Power to the people

26 Oct 2006

Comhairle, the national agency tasked with supporting the provision of information, advice and advocacy on social services, recently unveiled a substantially upgraded version of its information website.

The new site, renamed www.citizensinformation.ie, takes the place the existing e-government initiative known as Oasis and Comhairle’s online Citizens Information Database (CID). It covers a variety of subjects, including employment rights, buying a home, moving abroad and education. The information, which is sourced from many different service providers and agencies, is divided into 14 categories so that users can readily access the topic relevant to them.

Each category addresses a series of frequently asked questions on the topic, backed by more in-depth information, supporting documents and downloadable forms. This additional material is just one of the changes that people will notice about the site, according to Catherine Hughes, Citizens Information project manager.

“There’s more detailed information,” she explains. “One of the benefits of Oasis was its simplicity but it was also a drawback. It had a simple structure so you couldn’t add additional documents. Now, we can add case studies, work sheets and more detail around the legislation.”

From the time of its launch five years ago Oasis has proven to be popular; in 2005 the site clocked up some 2.5 million unique visitors. The decision to rename the site was prompted by the wish to make a clearer connection between the physical Citizens Information Centres — there are 240 located around the country — and the phone service along with its online equivalent. There will now be a common brand across all three information channels, with new logos and new livery. “One key part of our strategic plan was to integrate our three information channels — face-to-face, phone and the web — to strengthen public awareness of it. We’re making the link between them clearer,” says Hughes.

“For the website, we had an extensive process of consultation with staff, the general public and stakeholders. We tried to build on what was good about Oasis. We also brought in features from the Lotus Notes database which we had been using internally since 1998, which allows more detailed information to be seen. From a technical perspective it was a complete rebuild,” adds Hughes.

Oasis was originally built in-house using open source technology, which, although serving very well required extensive changes, Hughes relates. For the latest version of the site, a more substantial content management system was the order of the day. However, Comhairle remained faithful to open source, choosing a system called Plone with technical support provided by the Irish software house Propylon.

A feature called ‘My Information’, previously known as ‘My Oasis’, lets people store references to documents or search results. They can also adjust the preferences for how they view the site, such as font size or language. Documents stored in these accounts are automatically updated to afford immediate access to new information and initiatives as they come online. The most up-to-date news will be featured on the site’s homepage where important events and key changes to the website will also be highlighted.

What’s more, the searchable database of 8,000 public service addresses such as Garda stations, social welfare offices and schools has now been made more visible on the site, under the heading ‘find an address’. The emphasis in all this will be to increase uptake of the service among the public. “We also hope to use RSS [really simple syndication] to syndicate more content to other organisations than we do today,” adds Hughes.

In addition, there is more support for foreign languages. At the moment, the information is available in English and Irish, with certain sections available in French, Romanian and Polish, with translated documents chosen based on their relevance to those communities. The new site has been designed to be accessible to users with disabilities, who may need to use assistive technologies to access the site.

There was a six-month period of consultation and specifying requirements from the updated site; this included holding focus groups as well as an online survey on the site itself. Hughes points out that the ethos of continuous improvement has been in place long before the proposed upgrade. “There has been ongoing feedback on the site,” she says. “It would generate 250 queries a week on average. We review every single item coming in to see if there is a gap in content or could things be expressed more clearly. The ability for people to provide feedback is there on every single Oasis document.”

As well as a public launch earlier this month by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, there has also been a radio campaign to promote the changes. Over the coming weeks and months there will also be press and online advertising. “We would try to have a reasonable mix,” says Hughes, who notes that different media tend to be consumed by different age groups, making it important to get the mix right in promoting the site to the widest range of possible users.

By Gordon Smith