Providing Web services through a municipal portal to a diverse and highly politicized community involves more than technical issues. Just ask Kimberly McCrea, senior application system analyst for the city of Eugene, Oregon.
A two-year project to re-engineer a Web site plagued with a hodgepodge of content, including duplicate pages and out-of-date information, required political and social skills as well as technical expertise.
"We had such diversity and number of services that we ended up growing kind of a monster," McCrea said. "We had so much content, probably 12,000 pages of HTML files and PDF pages. It was massive."
The city of Eugene's IT department is a Microsoft shop and the Web site she refers to as "The Leviathan" was being updated and managed using the same FrontPage tools that home hobbyists use.
"We had 150 people publishing content and that was on a real loose platform running on Microsoft IIS server and using FrontPage," McCrea said. "What happens is you have so many people doing so many different things. They're popping in animated GIFs, for example, taking up lots of bandwidth."
If advocates of policies and governance in content management had been looking for a worst case scenario, they might had pounced on the old Eugene Web site.
"We ended up with about 15 different Web sites under one umbrella," McCrea said. "We had the airport looking different from the library, looking differently and functioning differently than our waste water treatment plant. So we were more like a conglomeration, but we were still under one domain name."
McCrea and her colleagues were being asked to deploy secure applications to allow drivers to pay parking tickets on the Web site using credit cards. That was stretching the limits of what could be done with the existing infrastructure.
"We were having difficulties being able to deploy secure applications," McCrea recalled. "Something had to be done."
Decisions by committee
McCrea pointed out that unlike private enterprises where one executive or a few selected managers may be delegated to make decisions, city government operates by committee. Agile the process is not, but it worked in Eugene.
"One important thing we did is form an e-government steering committee with the blessing of the highest levels of our municipal government," McCrea said. "It was an executive-level steering committee with representation across all levels of the city, and folks that were really empowered to make decisions. Our steering committee decided looking forward to the future that we wanted to position ourselves with a portal."
Of course, finding a portal vendor meant having a committee develop functional and technical requirements in a procurement process McCrea termed as "grueling."
"We can't just go out and pick a product," she said. "So we wrote an extensive RFP (request for proposal) listing the functionality we wanted."
The RFP was a document with a long list of requirements, including content management and search tools, as well as trendy features such as personalization, so residents eventually will be able to customize the portal into something McCrea calls MyEugene. With this personalization, for example, if you are interested in the library, yoga classes and what's on the city council agenda, that's what you will get. There were also security considerations.
"We needed to have strong authentication," McCrea said. "Authentication and security became another big factor for us. We wanted to have various levels of authentication supported to interface with our internal Microsoft Active Directory. So we would not have redundant systems but could leverage what we already had."
BEA Systems' AquaLogic Portal wins out
The selection process eventually got the vendors down to three finalists. Each finalist had a day to come to Eugene and show the selection committee how it would meet the city's requirements. There was a scoring system, and when everything was tabulated the winner was the AquaLogic Portal from BEA Systems Inc.
It was helpful that BEA is moving its Java-based Web services platform into the .NET world because one of the requirements was that the portal and tools had to work with the existing Microsoft Server 2003 and the .NET applications the IT department had developed using C#. "The IT diversity with Java and .NET technologies is working seamlessly," McCrea said.
Once the contract for AquaLogic was signed, it took 15 months to launch the first phases of the new portal. Part of the time was spent with BEA architects and consultants working with the Eugene IT staff on the design and coding issues. But part of it was culling through all the old content and deciding what needed to be kept, discarded or replaced.
"We had thousands of pages," McCrea said. "My preference at the time would have been to throw out all the content and start over. There was a lot of information that was out of date, that had to be waded through and culled. That was labor intensive."
A lot of effort went into wrapping legacy applications in Web services to fit into the new architecture. And although the city was not legally required to make the portal accessible to the handicapped, it felt "morally" obligated, McCrae said, so the IT staff worked to include screen reader technology for the blind.
The first phase also features the beginnings of state-of-the-art applications, such as a Google maps clone that allows residents to view aerial photos of their neighborhoods, as well as the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. McCrae says the next phase will include more extensive use of the latest mapping technology.
And still to come is personalization of the Web site that is being transformed from a text-heavy monster into the user customizable MyEugene.