2014-02-28 / Front Page

City Launches New Website

By Tom Shevlin

Just call it Newport 2.0.

After months of development and additional weeks of fine-tuning, officials quietly took the lid off the city’s new website on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

Featuring a distinctly nautical theme, curated photos of the Newport Bridge, harbor, and Cliff Walk, and paired with easy-to-read fonts, the site at cityofnewport.com is a stark upgrade visually from the city’s previous website. However, with notable features such as Google and Facebook integration, as well as portals for service requests and online bill payment, it also boasts a vastly superior technological underpinning that officials hope will help improve the relationship between residents and City Hall.

“We’re hopeful that people will respond well to it,” said City Manager Jane Howington.

In development for the past year, the site is the product of Vision Internet, a California-based web development firm that specializes in working with local government agencies.

“There are still some things that we’re working on smoothing out, so we decided to do what we’re calling a soft launch,” Howington said.

Still, aside from addressing some broken or missing links and updating the site’s main page layout, much of the new design and functionality will remain the same.

Visitors to the site will immediately notice links to service-oriented topics such as online bill payment, service requests, freedom of information requests, and the city’s Code Red program.

The site also features a “How do I…" section, which provides answers to frequently asked questions related to city governance, policies, and procedures. Under that tab, topics include how to locate the Harbormaster, how to find bid information, and how to review the city budget.

The ongoing Engage Newport initiative is also featured, and according to Howington, is among the areas that will take on more significance as the site is developed.

“We’re going to be emphasizing that in a more up-front manner,” she said, adding that its interactive features make the Engage Newport platform unique in its role in the community.

So too is the city’s social media presence, which also got a boost this week with the launch of an official Facebook account for City Hall. Howington had previously established a city account last year, but it was scarcely utilized. Howington sees the launch of the new site as an ideal time for the city to likewise launch a committed effort to utilize social media.

Howington also took time to highlight the work of finance and budget analyst Elizabeth Sceppa, who has ushered the website from concept to fruition.

“Elizabeth was mother of the project,” Howington said. “She has just been an amazing force in getting this off the ground.”

It has not been an easy process.

It was about a year ago when the city’s old website was hacked and temporarily brought offline. And while the council had only three months earlier signed a contract with Vision Internet to develop a new site, work had only been in the preliminary phases.

Ultimately, it would become a nine-month project, as developers migrated the city’s old information onto the new site, which was tailored with specific needs in mind.

Among the most notable improvements is the soon-to-debut online bill payment portal, which will allow residents to pay their parking tickets, property taxes, water and sewer bills, and recreation fees.

As Howington notes, the capabilities grew out of an earlier effort to provide online registration for recreational programs. After examining various options, it became apparent that the city’s old website simply didn’t have the capability to handle such a task. “None of those things was something that our old system could manage,” she said.

Nor was the system equipped to handle citizen service requests.

The new website, however, will be set up for that and more.

Soon, residents who would like to report an issue they see around town – be it a pothole, downed tree, or graffiti – will be able to do so with a click of the mouse.

It’s an interface similar to one employed by Middletown. In addition to providing comments, users will be able to take photos of the problem and upload them to the request form, which will be directed to the appropriate department. Once addressed, the city will then be able to reach back out to the complainant to report its outcome.

Managing it all will be an allhands affair.

“We have one person in each department that is trained as an administrator,” Howington said. Additional support will be received through the city’s ongoing relationship with Worldways Social Marketing, who, in addition to launching the Engage Newport microsite, will also be responsible for updating the city’s official Facebook page.

The new site is expected to bring Newport up to par with its Aquidneck Island counterparts. Middletown’s website earned statewide recognition by Google as its 2013 Rhode Island eCity, while Portsmouth just last week debuted its new town website, which was developed by Kansas-based web developer CivicPlus.

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