, but I sympathize with you regarding the complexity of administration using the Joomla administrative interface. It is a pain. There are a good number of client interfaces available as plugins that make editing individual articles very simple, and that is what the town officials were using.

The real issue here is that there was no training in the handoff between administrations, and the relationship with the developer who would have provided that training became strained to the point of breaking.

If the Town can not retain the ability to update its own site across administrations, then it should have someone on retainer to make the changes. Instead, the Town has neither, and at this point, has not had a website in over a month. If the solution is a user-friendly, inexpensive, fool-proof interface, then why not just point www.townofnewpaltz.org at the Town's Facebook page? It's where paople are getting their information from now anyway.

Terence Ward said...

Josh: first of all, your comment made it clear that I had reversed things; I have edited my post. Thank you!

Second, thank you for some background on the protocols that were used in the past. Politics and bureaucracy always factor into these decisions, and that rarely is helpful.

Third, many web developers are advising against using Facebook for any official communications, due to its constantly-changing privacy policies and user agreements. I don't know if they are being overly cautious or not. On the other hand, it would have been nice if someone had bothered to post the late opening of Moriello Pool on Facebook, if they're going to use it at all.

josh said...

I forgot to add the sarcasm tag to my facebook suggestion...

Erica said...

You are spot on with this, Terence. Thanks for putting words to it in such a clear, thoughtful way. I am also frustrated that with tourist season upon us, there is no Town website to reference. Technology has become so much more increasingly accessible to individuals and communities, and the fact that we aren't moving in a more user-friendly direction is short-sighted to me.

Martin McPhillips said...

"It's not my intent to use this as a way to trash the supervisor -- I think it's a grave error,"

You don't have to trash her, but given that she's taking the lead, along with Rhoads of the Village Board, in proposing this "fundamental transformation" of New Paltz, it doesn't exactly instill confidence that she can't get the bloody website up and going. Especially since it should be a principal means of communicating this "plan" (and I mean those quotes) she is advancing.

We're way beyond the six-month grace period where the "she's not Hokanson" has worn off. When she was elected I said that it was an upgrade of sorts, but a very limited one, like switching from a lead mine to a zinc mine.

Well, in any case, I've had enough and have re-opened New Paltz Journal for business (the .com version, not the blogspot version).

Mr. Vandam will be dealing with these matters.

Paul Brown said...

Terence you mentioned another option.

Here's one.

Vote for a more qualified Town Supervisor in the fall.

To be more qualified we can begin with any person who is sentient and metabolizes.

Anyone? Anyone? Ferris?