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Madland: City of Madison launches beta version of new mobile friendly website, seeks feedback
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First it was a new logo. Now it's a new website. The city of Madison is continuing to update its public face, both graphically and technologically, and its latest project is making its debut.

The forthcoming version of the city's new website is now live at beta.cityofmadison.com. It's a marked improvement over the current version, at least visually, and in terms of accessibility.

Websites for government and other public entities have long been notoriously lackluster, an ongoing annoyance to techie types who care passionately about such things. But it's also become an issue for any citizens who are living more of their lives online, particularly when it comes to things like paying bills and knowing the status of snow-plowing operations.

The poor reputation of public IT projects just received its moment in the national spotlight upon the launch of HealthCare.gov, the online interface for the federal insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. That site's suite of problems during its opening weeks of operation brought a bit of attention to these longstanding complaints. At the local level, open source activists and elected officials have been working for years to bring government IT in line with contemporary online standards and expectations.

On Monday afternoon, Ald. Scott Resnick, a tech entrepreneur and advocate for improving Madison's IT infrastructure, both public and private, announced the debut of the city's beta (test) website.

The site is based on responsive design principles, which means it is configured to work as smoothly on a mobile phone or tablet as it would on a standard monitor. And to look as good, too. (If you're on a laptop or desktop, shrink down the size of the browser window for the site to the dimensions of a smart phone, and watch as its layout reconfigures to fit on that type of screen.)

Like the current city website, the front page of this beta version is busy, with multiple menus and entry points to the information it provides. A calendar and official news releases are emphasized, as is a list of "most active" elements on the website, including the ever popular police incident reports written by Joel DeSpain. The city's social media accounts are made prominent, and the mayor's and Common Council's portions of the website are emphasized too. However, it's more difficult to find, at least so far, entry points on the website's front page to information about city meetings, committees and legislation -- central elements of city government. That stuff is shunted to the "City Hall" tab in the second menu from top, rather than remaining in a primary position.

The new website has a cleaner design, with fewer words and more empty space to accommodate fingers busy on a touchscreen. Graphics are larger, as is the seasonal signage for whether a snow emergency has been declared or not. And that new city logo, officially proposed earlier this fall and adopted last week -- Ald. Maurice Cheeks hailed its approval with a tweet declaring #CheersToTheFuture -- is right there too. (The logo -- an Art Deco-ish Capitol dome that looks like it's from the poster for the silent film classic Metropolis -- will be familiar to anybody who has spotted it on city utility access covers since 2006.)

"Announced at CityCamp 2013, the final version of the website will also be available on GITHub," writes Resnick. "Developers will have access to the code and potentially be able to write modules for the website. This is a fantastic development from our IT Department, and moving Madison in the right direction for city innovation." (This follows an October communication by Resnick during CityCamp Madison, which focused on "new ideas around open, community resources that help city and municipal organizations innovate and deliver new tools to its citizens," building upon open source work done with the Madison Metro API.)

The city is looking for feedback on its beta site, both in terms of troubleshooting and more general thoughts about its functionality. Now it's up to users to play around with and see if they can break it.

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