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The City of Calgary does more with less for citizens through a new search-centric website

Posted by David Watson, Executive Project Sponsor for Calgary.ca for The City of Calgary.

Editors note: Today’s guest blogger is David Watson, executive project sponsor for calgary.ca for The City of Calgary. He sponsored a sweeping program to bring greater efficiencies to operations and provide enhanced and broader services to citizens. At its heart is a new search-centric website launched today, and powered by the Google Search Appliance.

Many municipalities today are under increasing pressure to reduce overhead while providing a wide array of services to citizens. In The City of Calgary, we looked to the Internet to enable us to provide enhanced citizen services as efficiently as possible. Our research showed several interesting facts:
- Over 93% of Calgarians use the Internet.
- Only 18% of traffic came directly to our home page - 55% of people came from search engines, primarily Google.
- Citizens want to interact with us online, instead of spending time on the phone or in-person - 60% noted better convenience, such as not having to drive to a city facility. Others noted speed and 24/7 availability.
- More than 40% of Calgary citizens said they wanted more services online.

Our public-facing web presence, which has 16,000 pages of content, across 28 business units, with a wide variety of applications, functionality, documents and information for our citizens, handled 9 million visits in 2010. The major drawback was that the information was difficult to find.

Forty-seven percent of Calgary citizens surveyed reported that the incumbent search engine on Calgary.ca did not work well. It required knowledge of city acronyms and terminology, something many citizens, understandably, don’t possess. Our content and our site was cluttered, out-of-date, and difficult to weed through. We struggled with maintenance as individual business units continued to add to our already packed site.

In response, we formed the Web Leadership and Renewal Program in 2007. Among the chief goals was to provide citizens with easy-to-use search and better access to city programs and services. This led us to create an entirely new, search-centric site which was first concepted and tested in November 2009, and finally launched today.

The Google Search Appliance (GSA) is the cornerstone of this new site and our efforts to improve access to services and programs and increase government efficiency. It is linked to a content management system, ESRI for interactive mapping, and to websites such as calgarymayor.ca to provide a holistic, integrated search experience.

Now, citizens can search for everything from YouTube videos on saving water to animal services and permit information, and they can easily serve themselves by finding answers to everyday questions. Calgary.ca is just as easy and effective as searching on Google.com. The search-based concept lets Calgarians type in common keywords or phrases to find what they need, without specific knowledge of city acronyms or terminology.

We can conserve phone and in-person resources for more complex requests and apply valuable government resources more strategically. Citizens benefit from the convenience of finding most of what they need online. They can avoid unnecessary driving and parking fees and have 24/7 access.

Certain search features of the GSA were very important to us. Topping the list were best bets, synonyms, and spelling correction. Related searches and content rating were also vital, as well as the ability to easily promote the relevance of a search result based on its popularity. The Google Search Appliance provided all of these capabilities, plus it had a reputation for being very easy to install and maintain.

Citizens are rapidly adopting search now. Early metrics show that only 4% of visits to the old calgary.ca used the internal search engine. In comparison, 65% of visitors to the new calgary.ca used the the GSA, and the search results page is the second most visited page after the home page.

Ultimately, our job is to provide city services as efficiently as possible. We strive to do more with less. By making the right content easy to retrieve, citizens get the convenience they seek—and we can reduce unnecessary overhead and increase the value and variety of our services and programs.
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